“A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.”
– Christopher Reeve (Superman)
Evans, Francis, Nancy, and Mary G. are my four smallest heroes nowadays. Ordinary preschoolers rarely face the obstacles they did, yet rise so high so soon. Like Superman said, when his acting days were cut short by quadriplegia from a terrible accident, heroes are not who we like to think they are. For those who know how Christopher Reeve lived the rest of his life, you will surely agree that he was more heroic in real life than he ever was on screen.
A soul-swelling combination of colorful swimsuits, brilliant smiles, infectious playfulness, and group-centered kindness set this foursome apart from the moment we arrived in Mombasa for our annual Naomi’s Village beach vacation at Baobab Resort. To the other European vacationers and Kenyans on holiday, they looked like a sweet group of well-adjusted, happy kids, perhaps exceptionally so. To us, these remarkable toddlers were more than what shone in the brilliance of the present sunlight. We knew how it all began for each of them, at least enough to be awed, to turn away from the fun to stifle tears at times. After all we had seen and heard, these were heroes in the making, and there was more proof than ever that God was the king of redemption.
Dubbed the Itty Bitties by Auntie Julie, on day 1 they found their group name on the block schedule alongside the Lions, Giraffes, Zebras, Elephants, and Older Kids. They had eagerly anticipated seeing these 5 days come, when they would finally be big enough to make the 12-hour bus ride from the regular routine of their children’s home to the unknown magic of the Indian Ocean. Oh, how often they had asked, “Am I going to Mombasa this year?” and now they had seen that glorious and vast expanse of azure water flanked by soft white sands with their own eyes, slept in the comfy beds under air-conditioning, and eaten their first buffet breakfast in a fancy resort restaurant.
They cheered in unison, “Yay for the Itty Bitties!” as they trundled off down the sidewalk with house mom Anne to their first swim experience in the kiddie pool, humorously overdressed for the occasion with both life vests and floaties. We all chuckled as each one squealed in delight, jumping into 14-inch deep water over and over like they would never tire out. We took turns watching from the side of the aptly named “warm pool”, as Fred wryly called it one day when he realized that despite the constant intake of sodas and water by the little kids, none of them ever seemed to want to leave the pool to visit nearby bathrooms.
I personally got playfully splashed dozens of times, witnessed each child show me countless tricks they could do, and spent time helping them gain confidence wearing less safety equipment and swimming in progressively deeper water over the coming days. There is something wonderfully equalizing about a pool, in that it puts humans of completely different sizes and ages at exactly the same height and face level, allowing a type of personal interaction and relationship building that doesn’t easily happen on dry ground. We all took full advantage of this, as we do every year. And each time one of our Itty Bitties broke the surface of the water to look into my eyes, I would see a flash of the past hardships that once were, now disappearing, being made new. This was not merely swimming for me.
Mary G., the itty-bittiest baby on record to have come to Naomi’s Village, weighed less than 6 pounds at 4 months old when we took her in. She was delivered early at only 6 months gestation, and she weighed a scant 1.8 pounds when she was abandoned at nearby Kijabe Hospital. Her mother never expected her to live when she snuck off, while Mary was still in the NICU. On the day she arrived at NV, she came with an entourage of nurses, doctors, and social workers, intent on making certain that this new children’s home in Maai Mahiu was good enough for their beloved Mary. My daughter Emily received her, walking with her to the baby room, surrounded by a crowd of worriers and staff gasping at her combination of tinyness and beauty. Now over 4 years later, she is a great student in preschool, a dancer and singer, and a swimmer!
Evans, the first baby ever at NV, rolled in like a prince in 2011, got smothered with love as a 4-month old by numerous baby mothers, missionary interns, visiting teams, and of course all of our staff. After a few months in happy land, we suddenly found out that his mother had died of AIDS a few weeks before we got him. Fearfully we waited as he went to the hospital for testing of his blood. Tears were shed in the interim. We did not count this cost. Then the tests came back and he was HIV Negative. So much relief filled our novice hearts. Since that time we have taken in many HIV+ children, even babies, and God has given us the growth and the grace to see them do just great. Evans (4), speaks perfect English, loves reading and school, and has the disposition of an angel.
Nancy has been the subject of a blog For Rosemary and Nancy, as well as a powerful video documenting her homecoming day at NV. Perhaps the most neglected little girl I have ever met, she arrived at age 4, abandoned by her alcoholic mother, fresh off of living with her in a women’s prison for 2 years, and bearing permanent burn scars because of the callous disregard of her mom. She is now an undersized 6 year-old with a lion heart and a surgically repaired right hand. There is little that gets in the way of Fancy Nancy when she sets her mind to accomplish something, like learning in school, dancing, and now swimming.
And there was Francis splashing and playing, stopping at times to give me one of his warm hugs, to remind me that he loves me. My mind swam back to an imaginary highway scene, like those I’ve unfortunately seen in my business. A young lady, a passenger on a motorcycle that hit a vehicle, lay broken and dying on the pavement near Naivasha. As her last breath left her lungs, somewhere her baby boy Francis faced new realities. Her death would lead to an autopsy that uncovered a chronic illness that her children unfortunately shared. By the time Francis came to join our family, he was sickly and carried a deep pain behind his little eyes. Where did mommy go? Oh, how we felt his burden together! Now to see him at 5 years old, just over 2 years later, giving and receiving love, laughing next to that giant ocean, I am overcome again. He has surely been washed, renewed, but strangely so have I.
And so it was that the Itty Bitties grew up some, blew past the former stops, and came to rest not only at Naomi’s Village, not only at the beach, but in our hearts. We all learned some things, perhaps the best things, by watching them, admiring them, and wishing we had a bit of what they were spreading around like fairy dust. It was love, of course, of the kind that is mixed with pure joy and few if any burdens, worth giving away, because it doesn’t run out. Somehow God has this love and is willing to show it through any of us, though we mostly witness it in children, I have come to notice. The rest of us lose it as we grow up, in the fight for countless unimportant things, and when we glimpse it like this, it should remind us we are going home to a place one day where it will be ours again. We will meet on that distant shore, we will finish struggling, and like children do, we will learn to live in His love unfettered again.
By Bob Mendonsa