Estefani, January 2016
It all started in early 2013 when God began an indescribable work in my life, leading me to reach out beyond my immediate surroundings and on a mission trip to Honduras, Central America. On this trip, my team would set out to work with children in the mountains who lived in both physical and spiritual poverty. At that time, I committed to sponsoring a older teen girl in Honduras named Melania. Sponsoring a child meant that I would financially partner with her local church to help provide her with meals, tutoring, medical care, vocational training, bible teaching, and Godly mentors. It also meant that I could encourage her through monthly letters and occasional visits. Most sponsored children have families of their own and just need the extra support. That alone was such an exciting mission. On that first trip, I fell in love with Honduras and its people. I knew I had to return.
On New Years Day 2014, I had spent the day in prayer and knew I wanted to do something big to start the year off right. God had been teaching me to go and meet needs wherever I saw them, rather than always sitting back and waiting for a specific calling. Being called by God to a specific mission and proceeding with prayer and caution is very biblical; but I was also learning that the answer to helping the needy is already in the bible, and the answer is yes. This isn't the say that everyone should become a full time missionary or even sponsor a child- but rather, that everyone is called to serve the needy wherever they see them. It was on that same day that I fell in love, through a Facebook post, with an 7-year-old orphan named Estefani.
The picture that made me fall in love
Estefani lived in Honduras, and my missions team leader had posted her picture in hopes of finding a sponsor for her. Instantly, God wove Estefani into my heart and I knew she was the answer to my prayer to do something more that year. However, being that she would likely need a great deal of individual attention, and being that I had already committed to sponsoring the older girl in her same community who I would be visiting on our upcoming trip...I decided to be Estefani's financial sponsor, but let another friend from the team be the main one to actually form the relationship with her. It was a sacrifice, because I already loved Estefani; but I prayed and believed it was best. Little did I know how much God was about to do.
Our team returned to Honduras in May of 2014. Throughout the week as my friend and I (mainly my friend) bonded with Estefani, we learned that her father killed her mother when she was a small child, and she witnessed it. Her father later died in jail. She now lived with distant relatives- an aunt, uncle, and their three children. They treated her okay, we were told, but not like one of their own. She craved parental love and attention. On our last night in Honduras, when we took her home from a fun day of vacation bible school and said our goodbyes, Estefani clung to my friend and I and sobbed. I felt helpless, knowing she needed so much more. She needed a family. I knew I would love to adopt her for real and be her mama all the time, but I also knew she wasn't really mine. After all, I had just given my friend permission to have the real relationship with her. They had already bonded. I could only pray that my friend would know what to do next. Shortly after the trip, Estefani wrote her a letter that said, “For me it was difficult to say goodbye, because you are the mother I do not have. I love you very much and I know God fills that void in my life.”
Our first day together at Vacation Bible School
Over the next year, difficult choices were made and Estefani's other sponsor fell through. My heart was broken for Estefani as I wondered how to undo the damage. On the other hand, she was mine now. I knew God was working something out for our good. I wrote this letter to Estefani, which was delivered to her shortly before I returned to visit her in July of 2015, explaining this change and offering her the hope of a Heavenly Father who would never leave her. Now that she was all mine, my mission seemed clear. I began doing research on Honduran adoption and how to be her mother in every possible sense of the word. International adoption laws in Honduras are near impossible. After speaking to an adoption attorney, I learned that my choices were basically limited to moving there and adopting her domestically, or bringing her to the states on a student visa (similar to a foreign exchange student) without officially being her mom. I was willing to do either, but carefully prayed and researched to make sure the right choices were made. To Estefani and I, the phrase "heart adoption" meant that while the end goal was actual adoption, I was taking on the role of a mother from a distance while I searched for the best route to take.
I returned to Estefani in July 2015 and was relieved that she had received my letter and happily welcomed me into her heart, no questions asked.
From her teachers and the staff at her sponsorship center, I learned that Estefani still had some obstacles to overcome. She still dealt with the very real effects of trauma caused by her birth parents. She also struggled to focus in school. When I inquired about Estefani, the overall consensus from every adult in her life was, “She is mainly missing the role of mom." One way or another, that was about to change.
For the 6 months after that visit, constant prayer was poured into her life. Letters of love, encouragement, and the Word of God were sent back and forth multiple times a month- not only with Estefani, but also her guardians. A friend of mine in Honduras was also able to connect her with a counselor in the area.
In January 2016, I returned once again to Honduras to talk to Estefani's guardians about our plans, and to enroll her in English classes. This was to be the first step in her being granted a student visa to come to the states. We would also have a late Christmas celebration together. After 2 flights and an overnight drive through the mountains, I arrived in Estefani's village early on a Tuesday morning. Of course, my first mission was to retrieve her.
The second I arrived at the house and saw her, I knew something had changed. It wasn't just the fact that she had chopped off all of her hair (!!!) or that she was wearing the worn out gold princess dress that had been new when I gave it to her last summer. No, it was something more. She was glowing. Confident. Healthier, even. I had never seen so much joy in her face. Pictures don't do this memory justice.
We took a trip, along with her aunt and baby cousin, to the local bilingual school to get her registered for English classes. Afterwards, we returned to their home for our Christmas celebration. It was some time in between when I realized that the change didn't stop with Estefani. Her aunt, who had once been distant and indifferent towards her, lovingly walked with her arm around her. They smiled and laughed together. When we met with the school, her aunt bragged to the teachers about Estefani and her good behavior at home. And then, I heard Estefani call her "mama".
It was the best and the worst thing in my mind. For Estefani to be loved in her home was what I had prayed for. She was happy and thriving in a family and confident in the love of God. That was all I ever wanted for her. At the same time, once you have become an adoptive mama, whether legally or "just" in your heart, you don't just stop loving that child as your own once their biological family improves. Estefani still needs so much. Her family is still not perfect. But she has a family.
In my heart, Estefani will always be my daughter. However, I now had to at least consider that unless something were to change (and as previously mentioned, this is Honduras, so it might!), it may be better for our heart adoption to remain only a heart adoption. My goal would be to come alongside the family as an additional mother figure. After all, who's to say she can only have one? I continued to visit Estefani often and communicate with her family constantly by phone, Facebook, and letters when we weren't together. I knew, and she knew, I would always be there to love her. I continued to observe her situation and talk to her teachers, to make sure she was safe and truly loved in her family, and that all of her needs were met. I vowed to make sure she would always have every opportunity to become whoever she wanted to be, within the will of God. She would always be my daughter and I will always her mother, just maybe not her only mother. It took me a while to come to terms with this. Maybe I'm still sort of coming to terms with it. From the day I first saw Estefani, none of our story has gone how I planned. I have to believe, though, that it is so much better.
Almost two years have passed since that day, in which I have seen Estefani several more times. I recently returned from an extended stay in Honduras where I got to spend so much precious time with my girl. Thanks to my missionary hosts in country, I was given the opportunity to just live her life, hang out at her house with her family, evaluate her needs, and even celebrate her 11th birthday with cake and presents.
Overall, Estefani is doing so well. She is thriving in school and adored by her teachers. She loves Jesus and walks with confidence knowing Who she belongs to. The future is still not entirely certain. Her guardians mentioned adoption during a recent conversation, when I thought those doors had been closed. If we ever get to a place of determining that it is both legal and what is best for her long term, I will stop at nothing to make it happen. At present, those conversations are staying between the adults. More letters are being sent back and forth about it, and about potential visits, as we speak; so I ask for your prayers for the most stable and Christ-centered life for my girl. I am confident in knowing that no matter what, Estefani will never have to doubt that she is loved. God is writing Estefani's story, and I can't wait to someday hear it in her own words.