the unknown

The first time I knew I wanted to adopt, I had just turned 18. I was in Romania, and the team I was with visited a children's hospital in Bucharest. I remember walking into an old, white building near the city center, and was immediately taken by the smell of urine and the lack of light. We walked slowly room-by-room as the nurses spoke broken English and told us about their babies. We ended up in a small room with cribs lined up end-to-end and from wall-to-wall. Most of the babes were asleep, but some squawked their hellos and looked up at us with giant, searching eyes, and I wondered what was going on behind them. Were they afraid? Were they in pain? Would they smile and laugh like so many children I knew? Where are their parents?

In that room with a window to the rest of the city, I met a little boy named Patrica. He sat in his crib, not smiling, but not upset either. I will never forget those big brown eyes that looked like a cave. I was told to hug him and cuddle with him and talk to him. My American mind couldn't understand why they needed us there so desperately, but the nurses told us a story of heartbreak. This hospital was severely understaffed, as are many others in Romania and countries like it. The babies were often left for hours without the love and affection that every child deserves and desperately needs to grow and be happy. There just weren’t enough hands. Even more unfathomable as I looked at the little faces around me, they told us that some parents dropped their children off with minor illnesses and never came back. This hospital was quickly becoming an orphanage.

When I lifted Patrica from his bed, he didn’t fight against a stranger’s squeeze. He looked at me and clung, and I was head over heels. All afternoon, on a blanket in a green courtyard under the trees, we breathed fresh air and held each other. He was quiet, lethargic even, but he sat with his head on my chest and his little arms wrapped around me. My heart was ripped to shreds by this little boy with deep eyes. We laughed and played and I smelled his head (Have. Mercy.), but as the day went on, I was overwhelmed with the reality that, at the end of this day - a beautiful, awful day - I would leave.

I would go back to my comfortable American life, never wanting for love or food or shelter, and I would never see Patrica again. I would never know if he became well, if he would be comforted when he cries, if he had a mama who loves him. This thought nearly broke me. Helpless only begins to describe the feelings my 18-year-old self wrestled with that day. What could I do?

I didn't want him to see me cry, so I began to pray over the little boy in my arms as I paced with him under the trees. I repeated the same words over and over and over as I walked in the small hospital yard with a child I wanted so badly to be okay. "Lord, please bring people into his life who will love him and protect him and teach him to be a man that follows You." It was all I knew to say in a situation I didn’t understand.

I don't know what happened to Patrica. I did leave that day, and I never saw him again. Today, he would be about 7 years old. I don't know if his parents ever came back. I desperately hope they did. But there are plenty of kids in that hospital whose parents never came, and millions more in orphanages all over the world. In reality, Patrica is one child thousands of miles away. But, to me, he is a child I have prayed for and thought about long after the afternoon we sat together on a blanket, and he is also the one I think about when I hear statistics like this:
143 MILLION orphans around the world.
5,760 children become orphans every day.
250,000 children are adopted every year.
But, more than 14 million grow up as orphans and age out of the system without families every year.
These are not just numbers. These are little boys like Patrica, with big brown eyes and hearts that need to be loved.

These are also teenage girls like Lacra, who walked with me arm-in-arm, peppered me with questions about America and who ran to me with a massive smile and a bear hug because we saw each other in our eyes. She aged out of her orphanage in Bucharest shortly after I left. Sometimes, girls like her do well on their own. Other times, they resort to selling themselves because they don't think there is another way. Just like Patrica, I don't know what happened to Lacra after the weeks I spent with her making bracelets and holding hands. I pray that she was one of the lucky ones.

We have to do something. Even knowing what I do and seeing the faces of orphans personally, I have to fight against the complacency that comes with comfort. It’s so tempting to look away because the looking - the active, I-want-to-know looking - is painful. But we have to protect the most vulnerable in our world and do our job as the Church. It's estimated that, in the U.S., there are about 120,000 orphans and 300,000 churches. I won't do the math for you, because I know you get the point. And I'm not going to say that everyone should adopt. There are a lot of reasons why that would be a foolish statement. But there are even more ways that you can care for orphans that are just as effective as adoption. Click here to learn more about what YOU can do, no matter your life-stage or calling. Their lives are at stake. And they are so much more than numbers.


  1. Beautiful, Chel. The harsh reality that you write about has shaped who you are and what you do. I saw the reality of Patrica and Lacra on your face the minute you came home. Your life was changed and you were different, the first time you went to Romania. But this second trip… well, I have watched the absolutely uncontainable passion pour out of you every day since. I am so blessed to be your mom.


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