Sunday, October 13, 2013

'They are each so valuable and perfect'

By Nikki Cochrane
I never thought that at 24-years-old I'd be a mother to seven children with special needs, but that is exactly where life has taken me. I live in India with my best friend and serve with Sarah’s Covenant Homes, an orphanage for abandoned children and young adults with special needs. I'm a foster mother to seven children aged five to 16 with a variety of diagnoses, including cerebral palsy, autism, blindness and HIV. I can’t imagine my life without these seven little people in it.

Leading up to my time in India, I worked at March of Dimes in Toronto in the Conductive Education program and did my Developmental Services Worker school placement in a Grade 1 class at the Bloorview School. I was able to see a life where children with special needs are children firstwhere they are loved and accepted and given the tools they need to thrive.

Here in India life is very different from what I experienced back home. My kids were all abandoned by their birth families. They were sent to a government orphanage as babies and many never left their beds. My five- and six-year-olds, whose only diagnosis is blindness, can't walk or talk due to the neglect they experienced in those formative years. My kids came under the care of Sarah’s Covenant Homes in 2009, and this July, we moved together as a family; the first real family they've ever had.

We do therapy on the balcony every morning, and we have seen huge strides. In the past week, with the help of a set of ankle-foot orthotics donated from America, one of my little guys stood all by himself for the first time. He can now stand for over three minutes and tries to high-five everyone who watches him. My little girl, Jasmine, who is blind, has learned how to feed herself and is no longer dependent at meals. 

We don’t have fancy equipment. With no wheelchair for Molly, we improvise the best we can with chairs, using scarves as chest straps and pillows to keep her positioned properly. 
Many Indians believe that people with disabilities are cursed, and so our kids aren’t widely accepted in their community. Lily, whose cerebral palsy makes speech difficult for her, and who is unable to walk independently, is very bright and would thrive in school. A school accepted her last year, but kicked her out shortly after. We are homeschooling her in the hopes that if we get her to a certain level, they will see her potential and be unable to say "No." I hate that anyone would not see the potential in my kids, because they are each so valuable and perfect.

Last week we took the kids to the park. Parks in our city are gated and the gates open at 5 p.m. Old men come to sit on benches and children and their parents flock to play on the equipment. Of course, none of it is at all accessible, but our kids have so much fun, and it is one of the only places with grass in the city, which our kids love to feel and smell.
I waited in line for the swings with my little girl, and finally it was our turn. Not wanting to sit her on the swing by herself, as she may fall, I sat down and put her on my lap and began to swing. She threw her head back in joyful laughter, which was stopped short when the park "watchwoman" stormed over and demanded that we take our group and leave.
I ignored her and kept swinging. She yelled again. She reached out to grab the swing to hold it still, pointing to the street. Not knowing the words in Telugu that I wanted to tell her, I began arguing in English, telling her that my children have just as much right as any other child to be here and to play. Some parents stepped in. Some on her side, pointing to the street, and others on my side, translating what I was saying. Eventually, she waved her stick at me in a threatening manner and then went back to her seat, glaring. We kept swinging, and the laughter continued. My babies got a chance to be kids and to have fun that day, but nothing is without hurdles here in India.

My kids are loved now. I love them as I’ve never loved anyone else. They get warm baths at night. We dress them in their pajamas, pray together, and cuddle in bed. They are available for adoption, and I pray for mothers and fathers for themparents who can give them more than I can, and who live in a country where they'll be accepted.
Every night we read the story “I Love You Through and Through. I know it by heart now and the kids laugh when it comes to the part where we pretend to eat their fingers and toes. They fall asleep in our bedroom, where we cuddle with all the beds pushed together, and they wake up safe in our arms. My kids may not have the equipment they need, or the ideal therapies, or even the ability to go to school, but for the first time in their lives, they are loved in a family. We are working on everything else, but I am so grateful for where they are now.

Please read more about my life as a mama to my kids at my blog One Tiny Starfish.

You can sponsor a child at Sarah's Covenant Homes.


What an amazing young woman you are. God bless you and your new family.

A heartwarming story... God gives you strength!

Are you real or a strange and beautiful woman from another planet? What beautiful things you are doing with your life -- I, too, hope for stable homes and more love for these children you are so generously fostering. I feel like I should say thank you for the world!

What an amazing young woman you are! I am happy to see someone so giving of themselves so others can live a life just a little bit better, a life of love

It warms my heart to read this story. Just look how happy those children are. You are a true angel.

I have some concerns about this piece. This young woman is not, in fact, the parent of these children -- reviewing her blog, it becomes clear she is an international volunteer currently spending less than six months volunteering in India. It appears this charity makes the rather irresponsible choice to have children primarily cared for by international volunteers who pose as parents but then return home to the west after less than a year, abandoning their "children". For emotionally vulnerable and neglected children to be cared for intensively by an international volunteer, form a bond with them, and then be abandoned after six months by that volunteer is extremely emotionally and psychologically damaging. This phenomenon is disturbingly common and quite well documented:

That these especially vulnerable children with disabilities are being subjected to this kind of care is very troubling to me -- I am shocked that this young woman refers to herself as the "mother" of these kids when she'll be leaving the country in just a few months!

Especially as this young woman is not the parent of these children in any sense, I also find her free use of their photos and stories on her blog quite troubling and exploitative. She should not have permission to do this -- and if she wasn't in a developing country she would NEVER be allowed to do so. Most larger and well-established international charitable organizations also have policies governing volunteers and photographs which would never allow this kind of blog post.

"Sarah's Covenant Homes" also appears to be an evangelical Christian organization. One of the other (young, white, American) volunteers writes:
"I love these boys so much and my desire is for them to better understand their identity in Christ and their worth and value." I fear that evangelism may be one of the reasons this organization chooses to have international Christian volunteers participate in caring for children under their protection. This is especially strange in a cultural context where nearly 100% of these children would be from Muslim or Hindu families or origin. How does it help these children to be cared for by adults who don't share their language, culture or faith background, and are depriving them of their cultural and faith traditions and heritage?

These young international women are also taking jobs which should be given -- and paid -- to Indian nationals, in a context where well-paid, safe and rewarding professional opportunities for Indian women are scarce. These children should be cared for by skilled, professionally trained Indian national staff who can make a long term professional commitment to their employer.

This young foreign volunteer obviously means well and writes charmingly about these children -- I am not accusing her personally of sinister motives, but I question how critically her employer is thinking about the well-being of its charges.

I write as someone who works professionally in the international development sector and has lived and worked extensively in India with charitable organizations that serve vulnerable children and adults in appropriate and respectful ways.

Dear Anonymous: Thank you for your message.

I believe your concern is seriously misguided.

The reason organizations like Sarah's Covenant House exist is that the alternative is the Indian state-run orphanage where the children first went: the orphanage where they lay alone in their beds developing multiple disabilities (disabilities they were NOT born with) because they weren't stimulated.

I'm glad you brought up Nikki's website. I hadn't looked at it closely, but you seem to have missed that most of the staff at Sarah's Covenant House (the nannies as they are called) are LOCAL Indian women:

Volunteers like Nikki are NOT taking jobs away from the local economy.

Further, the "culture" that you feel these children are being deprived of is the one that results in them being harrassed in the park and abandoned at birth -- the one that says their disabilities make them worthless.

I only had to read the top sentence on Nikki's home page to see that she's committed to living there for a year (not 6 months, as you say).

I have some personal experience with orphanages in developing countries as I have two adopted Haitian children. Like Sarah's Covenant House, the orphanage they were in was run and financed by a US Christian group. The staff were all local Haitians. There were always 2-3 North American volunteers (like Nikki), who came, usually initially for a few months, but often ended up staying for years because they were so committed.

While in Haiti we visited the orphanage for disabled children. It happened to be a custom-built, gorgeous facility run by an American Christian group. We took some therapy supplies from Holland Bloorview.

Unfortunately, these children were unable to EVER leave the facility -- they could not be "seen" outside because they were viewed as evil spirits. Their very culture had abandoned them.

Please do not pontificate about how things should be in a fairy-tale world. I am grateful that kind-hearted people like Nikki (who is also trained to work with children with developmental disabilities and has hands-on experience with March of Dimes and Holland Bloorview) are willing to jump in to a very challenging situation -- AS IT IS -- and make a difference.

I see the joy in the pictures we shared here, and it is real.

Instead of launching criticism at the orphanage and Nikki, please ask Indians why they don't make it a priority to care for (and adopt) abandoned children -- particularly DISABLED children. The real question is why those children were allowed to languish for years all alone in their beds.



I have to admit your comment made me sad as there is so much more to the picture than what you are being critical of, and a lot of what you say is actually incorrect. Yes, I am an international volunteer living her for 1 year (at least) but I am the closest thing to a Mom they have ever had and I take that role seriously. Just as we have foster programs back home for children whose families are unable or unwilling to care for them, that is what I do and I strive to raise the kids in a family setting which has so many benefits over an institution. Like most foster care programs it is not a longterm solution and we are taking steps for the kids to be adopted. I am leaving the country for a few weeks’ vacation and then am coming back to my kids and don’t yet have a return ticket to Canada. If I felt it was hurting them, I wouldn’t be here. I live with my kids and with Indian staff; a nurse and 2 ayahs (caretakers) who play a large role in raising the kids. After having us model loving relationships, they are beginning to overcome their previous cultural stereotypes of the worth of these kids, and we are starting to see genuine relationships between the Indian staff and the kids, which is a beautiful thing.

I WISH that people like me weren’t needed. The reality is that before I got here, many of my kids lied in bed all day. Several of them have suffered brain damage from the effects of neglect and lack of stimulation in their early years. Being here, I am able to train the staff on how to work with them, and give them an example of how to love these kids and show them respect and dignity. Since I have been here, we have seen complete transformations in the kids that wouldn’t have happened if they had still been lying in bed. Yes, it will be hard on them when the time eventually comes for me to leave. I don’t doubt that. But love is better than no love. Kids need to be loved and it’s unfortunate that this is the best way to do that given these circumstances.

I wonder if you have ever been to an orphanage for children with special needs? I can’t imagine that you would make these comments if you have. Praying for more people to step up, ask questions rather than judging, and get involved in helping the kids have the best futures they can. Thanks!