The little girls were all carrying around babies. Only they weren't dolls. I couldn't help but think about how those 7-11 year old seemed so much older than my own young daughter. These girls were babies raising other babies. The difference between my daughter, home in the US, in frilly dresses with her own room, attending a top notch school could not have been more glaring.
I would look at these precious little ones and smile at them. I hoped that my smile would show them how proud I was of their caring hearts- lovingly making sure the babies weren't left alone on the cracked concrete floor.
But then one of those girls brought the baby that she was holding and handed her to me. I took the baby from her. Tiny and bony and burning up with fever. I looked into the child's face and realized that she wasn't a baby. I held in my hands a toddler- maybe three years old- and weightless. She felt the same as my other children did on the days they were born.
Hungry children. In every corner of the world. To most, they don't have faces. To me, I can still feel that skeletal frame in my arms. I can still smell that baby girl. I can still feel her fragile little body. When I close my eyes at night- even three years later, thinking about her reduces me to tears.
We are all guilty of it. We sit around our tables full of food. We watch our kids pick at their food and then leave their plates still heaping. We get exasperated and say things like, "Don't waste your food! Don't you know there are starving children in the world!?" And then we give up and throw their plates of food in the garbage, grumbling.
Here's the thing about grumbling. It does nothing. Grumbling and moaning to our children who have full bellies does nothing for the children whose stomachs are rumbling and empty. Our complaining doesn't fill them up. It doesn't give them the energy to run and play and learn and LIVE. It only makes us feel absolved of the guilt for having so much without even thinking about actually doing something about it.
That little girl... she wasn't my child. And yet, I've thought about her for years. How much more must it hurt a mother not to be able to feed her child and watch them die a slow death? I remember several years ago we hit a very bad financial patch. I worried about how I would pay an outstanding hospital bill, and how I could convince the preschool to take the tuition check 10 days late, and how I would buy my kids Christmas presents. But food? We always had plenty to eat. I never once worried about how I would feed my children. So I can not even imagine how mothers must feel when there is not enough food to go around.
A couple of years ago, the New York Times wrote an article about how families in Kinshasa, Congo were practicing "the ago old tradition" of alternating which days each child could eat because there wasn't enough to feed all the children every day. (And these are parents who are out working daily) I can't fathom looking at my hungry child and saying, "I'm sorry sweetie but it's not your day to eat."
My mother's heart just aches thinking about the impossible decisions we ask other mothers to make.
We decided long ago, that in America, orphanages and institutions were not acceptable for our children. Yet, we accept this as the norm for every where else in the world. Can I let you in on a little secret? That mom who can only feed her babies on alternating days? She loves those kids. And when she gets desperate, she might take her hungry baby to an orphanage hoping that they will be able to feed her. We can't blame her. Would we maybe do the same thing when faced with the alternative of watching your beloved baby die a slow, painful death from starvation?
An orphanage? Is no place for a child. Orphanage is not a culture. Orphanages are rampant with abuse. Orphanages are often corrupt places that traffic children. Orphanages will sell young girls for sex. Orphanages don't love children like families love children. Those hungry kids us moms in America like to grumble about when we throw our children's leftovers away, are not castoff children. They are loved, wanted, treasured children who many times had no other options.
That little girl I held sparked a desire in me. It was years of fueling that spark until I found an organization to partner with that is feeding children in a responsible way. The Kapanga Feeding program is located in the south eastern part of Congo- my Congolese son's old "stomping ground". It's an underserved part of the country due to it's remoteness. They are working to feed the most malnourished children in the region. It is a place where moms can bring their children to get treatment from extreme hunger. It is a place where those children can get medical help. It is a place that employs local workers. They feed the children a vitamin rich peanut paste that helps them pack on weight. The peanuts are all locally grown, giving farmers in the region a living wage. They are educating families about nutrition and the needs of children to help them thrive. The program is all Congolese run so that they have complete ownership in the program- with funding from America.
But most importantly, those moms who feel like they have no other option than to take their beloved little ones to an orphanage door, have another option. The program is bringing hope to families. The program is helping little children like the little girl that I held that changed me to my core, have a future- so they can be carried around by their moms surrounded by their brothers and sisters. So they can be strong enough to fight off diseases like malaria. So they can be strong enough to run and play and be children. So that they have a chance at life.
The feeding program will receive half of all the money we raise from this year's vacation raffle. It's a program that I believe in. I put my personal finances there. The raffle is going so slowly... I urge you to put your grumbling about wasted food to good use. Grumbling without action is dead. These kids are counting on us for this program to keep running.
A recent group of children on their first day at the program...
... and the hope that this brings families.