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Sunday, May 26, 2013

What Julius signifies for us

As some of you know, we are fostering a baby for a few months. It seems a little crazy when I am alone and thinking about our life; that we have added this little person in as our own children have grown and are on their way out of our care. I mean, Michael and I are in our 50’s and we have all the creeping subtle ageing fun signs of it…aches in places we didn’t know existed, sleepless nights, weird reactions physically to this and that. Whatever. Having a baby in your home is, as we are now recalling, no small effort. However, it seemed  important and essential to his well being  and we are certainly glad to do it. It’s funny how early childhood parenting comes back quickly (although I will admit to not remembering song lyrics very well…humming is a good skill to have!)
  It is amazing to me how easy it is to love a child that is not our own. Julius is particularly loveable for some reason. Partly I know it’s because we know he has no one else. It’s also because he has been sickly since he was left by his family. He is the epitome of “the least of our brethren” as are all the millions of children left behind in the wake of various health or debilitating poverty crises. For me, loving and caring for Julius represents more than just the day to day work of taking care of him and helping him get better. Given how I sometimes feel facing the situation of these children, it really feels like the least we can do at this point in time.
Of course, as parents and compassionate people, we are all moved by the plight of orphans everywhere. There are millions of them, thanks to the AIDS pandemic and other illnesses or crises often related to extreme poverty and instability. We see it in the news, at the movies, in books. We get notices in the mail even, so we really can’t avoid knowing about these tragedies, if we are at all paying attention. When one actually thinks about the numbers of young people in these situations it’s almost unbearable.
Like a lot of people, I have, in the past, sponsored kids through Save the Children, donated money to orphanages, etc. and felt that at least I was paying attention and was aware of the issues and doing a teeny little bit to help.   I was not at all prepared emotionally for how hard it would be to be surrounded by children who have been orphaned or abandoned, or who are living in the streets. For one thing, the abundance is staggering. For two, their incredibly young age is something  which you must really get your head around, and it does take some time. I know people who come here and completely avoid kids or orphans because it is so hard to deal with emotionally.
Coming from Middle America we are not often confronted with the negative effects on children of this sort of extreme poverty. It is there, but fortunately for us, there are “safety nets’ although they may not be sufficient. Here are there none to speak of or what there is, is so overburdened, it is beyond dysfunctional.  
My first exposure to this situation was on our first day here when we were walking around with Michael in town, getting oriented.  There were a lot of young boys on the streets that day. The boys who followed us were “little boys” by my standards. Probably 9 or 10. But man, have they seen a lot. I hate to think of what they have already been through.  I wrote about this in one of my early blogs thinking it was unusual.  However, that first day was not an aberration. There is a whole population of kids, aged between 4 and 18 probably, living on the streets, in the park, garbage dumps, etc, and one sees them every time one goes into town. They are like what I imagine ‘untouchables’ to be in other cultures. Most people don’t even acknowledge them. We are often approached by them, barefooted and covered in dirt, begging for shillings or a bite to eat.  Michael particularly, is often swarmed. He takes their glue bottles and buys them something to eat (many are huffing glue which is also horrifying but keeps them warm and abates hunger). We try to support  the privately funded Tumaini Drop IN Center hoping to find a way to help them. Going there  is startling at first, but the kids, despite their appearance, are usually friendly and polite.  The Drop in Center works to get them back home, or into school, or at least to decide on something more “normal” to do as they reach adulthood. The local police jail them for vagrancy. There are few options for a child who is abandoned, orphaned, or chased from the home due to extreme poverty. There is no public homeless shelter and the resources for children in these situations are very strained and underfunded. Fortunately there are privately and church funded organizations…children’s homes,  pediatric centers, youth centers, etc.
  Sally Test Pediatric Center is connected to the local public hospital. It is a day care center basically, a place for hospitalized kids to come to play and the child life workers go into the wards to make being hospitalized a bit less insufferable for kids. It’s a fabulous place, started and funded by AMPATH and the hospital. Abandoned children end up there.  You have to imagine how desperate and nearly insane one must be to abandon one’s baby or small children.
Although I go regularly to see and hold the babies, I am always emotionally conflicted when I am there. It makes me happy to see the children, children whose situations could  be so much worse, be loved and well treated by the caretakers at the center. However, l  have this constant sinking feeling about their futures and that I am not doing enough and that I cannot give enough.
Julius was brought to the hospital by his father along with his brother. He was severely malnourished and he has had this ongoing lung infection issue. His mother had abandoned the family and then his father left them both there after awhile, purportedly to go find work. Julius became one of the kids at Sally Test Pediatric center. Basically they are there are there during the day then go to the peds ward at night. Not a nice or ideal life for a baby.   I was spending a lot of time with him there at Sally Test, and then when the courts sent them to a very nice children’s home about 40 minutes out of town, I started going out to see him and the other kids who had moved away. He continued to be sickly so I became concerned and began focusing on him alone. 
Over time it became clear that Julius is in need of some special care. He kept being hospitalized by the children’s home and each time was diagnosed with pneumonia. I was there each time, trying to get information, give background facts, talk to docs and get our AMPATH docs involved, which fortunately they did.  After the last bout of “pneumonia” I was able to put some pressure on the situation, got him diagnosed finally correctly (TB thanks to an AMPATH doc) and on the correct medicine. Because of his incessant needs, the children’s home was  glad to have us take him for awhile knowing that he was needing more than they could give him.
We cannot adopt Julius. He is not even up for adoption at this point. The adoption laws in Kenya are complicated and the whole system as far as I can tell does not benefit the children. Knowing what we know and seeing what we have seen, I am so thankful  for the people who run children’s homes. Whether they are church funded or otherwise, they go to all sorts of lengths to make sure their kids are well taken care of and get an education. It’s a constant battle for them because there are so many kids. We are associated with and supportive of several here, which tellingly, the Kenyan government does not support at all. Julius’ Children’s Home, Lewa, is relatively well funded and self sustaining. It’s clean and relatively hygienic. The caretakers, for the most part, are loving people. The director, Phyllis Keino, is a star and a true advocate for children in Kenya.  Although I am not dying to take him back there, I feel confident that with our current stabilization and loving foundation effort and the work they do there, he will be alright.
 Julius represents the little we can do. It seems like a lot, bringing a child into your home, but honestly for all the need, it is not much.  For all the children I see on the street or other children at his children’s home who need a hug or to be cuddled, he is the recipient of all that potential love for now. It could be someone else next year. It could continue to be Julius. I expect we’ll be in each other’s lives for a long time, but for now, having the opportunity to love him up and give him something he desperately needs, is good for all of us it seems, except for Rafiki, our dog, who now gets to be outside most of the day!(they are becoming buds though)

Julius after packing on a kilo in one week!

julius a couple months ago at Lewa

Michael and Julius at Lewa 2 months ago

One of JUlius' many talents....

kids at Kitale children's home catching termites!

Julius first week he was here

Michael and Sean, another boy at Lewa