Four years ago, during spring break of my senior year of high school, I went to Zacapa, Guatemala, on a mission trip and worked primarily in an orphanage. The kids were so welcoming, so hungry for love.
As a government-run orphanage, it had a huge number of kids, and a startlingly small number of caretakers. These kids rarely received one-on-one attention, not for lack of effort by the workers, but just because there were too many kids and not enough adults. When we pulled up to the gates of the orphanage the first day, I was unsure of what to expect. I knew that my heart would hurt for the kids, and that I would probably want to change the situation in which they were living, but never did I imagine the impact it would have on me.
The week that I was at the orphanage, there were 89 kids. Some were babies, innocent and full of life. Others were older, calloused and hardened by what they had endured. They came from every background.
Some had parents who had died.
Some had special needs.
Some were taken from their parents.
Some had been beaten.
One little girl had been raped repeatedly by her stepfather.
Some wanted our constant attention, and some were more hesitant to welcome us into their lives.
One little boy captured my heart. I didn't know he would change my life the first time I saw him, but he did. His name is Kenneth, but I didn't find that out until we'd been there a few days. Later, when I asked him why he hadn't just told me his name to start, he told me (through our translator) that he was scared because he knew we were going to leave.
He was 9, and had never had anyone who loved him. His parents died when he was young. He didn’t remember them. He had an older sister, but she was taken to a different orphanage, and he hadn't seen her in a long time. He had the most precious smile, and he loved to play soccer. He liked grape snow cones and racing rocks down hills. His favorite color was green.
At the orphanage, I spent most of my free time with him. The last day we were there, Kenneth told his caretakers that he didn't feel good so that he could stay home from school. He wanted to help us work during the day. I don't think he left my side for a minute.
I don't speak Spanish well but, on that final day, I did my best to try to explain to him that I had to go back to the United States. Jen, our trip leader, had told us that leaving was going to be extremely hard, and that we needed to prepare ourselves emotionally. I didn't believe her. I thought I was going to be OK.
Until I told him I wasn't coming back.
When he understood what I was trying to tell him in my attempted Spanish, his usually bright, joy-filled eyes, flooded with tears. One slid down his cheek, and that's when I lost my own battle with my emotions. We sat on the bench of a picnic table, and he wept. I held him and told him in English that it would be OK. That he was strong, and that one day he would be a great man. That I would be praying for him. That I loved him more than he knew.
And suddenly it was time to go. Everyone was dragging their heels, but we couldn't stay any longer. I dropped to my knees in front of him so that we were at eye level, and gave him one final hug. I whispered, "Te amo mucho" in his ear, and prayed it would be enough. He whispered it back, and we said goodbye.
I haven't seen him since that day.
Walking away from that orphanage, from Kenneth, was quite possibly the hardest thing I've ever done. Those kids don't have anyone they can count on. They desperately want to be loved, to be cared for, to matter to someone.
I don't think I understood God's love at all before I went to Guatemala. I still can't begin to comprehend it. For that week, my prayer was to be able to experience love in a new way. And I did. It's hard. It's awful. It's heartbreaking, and leaves you absolutely broken. It hurts.
But, more than anything, it's absolutely amazing.
Brittany Mason traveled to Guatemala with Buckner in 2009. She lives in Allen, Texas, and graduated from Oklahoma Baptist University in 2012.
To learn more about Buckner mission trips, visit http://www.buckner.org/engage/missions.shtml.
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