Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Cali, Colombia- nicest people in the world

Last week ended with meetings, meetings, and more meetings.  For those that don't know the recent history of adoptions in Colombia I will tell you 2013 and 2014 have been difficult.  So many changes occurred it was nearly impossible to keep up with all of it: the laws changing regarding the process of declaring an abandoned child an orphan, a 4 part documentary aired on national TV criticizing all facets of the adoption process, adoption entities were prohibited from receiving any sort of donations/humanitarian aid from adoptive families, and the Colombian Central Authority only allowing non-Colombian families to adopt children with "special characteristics."  Of course there were other changes, but I think those are the highlights. 

The end of last week I was able to meet the people at the National and Regional government offices who have been in the trenches working every day for the children in Colombia.  They have done their best to accommodate the process for each change and continue to advocate for children who do not have a family.  Their tireless work I think is finally about to see fruition.

Sunday I traveled to Cali to meet with the new staff at Hogar Bambi Chiquitines, but first we had a tour of Cali which is known for great dancing (salsa), beautiful women, and it's tropical weather.  I can tell you it definitely lived up to the reputation!  To say the Calenos are nice people is an understatement!  They almost put the Texas hospitality to shame.  An attorney that works with Chiquitines picked us up and took us to lunch in a little town called Ginebra.  Next we had a tour of the city and walked along the Cali River to a little restaurant right on the water.  It was very similar to the San Antonio River Walk except the restaurant was inside a hotel across a busy street.  The waiters carried all the food and drinks from the hotel, across the street, to the tables.  If you know anything about traffic in major cities in Colombia you know that every time the waiter stepped in to the street he was risking his life!  Then we went to the discoteca (dancing club).  If you are ever in Cali and you want to watch salsa dancing be warned that there is no option to sick back and watch salsa dancing.  You MUST participate!  I was having a wardrobe malfunction with my jeans and did not want to expose myself to the Calenos.  However, at one point a father and daughter who were complete strangers literally picked me up, lifted me over our table, and had me dance with them as I tried to keep my pants from falling to the ground.  Lucy Martinez just laughed and the attorney who was accompanying us told me, "Better to lose your pants dancing than to not dance at all."  Everyone I met in Cali from the attorney to the strangers in the club to the taxi drivers and waiters were so kind, friendly, so warm and welcoming, so full of life that I can not wait to go back again!  Next time I'll be ready to salsa!

Monday we headed to Hogar Bambi Chiquitines.  Gladney has worked with Fundacion Chiquitines for many years, but due to the lack of donations received after the prohibition of humanitarian aid they almost went bankrupt.  They were able to merge with another child welfare entity, Bambi, and have once again received their license for adoptions from the government.  The majority of the 102 babies, toddlers, and young children at HBC will hopefully be reunited with biological family members, but many will be declared abandoned and matched to an adoptive family.  The downside to the merger is Chiquitines was not able to maintain their birth mother program.  Roughly 20 women each year would seek shelter at Chiquitines as they made their adoption plan.  These women now have nowhere to go and are abandoning their newborn children in dumpsters and alleys.  The adoption coordinator told us they are receiving more and more infants with severe malnutrition and neglect from the hospitals.  Much like in the United States fire stations, hospitals, and police stations are "safe places" where you can take a child without being questioned, but it is not publicized and there are no signs at these safe places.  They hope to improve public knowledge about these areas so the newborn babies have a better chance of receiving medical care as soon as possible.

The meeting went very well and I am excited to continue our with the amazing staff at Chiquitines to find loving families for these amazing children.  The first step is to find families for the children that have already been declared abandoned and are ready to be adopted.  They are young children with medical special needs, older children with a history of trauma, and large siblings groups.  If you would be interested in finding out more about children available for adoption in Colombia you can request one of Gladney's free, comprehensive Adoption Information Packets. Make your request on-line or by calling 1-800-INT-ADOP.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Life after the Service Trip

It seems like a month since the Gladney group left Colombia.  The trip was so inspiring and so motivating the Gladney Colombia adoption team has been working nonstop to advocate for the precious children we met at San Mauricio as well as other children in Colombia who do not have a family.

First we celebrated July 20, Independence Day, by watching the military parade on TV and then going to Usaquen and Parque 93 to walk around and try all sorts of traditional Colombian foods.  By far my favorite was a restaurant that served all entrees made with plantains.  I had cheese wrapped in a sweet plantain with cheese sauce topped with cheese.  :)  Colombians don't celebrate their independence day quite like we do in the United States.  In fact, I was probably one of the only people dressed in my Colombia shirt with a yellow/red/blue head band.  It seemed like just another weekend for most people.

Monday was a day of rest.  Unfortunately the long days, cold weather, and lack of sleep led to a nasty cold.   I stayed in bed all day to recuperate from the previous week and to catch up on emails.

Today was back to work as normal.  I shadowed a staff person, Diana Duenas, at Casa de la Madre y el Nino all day and met more amazing children who asked me, "Is it my turn to have a family?"  Diana facilitates the Skype calls between the adoptive parents and the child(ren) before the parents travel to finalize the adoption.  The kids all want to work with Diana because they know it means they are going to have a family very soon.  It's heart breaking to see their beautiful faces and big smiles when we enter the room when I know that they have not yet been legally declared available for adoption or that they have a very difficult situation and it's unlikely they will have a family any time soon.

There were two specific sibling groups that Diana introduced me to: 2 sisters 10 and 12 and 4 siblings ages 12, 11, 8, and 5.  I have had their files for several weeks, but have not yet been able to find a family for them.   The institution has began talking about splitting the 4 siblings into two groups of two so that they have a greater chance of being adopted by two families.  The psychologist has already met with the 12 year old boy to explain the situation.  He understood that as a group of 4 they will not have a family and has agreed to the separation.  Can I tell you how my heart aches for him?  I too am from a sibling group of 4.  I'll admit there were times growing up that I wish I could have voted out one of my siblings, but I can't imagine my life without them and have no idea what I would have said if someone asked me if I would agree to be separated from them.  I agree that placing the children into two families, hopefully in the same city or at least the same state, is in their best interest so that they will all have a family, but it is still a tough decision to make.

Meeting the kids in person is very different then reading through a file.  All of the kids are intelligent, affectionate, so thoughtful, and so full of hope.  The oldest girl presented me with a birthday card they had made.  How can I go home to my big house in Texas with my reliable car, refrigerator full of food, and comfortable office at Gladney and not think about these children who have nothing but their sibling?   Of course all of the children are well cared for at the institution, but it in no way compares to having a Mom and Dad.

Have you ever considered adopting an older child or a sibling group?  Could you take a week out of your busy schedule to come to Bogota and invest your time in these children?  For more information on adoption contact Judy Hayes at Judy.Hayes@gladney.org .  For information on volunteering at Gladney contact volunteering@gladney.org

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Summary of the week by guest blogger- Beth Nichols

Preconceived notions.  We've all got them.  We carry them with us, use them to judge situations, and make decisions.
When we adopted from Colombia I had a preconceived notion that my children were Americans, because I am an American.   I didn't realize that their Colombian heritage would come home with us.   When we lived in Colombia for 7 weeks during our adoption process I traveled with preconceived notions.  I thought that becoming a parent would be my only difficulty of the trip.  I didn't know that Bogota would go from a city I feared to a city that I think about daily. 
I thought after the adoption process I'd check in once a year until our post placement visits were over.  I didn't know that 2yrs later I'd be sitting in a hotel room with our caseworker, Beth Whitacre, cutting lanyard string, preparing to head to an orphanage with a group of Gladney volunteers. After adopting I thought that my focus would only be my children.  I didn't realize that the orphans in Colombia would remain on my heart.
Preconceived notions can stop you in your tracks.  They can rob you of opportunities & huge blessings.   Please,  please let go of your preconceived notions.  Adoption is hard, but not impossible.  Traveling to a foreign country to serve people rather than go on vacation is a sacrifice, but rewarding.  Learning about another culture and embracing the language is uncomfortable, but it also opens your eyes to this world and it's beauty.

Gladney has many opportunities available to become involved: adopt, volunteer, donate, work.  What preconceived notions are stopping you from being a part of this organization?

Day 1

Saturday, Gladney babies from all across the United States, siblings, and parents were flocking to Colombia.  There was a concern when we heard the New York group wouldn’t make their connecting flight to Miami due to delays, but everyone was pleasantly surprised as their plane arrived just in time in at the gate next to their scheduled flight to Bogota.  After a day of worry and rescheduling cars, calling the hotel and almost canceling rooms, the whole group arrived late Saturday night in Bogota with all of their luggage (with the exception of a couple folks scheduled to arrive the next day and one girl who realized her passport was expired while checking in at the airport)!  The hotel was ready and prepared for the weary travelers.   Check-in went smoothly, luggage was brought up, snacks were passed out, and all the Gladney babies were tucked in.
Day 2
After a long night everyone slowly came down to the hotel breakfast.  As coffee, fresh fruit, eggs to order, and pastries were passed around everyone got their money together to exchange for Colombian currency.
Today the Gladney group headed to see the sights of Bogota.  The first stop was at the Usaquen Market for souvenir shopping.  The group got to see bartering at it’s finest as trinkets, Colombian figurines, and bracelets were picked out and bought.  Our tour guide and myself were busily moving from cart to cart with the students helping with the exchange of money and explaining that a bracelet does not cost $1,000 but 1,000 pesos (roughly 50 cents in US currency).  After souvenir shopping we headed up to Mt. Monserrate for lunch and a little more shopping.  The braver of the group tried the chocolate covered ants, or “large salty peanuts” as they were described in taste. 
After lunch we split into two groups one went on a bike tour of Bogota while the other chose to walk through the city.  Pigeons were fed, sights were seen, bikes were rode, streets were walked, and Colombia was embraced. 
After a long day of sight-seeing the group headed back to  the hotel for a quick refresh, and then we were off again for dinner at Crepes & Waffles.   When you are in Colombia this restaurant is a must, and their menu is in English!  The choices ranged from ham and cheese, to Italian, to a Mexican crepe.  Desserts were quickly to follow: caramel, fresh fruit, ice cream, and whipped cream topped the crepes and waffles.  After a great meal we took a short rainy walk back to the hotel.
In the meeting room Frank walked the group through expectations and the schedule for the week.  Introductions were made, and the theme of flexibility and patience was relayed again.  The Gladney students were split up into groups with adult leaders and went through their curriculum for the week.  Plans were made, supplies were prepared, and everyone went to bed anticipating tomorrow’s visit to San Mauricio!
Day 3
Monday morning everyone is up, ready to go.  Breakfast at the hotel, supplies in hand, everyone on time, and loaded on the bus.  In Bogota the weather can be tricky so clothing ranged from shorts to jeans, to t-shirts, and raincoats. The group was ready for anything and no matter the weather they were ready to play with the children.  As the bus pulled past the big white gate and down the driveway we were greeted by all of the children welcoming the Gladney group with smiles, big waves, and Colombian and USA flags.  As everyone unloaded from the bus we headed under the large pavilion for instructions.  Hugs were passed around, faces were remembered, and the group was welcomed back-in!  As the children were sent back to their class rooms, the Gladney group was given a tour of San Mauricio.  During the tour we were treated to coffee, saw the sleeping quarters, the baby room, the bakery, the hair salon, and the auditorium.  San Mauricio also has a computer lab and a large garden.  It is a beautiful facility that is working very hard to provide a good life for the children in their care.
After the tour the Gladney team split into our small groups and  headed into the classrooms to start “teaching”. We are split up by ages from 2yrs up to 5th grade.  The preschool classes spent their time coloring, dancing, and playing outside.  The older children classes ranged from learning about Texas history to logarithms.  The first day is always a little scattered simply due to the new people in the classrooms and the excitement. 
After a great lunch of lasagna, prepared by the San Mauricio staff, we headed outside for playtime.  All of the students were there, and that is where you see our group shine.  Children are playing tag, being pushed on the swings, fixing our hair, and playing soccer. 
Immediately following recess the children headed back to their classrooms and the Gladney group went to each classroom and the great gift of shoes began!  One by one the children were called to the front of the classroom and given a box of brand new tennis shoes by one of our Gladney travelers.  A hug for a box of shoes was the trade-off.  The older children were shyer and did not show their excitement immediately but quietly went back to their seats to awe over their shoes and carefully unwrap the precious gifts, and slowly and perfectly pull the laces through the holes.  They removed their old shoes some full of holes, others so small that their toes were crammed in, others wore ones that were big and falling off.  New shoes were slowly put on their feet, shoes that were new, fit them, and were bought specifically for them.
Next we went to the preschool classroom where all shyness is checked at the door.  As names were called squeals of delight raced through the classrooms.  The Gladney representative would take the new box of shoes and walk to the student’s desk to help get their new shoes onto their busy feet.  Every new shoe was smelled, hugged, and danced in that day.
As we headed home from day one thought of thankfulness run through our heads.  How many pairs of shoes do we have sitting in the closet at home, that fit us perfectly, that we have only worn once, that we bought without even thinking how it would affect our monthly budget.  The plight of these children and how precious our time with them is made evident our very first day.
Day 4
After our bus ride to the Institution we unload and immediately head to the classrooms.  Today the teachers and students are ready for us and ready to learn.  Subjects range from US history, to radicals, to learning how to tie shoes.  The Gladney group is remembering names and forming relationships with the children.  We are asked to hold hands, walk with them, give them a ride on our back, and given precious gifts of coloring pages.
At lunch Gladney orders pizza for the entire orphanage.  This is a big day, because pizza is a two day process at their bakery: preparing the dough, and then adding time to rise, and preparing the pizzas to eat; needless to say pizza is never made at San Mauricio.       
After lunch recess the groups split up into their classes and go to specialty classes.  One heads to the bakery to make arepas, another is off to compute class to practice typing, and one more heads to the field for physical education.  The Gladney students are going to teach kickball, but it ends up more of a mob running after the ball.  Kickball is soon forgotten and soccer, Frisbee, and jump-rope quickly take it’s place. 
Tonight we head to the Andino mall, everyone eats chicken & potatoes.  Then we head into the movie theatre to see Maleficent in 3D.  After a quick realization that we would all enjoy the movie more with 3D glasses, they are bought and passed out just in time for the movie to start.  Some things to remember when seeing a movie in Colombia: there are English movies but they will come with Spanish subtitles, seats are assigned and an usher will be there to seat you, please don’t talk during the previews going to the theater is an event not an activity every part of it is to be enjoyed.
Day 5
Today after the mornings activities at the Institution a small group of the Gladney visitors headed out for an important diplomatic meeting at the Colombian ICBF.  ICBF is the federal child welfare institute of Colombia, they advocate for the children, work with families, and are the main road for adoption.
We have a group of four adoptees, myself- Colombian adoptive mother, Gladney’s president Frank Garrott, our Colombian case worker Beth Whitacre, and our in-country lawyer and representative Lucy Martinez.  As we greeted Gloria, the sub-director of adoptions, we were ushered into an office.  In the office were professionals who work for the children there were social workers, psychologists, lawyers, and family defenders all gathered to hear our group speak.
Frank led us off with a welcome and a thank you for taking the time to speak with us. He also spoke on Colombia’s professionalism and consistency in the adoption process.  I was second and talked about bringing home a group of five Colombian children nearly two years ago.  I told them how much I appreciated each person in the room, how we keep the Colombian culture alive, and how well the children are adjusting at home.  Next up was our adult adoptee who shared her story of being able to come back and work in the orphanage, and appreciating the investment that Gladney and her parents have made in her life.
Next were our young adult adoptees.  One shared about visiting San Mauricio and realizing that that could have been her life- a life without parents, without a family, without a plan for college and a future.  The next two were a brother and sister pair.  They relayed their story of being about to stay together because of their parents willingness to adopt both of them at separate times.  They all spoke on Gladney’s behalf about their post-placement programs and service trips to engage older adoptees in getting involved with the plight of orphans around the world.
It was a beautiful moment that allowed the government workers to see the fruit of their labor, to see children and families that are flourishing after their adoption.  They said they only see the paperwork so seeing young adult and adult adoptees thriving and healthy gives them motivation to continue working tirelessly.  To see children that are now successful adults who are proud of their adoption story and proud to be Gladney babies was a highlight for all.
Day 6
The final day at the orphanage: today we headed to San Mauricio for the last time this year.  Everyone put on a brave face to make it through the morning classes, lunch, and recess.  After recess the children at San Mauricio were a buzz about a big surprise waiting for us in the auditorium.  As we filed into our seats, the music began and a group of children dressed in dark pants and white shirts began their performance.
We were treated to a full performance of singing and dancing.  Everyone’s favorite part is when one of the babies followed the group on stage and joined in the dance.  The children had worked so hard to make this special presentation for us.  They were so proud at the end when we all stood up and applauded for them.
After the performance we all headed under the pavilion for the final goodbyes.  Tears are shed by everyone.  The children know that we are headed to that far off land of the United States and the Gladney group knows that the children will remain still longing for a family.  I hope that this will be the last year that we will see a specific child. We hope that during the year they find a family and that their situation is changed for the better.  We head home as advocates for these children, ready to tell others about the beautiful children in Colombia ready and waiting for families who are open to adoption. 
Tonight at our closing meeting in the hotel silly awards are passed out, memories are shared, and a feeling of thankfulness fills the air: thankful that we have homes to go back to, family waiting for us, and happy to be a part of the Gladney family forever.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

2014 Colombia Adoptee Service Trip : Days 1-3

It's been an incredible 2 days with the Gladney Adoptee Service Trip! The first day was site seeing, shopping, and a city tour. Yesterday we were at an amazing institution with 150 kids "teaching" various subjects to kids ages 2-14 and then we gave each child a new pair of shoes .

Group Photo

Sidewalk chalk, texas and US geography, and the US flag were our subjects today. Good times!!!

The 2014 Adoptee Trip Group!

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Day 1 and 2

The first day in Bogota started with a trip to the passport office to assist a family in obtaining their 15th month old son's passport.  Then to San Mauricio to finalize details for the trip and have lunch with the staff.  Then the best part of the day.... shoe shopping!!  It's amazing to see the store manager's face when you walk in and let him know you want to purchase 150 pairs of shoes.  I've never had such amazing customer service!  Sadly the options were limited with the budget and sizes required, but we got everything we needed plus an additional 20% discount off the entire purchase!  Lucy Martinez, our legal representative in Bogota, is an amazing negotiator. 

After shoe shopping it was off to meet with another adoptive family who had just finalized the adoption of their 3 children ages 2, 3, and 4.  My goodness how 3 and 4 year old girls can talk!  Having spent years working with the families and assisting them with paperwork it's incredible to actually get to see the family in person all together.  By tomorrow both families will be on their way back to their homes in the US with their children to start the real journey!

230am the next morning Beth Nichols, Gladney adoptive mom of 5 Colombian siblings, arrived in Bogota.   She is volunteering in Bogota with the Colombia program as well as with the Service Trip.  Beth called a couple months ago because she had raised money and prepared to take time away for a mission trip to Peru which had been cancelled.  She wanted to know if there was any opportunities for her to assist Gladney abroad.  With 7 adoptive families getting ready to travel to Bogota how could we resist a volunteer who is not only knowledgeable about the adoption process, but also spent 7 weeks in Bogota for their own process!  Beth will be our Floater assisting adoptive families with their appointments as needed and in the downtime translating for our team at San Mauricio.    Have you ever considered giving up a week of your busy summer to help children around the world?  Would you like to spend time at Gladney volunteering?  If so contact Mary Ownbey at volunteering@gladney.org .

The next day Lucy was off to meetings with ICBF and Beth went to meet with an adoptive family for their embassy appointment.  It was a long day of appointments and it turns out the shoe factory didn't have the last 10 pairs of shoes so they are going around to all the stores in Bogota to find the last few.  There is no way we can let down 10 kids so today we're on a mission to get the last 10 pairs.

Tonight the team arrives at 11:30 and 11:50 which means they'll be at the hotel around 2am?  :)  It's going to be a fun morning tomorrow at 9am getting everyone up!

I'm still not able to upload photos so check back for those...

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Arriving in Colombia

The new El Dorado International Airport in Bogota is fantastic.  The signs are in both English and Spanish and the immigration process is quick and efficient.  I arrived tonight at 11:40pm and was off the plane, through immigration, and at the baggage claim waiting for my luggage by midnight.  Of course my bags were the last one off the plane, but it was still relatively quick and easy compared to DFW!  The weather is about 50-55 degrees in Bogota at night so make sure you bring a light jacket or sweater.  People looked at me like I was crazy in Dallas carrying a jacket in 100 degree weather, but it made a good pillow during the flight and was needed after leaving the airport.

For those with multiple suitcases or heavy items make sure to grab a luggage cart when you enter the baggage claim area.  They are $2 US dollars or $4,000 Colombian pesos.  Also be prepared that the immigration and customs folks don't speak English.  At immigration I was asked about my profession, purpose of my trip to Colombia, where I would be staying, and the date of my departure.  At customs I was asked why I had so many suitcases and the contents of the suitcases.  At the security checkpoint between customs and the exit (yes, they will scan ALL luggage and carry ons after customs before you exit) I was asked again about the contents of my suitcases and what types of food items I was bringing.   I guess they are not used to seeing 10 lbs of Twizzlers. 

Tomorrow the adventure starts early in the morning with Gladney staff meeting, a trip to the passport office with a Gladney family that completed their adoption yesterday, then off to purchase 160 pairs of shoes.  Buenas noches!