Unconditional Love

“The greatest gift that one human being can give another is unconditional love. It’s the only thing, ultimately, that really matters”

-Joy Gardner

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Something which I have noticed over the years of building relationships and working with people who have been through some kind of serious trauma is a common tendency to push love away with both hands (as a protective measure).  If you don’t ever have someone’s love then you never have to suffer its loss.  Children who have been abandoned (intentionally or otherwise) have a hard time believing that you are not just another person who will leave them in due time. They don’t trust in a situation that seems stable—life has shown them a very different reality.

Some children will throw fits, say mean things, act out, and push everyone away. They assume that you will eventually give up on them, so it might as well be now. Or maybe they just do it to push the boundaries, to see if your kindness, love, and care for them is in fact unconditional. I am not sure of all the underlying motivations but I have seen it enough times to know that the bad behavior is not a true reflection of who the child is, but rather a defense mechanism—a wall they have put up to protect themselves. I also know that once you get past it and earn the trust of a child you invariably see a beautiful heart that wants nothing more than to be loved.

My first real experience with this phenomenon shook my world to its core and to this day it’s something I still wish I could somehow remedy.  However, I learned much from this experience.  It became deeply instructive for how to properly build the framework for the operation of our JCO Children’s Home.   In 2005, on my volunteer trip to South Africa, before I ever had any plans of starting an organization of my own, I volunteered at a Children’s Home there.

This Home was very different than the one we have worked to create in Kenya, and we were very intentional about that. I learned many things working at that home in South Africa and it was mostly what not to do.   

There was a young girl there who was really difficult to deal with. I came day after day and many of the children warmed up to me easily, but not her.  At times she actually  worked to make my job harder and seemed to enjoy it. But I kept coming back and stayed engaged until I eventually won her over. She began to trust that I was who I said I was. We became really close and when she finally opened up she revealed the beautiful heart that she had all along. It wasn’t until the day I was leaving that I realized what I had done. She was sobbing on her bed and would not come down to hug me. I assured her that I would come back and she just cried and shook her head and said with a devastating certainty “No, you won’t.” She wouldn’t even look at me. It broke my heart. In all my efforts to win her over and show her love I didn’t realize that when I left I would just be another person that she cared about who was abandoning her.

She had been through so much and lost so much and she was only 13 years old. My intention was good but it ended up causing her more pain. I kept my promise and did return for a visit two years later, so maybe that counts for something.

Although I cannot go back and change that situation, I have used that experience to help us to provide better care for our children in Kenya. We work hard  to provide consistent care and love for our kiddos.  With very few exceptions we have had the same caregivers at the JCO Children’s Home since it opened 8 years ago .  Our staff, lead by Mrs. Opot, has done a wonderful job providing a healthy routine of daily life, year after year.  With a safe environment and continuity of caregivers, our children have been able to grow up in a home full of love, compassion—and occasionally, discipline (we have to face their issues head on or we cannot help to fix them).  I’ve spent several years of my life at this point (a few months at time) living in the village and developing close relationships with our kiddos.  The quality of their daily lives does not depend on my being there but the fact the we are all part of the same family is the worst kept secret in Sirembe.  In the beginning I was there for longer durations of time to help Mrs. Opot establish the policies, procedures, and culture of the JCO.  The relationships I have with our kiddos have never been better but my role has evolved over time to something like the cool auntie who brings gifts during the holidays.  However, while I’m there I still do my very best to help ensure they all know how much they are loved.  On our most recent trip to Kenya, I experienced some sweet confirmation that we’re succeeding…

 Miriam with her boys. She has been a Head House Mother in the JCO Children's Home for 7 years and as you can see our kiddos love her. 

Miriam with her boys. She has been a Head House Mother in the JCO Children's Home for 7 years and as you can see our kiddos love her. 

Earlier this year while in Kenya, we went up to the Secondary School (high school) to see our kiddos. When school is in session we don’t see too much of our high schoolers because they are so busy with their studies. But we still find time to catch up and encourage them. However, our trip was cut a week short this year due to my brother’s sudden and severe illness and we had to leave quite quickly. As I went to go talk to our kiddos that afternoon at school, I pulled aside our three high school girls Pamela, Treezer, and Sheryl to tell them that I was so sorry that we had to leave, but that I hope they know just how much I love them. They all looked at me with those beautiful faces, smiled, and wholeheartedly said yes they understood—like it was the most obvious thing in the world. There was no hesitation or doubt in their response. They knew I loved them and am here for them no matter where I am physically. And I felt their love right back, stronger than I have ever felt it.  We have this fiercely strong bond and at that moment I could literally feel it like a bridge between us. It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life. It filled my heart and has been such a comfort to me during what was the beginning of the hardest months of my life…

 Treezer, Me, Pamela, and Sheryl just a few moments after our conversation mentioned above

Treezer, Me, Pamela, and Sheryl just a few moments after our conversation mentioned above

 

When we opened the JCO Children’s Home in 2010 we wanted it to truly become a home for all who lived there. We wanted to build a family and a real support system for those little ones who didn’t have anyone. We wanted them to know that they are loved unconditionally, that we are their people and there is nothing they can do that would change that. There is a security and feeling of safety that comes from knowing that you are loved unconditionally which nothing else can provide. I am so thankful our children know it and feel it in their lives. “The greatest gift that one human being can give another is unconditional love. It’s the only thing, ultimately, that really matters”

 I couldn’t agree with this quote more and we all need that in our lives. We need to know that there are people who are with us no matter what, at this moment and forever. In this arena, our actions are the only things that really matter. Many of our kiddos know that we love them unconditionally, but that took years of consistent care and loving support. Although our kiddos are all thriving and doing well, many of their individual journeys have been really rough—some continued to be so after they moved in with us. But the very fact that we are willing to work with them and continue to be there for them despite any bad behavior is what has helped our kiddos to truly see and believe that this is their home and we are their people, no matter what.  They know they are a part of our family, just as your child is a part of  yours—forever.  That is how we feel about and treat our kiddos at JCO.

Providing unconditional love also doesn’t guarantee that they will always make good choices or live up to their potential. One of our older girls who moved in with us when we first opened our Home decided her Junior year of high school to drop out.  We tried EVERYTHING in our power to stop her and help her make a better choice. Ultimately she was 18 years old and it was her choice to make.

I still wish she would not have thrown that opportunity away but one thing I do know is that we did everything we could for her and she knows that too. She knows that she was loved and embraced by people who just a few years prior had been strangers to her.  I hope that willingness to try and connect and help someone is something she passes on to others in her life. I hope that her faith in humanity was restored, at least a little. We still keep up with her family and she is doing fine and we wish her the very best.

The stability and security that unconditional love provides is made possible by the consistent care we provide at our JCO Children’s Home. Our kiddos know they are loved and that is everything. I wish that I could have been in a position to provide a similar stability and security for the young girl in South Africa.  Loving someone without the actions to back it up, in the end, just isn’t enough.

 

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We want to thank each and everyone of you that have helped us to provide this consistent and high quality care to our kiddos at the JCO Children’s Home. We could not have done it without you.

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