Her name was Maria Elena. She was only 3 months old when she completely changed my life. She was found abandoned as an infant in Lima, Peru, and was placed in the care of a government home. She didn’t even have her own name when she first arrived at the home; they named her after the orphanage director. I discovered this tiny, dark-haired beauty when I arrived at the government home.
First, I should back up and explain how I found myself in Peru. I was a college student itching to set my feet on the mission field again after my first summer mission trips to China and India. After being accepted to serve with Project GO! through Buckner, I picked Peru on a whim. I knew nothing more than that the country was in South America, quite far from my quaint college campus at Samford in Birmingham, Ala. When I stepped on that plane, I had no idea that the Lord was about to completely change my life.
Maria Elena lived at the first home we visited. While there were many other children, this little one found a special place in my heart. At this home for teen moms, the other children stayed with their mothers. Maria Elena had a room by herself.
I think the nannies were so busy they just forgot she was there. She would get diaper rashes because she was left in wet diapers for so long, and I would sometimes come in to find her lying in her crib crying for somebody, anybody to come.
She was so tiny and beautiful; I couldn’t stop staring at her. Every day we visited the home, I rushed to find her and spend the day caring for her. I fell more in love with her every day and could not bear the thought of saying goodbye.
The Lord and I had some pretty heated discussions at this time about Maria Elena and the other things I was seeing. I visited many other orphanages during the month, and saw more than my human heart could manage: poverty, pain laced with joy, children starving for love and without parents to tuck them in each night.
To be honest, I was angry at God. How could He let His children live like this? He was most certainly not caring for His children very well, and in my arrogance and naiveté, I informed Him that I could do a better job. Of course, I would eventually have to leave and go home, back to my family and my studies. I seriously contemplated how I could adopt Maria Elena and finish college as a single mother.
But God had much to teach me. He gently reminded me that these were His children, not mine, and that He loved them more than I could imagine. He did not need me to take care of these children, but if I humbled myself, He would use me to love them.
These deep emotions led me to the realization that God had awakened my purpose. I felt alive and passionate in a way I never had before as I cared for these orphans and teenage girls. I knew I would never be the same.
I was unable to take Maria Elena home with me at the end of my internship (I asked -- you must be 25 to adopt, and I was too young). I went back to my “normal life,” but I was never the same. I had a new purpose and calling. I returned to my senior year of college and began making plans for after graduation.
I told the Lord I was going to move to Peru after graduation. He kindly told me that no, I was not. He had divinely introduced me to my friend Klista, a fellow Peru intern, who was finishing her master’s in social work at Baylor University. I visited her at school and realized this was God’s next step for me so I could be well-equipped for the calling He had given me.
Before beginning my graduate program, I returned to Peru for an entire summer. My love for the country and children only grew deeper. I desperately wanted to stay, but I knew that was not God’s plan for me and I reluctantly came home to begin my studies. The next year, my mom and I took a weeklong visit to the country I loved so dearly. I saw many of the children and mothers I loved growing and thriving, and my calling only grew deeper.
The story isn’t over there. I tried to find Maria Elena the following summer (searching all over Lima’s orphanages for her with Buckner staff) but was unsuccessful. I pray she is in a loving adoptive family now. She will always be a part of my heart, and I know I will see her in heaven one day. I know that God brought her into my life to “direct my path.”
Today I'm an adoption social worker and I could not love my job more. Instead of watching hopelessly as children languish in orphanages, I help families bring them into loving homes. I also counsel pregnant teenagers and offer them hope for themselves and their children.
I am waiting for the day I get to return to Peru, but for now, I am doing the work God has so graciously invited me into. I have found my calling.
If you are thinking about a Buckner mission trip, I have one word for you: go! If you are already planning to go, go covered in prayer and with an open heart, because God is going to change your life! You will never be the same. For me, it only took one little girl: her name is Maria Elena.
Kelli Rearden first served with Project Go in 2009. Today, she works for Bethany Christian Services.
To see the current list of Buckner mission trips, visit http://itsyourmission.com/tripcalendar.shtml.
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