I learn something from the beautiful hearts behind those sweet smiles every time I go to Haiti – I learn how to love big and unconditionally like that’s all I’ll ever have.
The first time I walked into the Imagine Missions orphanage was with a group of about 20 other people. Some had been there before, and some were like me…this was just the beginning. The team from the previous week was spending their last afternoon with the kids, so most of them were preoccupied with their new friends. I saw kids running to the familiar faces on our team and embracing them. For a moment I thought, maybe that will happen to me in a couple days once the kids have had a chance to meet me, then I felt something around my waist. It was the arms of a little boy named Duvalson.
I didn’t know him, and he didn’t know me, but that would change over the next week that we would spend together.
Duvalson wasn’t the only child who was attached to me at the hip, but he is the one who made the biggest impact on me. At the orphanage, he is known for being a troublemaker and doing anything to get attention, and it wasn’t like he was on his best behavior for me. There were times when he was mean to other kids. If I spent too much time with someone else, he would come over and hit them. That’s obviously not the love I’m talking about, though.
The kids at the orphanage have at least 30 teams visiting every year. Some people stay for a week, some people stay for longer, but everyone leaves at some point, and some never come back again. So the kids soak up affection, but many of them won’t allow themselves to get attached too deeply to anyone because they know that people leave. They knew that before any team ever came. They knew that on the day they came to live at the orphanage. Keeping their distance is a coping mechanism.
But those kids have taught me much, even the ones who try to remain unattached. They taught me that love has nothing to do with what I have to offer and what I can give, but what God can do. All of these kids have experienced a great trauma – losing their parents in one way or another – and some have experienced other trauma, too. They are, in many ways, emotionally spent. But when the gate opens, they run with open arms to welcome the next team. They hold on tight for a week, braiding hair, sharing their language, and playing with whoever they picked out of the team. They give their full attention. They love even though they know that everyone will leave soon. Some remain unattached, but all of them love well.
Duvalson followed me wherever I went that week. On our last day, he was nowhere to be found. He knew it was time for us to leave, so he was severing ties. Later I saw him standing in a corner just watching everyone say their goodbyes. As I held someone else, he came over and slapped them in the face out of jealousy. I put that child down and picked up Duvalson. He squirmed and acted like he was mad at me, so I set him on the bench beside me. He wouldn’t look at me. I had been learning some things in Creole, so I spoke to him in his language and said, “Duvalson, you are a good boy. You are not bad. You have a good heart, and I love you.” He looked up at me with tears in his eyes and hugged me.
I was so thankful that I was able to speak into him and encourage his tender heart. God showed me that this little boy wasn’t the tough guy everyone thought he was. He wasn’t the trouble maker that simply caused disruptions. He was just a little boy who was afraid and needed someone to see who he really was. He stayed by my side until we had to leave for the last time.
Those kids treated me like family, even though they knew it wouldn’t be forever. They didn’t know who we were or where we came from. They didn’t know our past, and they didn’t care. They loved like that week was all they would have with our team because they knew that, for some people, it would be true. They served us, carrying our backpacks and water bottles wherever we went. They gave hugs and kisses. They laughed and posed for pictures. Even if on the inside they were disconnected, they didn’t let the hurt from their pasts stop them from showing love. Even if they weren’t ready to allow their hearts to love, they didn’t let that stop their hands and feet from loving. I was humbled by a love that has nothing to do with the giver.
Duvalson is 11 now. He’s becoming a teenager who is too cool to get hugs, but I can tell he still loves to get them when he gives his little half smile. He still causes trouble, but he is still that sweet, tenderhearted little boy that I met 3 years ago. I am forever changed because of the love shown to me by the kids living at that orphanage.