Location: Beijing

It is always hard to say goodbye. Excitement over reuniting with your family, your friends, is only clouded by sadness over leaving this family, these friends. Coming on this trip, I thought I would be greeted by overwhelming weakness and frailty, but instead, I found extraordinary strength and courage. The great work ethic of the Ayis (nurses). The courage of the Johnson family. The bravery of the Lifeworks students. But most surprisingly the indescribable and incomprehensible strength of the China Little Flower children.

Today, all the students had a double service day where they could say goodbye to the children. In the morning we all went to the baby home. When we walked in the toddlers were anxiously waiting for us. A young boy that sits in a rocker all day was thrilled to see Aidana. His entire face lit up, and throughout the entire morning, he continued to look for her. Even just having the privilege to witness the love of a toddler as he searches for his playmate is an incredible sight. Susan was moving from child to child with ease, making a point to play with each toddler. By the time we were leaving she had shared a couple of minutes with every toddler. I admire her ability to share her love equally and making sure every child feel loved.

Upstairs with the babies, Hannah was moving from room to room searching for the places she is most needed. She walks into each room, ready for every situation with a smile on her face. I think to offer her time, making the Ayis’ jobs a little easier, and making a child feel loved, is what Hannah loves most. At one point she joined Eloise and me in baby room #1. She calmed a crying baby as I played with a baby and Eloise was rocking another child to sleep. Eloise somehow managed to rock a few children to sleep, maintain a meaningful conversation with me, and take photographs to capture all the moments. Eloise had a way of making everyone in the room feel special, whether they were a child or a fellow student or an Ayi. She always made an effort to talk with everyone in the room, without ever taking her eyes off the babies. Her friendly nature was always evident. On several occasions, Eloise’s brother, Hadrien, walked in to visit his sister. As this trip progressed, Hadrien not only shared his brotherly love with Eloise, but he made all the students on the trip feel like family. He cared for the babies at China Little Flower as if they were related to him. He hugged each child a little tighter, wanting to protect them the way he protects his sister. Similar to Hadrien’s family-oriented perspective on life, Emily was the one who connected the entire group. If she even sensed sadness, she would go over to a child or a fellow student and comfort them. She would hold a baby for hours upon hours to see that baby smile. When you were in a similar situation or bought a similar gift for someone back home, she came up and always bonded with you over it. Many times I had to remind myself that she wasn’t my sister, even though I wished she was. Throughout the trip, Lexi maintained incredible strength, taking on the role of caring for the toughest babies. For a while I watched children kick, and wail and students were afraid to go over, but Lexi walked over, accepting the challenge. Not only would the child stop crying, but I even saw smiles emerge on most of their faces from her funny, happy, amazing personality. At the end of the day, as her eyes watered up, you could see how deep her love went for these children. She knew each child as a person, as someone with a future, as a someone who would always have a piece of her heart.

Our chefs of the day were Thomas and Dan, who made a delicious spaghetti dish. When we all got home, they genuinely wanted to hear about our day. Dan always the funny one, never missed an opportunity to make a joke. And Thomas was always ready to break out in a song if the opportunity presented itself. He eagerly waited for someone to say a line that was also a song lyric, but if that didn’t happen, he would still find a way to start a sing-a-long. The other night at the closing ceremony, Thomas performed the most amazing song that he had written. It brought tears to everyone’s eyes. It was always fun being around these two men. After we enjoyed our lunch, it was time for one of the members of our family to leave. We all had to say goodbye to Oliver, a greatly loved member of our group. Although he maintained strong political views, he was one of the sweetest people I have ever met. It was really hard for all of us to say goodbye because then it was real. The trip was ending, and no matter how hard we tried to stop time, the clock kept moving. Oliver leaving symbolized the end of the trip and it broke our hearts to realize this trip was coming to an end. Aubrey, wanting to capture every moment, did not miss this Kodak moment. It was difficult to get everyone in the picture, but Aubrey is very smart, so she made it happen. And that was it — the last group photo. The trip was over. In the afternoon, we went to the group home. The dynamics of the group had already changed without Oliver. The group was considerably quieter and missing Oliver was probably the conversation for the rest of the day. But now we had to say goodbye to all the group home kids, which began to consume our thoughts. For most of the afternoon, Nicki spent her time with Max, the oldest group home kid, who helped out with our trip. Nicki had a way of making him feel special and treating him like a really good friend.

Laughter was always radiating from that corner of the room. It sounded like so much fun that everyone wanted to join Max and find out all the jokes that Nicki was sharing. She makes everyone feel important and that they are her favorite. Being Nicki’s friend was a gift to yourself because she made everyone feel amazing. At the table, Grace was commanding a UNO game between a couple of the group home kids. All the children were laughing and wanting to play a million games. No matter the score, Grace made all the children feel like a winner. She had a way of making them smile while playing, even if they had a million cards in their hand. Across from her, Elise was making a 12-year-old feel amazing. She was joking with him, making him feel like the most important person in the room. Usually a rowdy kid, he seemed to want to prove to Elise how well behaved he could be. Everyone was trying to make Elise smile, by making pictures for her or small art projects. Her gratitude was so overwhelming that she made all the children smile in return. Soon after Alexa came in and helped Hannah organize a cake party provided by the generosity of Aidana. Alexa’s heart is so big that she wanted to make sure everyone was well cared for. She genuinely cared for every single child, knowing every single person by name. She is always overwhelming with love and I think it gave her the greatest joy to share her love with everyone. Every day, I think she was an inspiration to everyone. She was definitely a role model for me; I constantly found myself looking up to her, admiring her welcoming and positive attitude. At all moments she was ready to comfort you or tell you a funny story. We started this trip with 13 kids and 3 staff with totally different backgrounds and from totally different places, but we ended this trip as a family, as one unit, who went through one experience together. And for the rest of our life, we will share that background.

This service trip has definitely opened my eyes to what it means to be an orphan. I use to believe that abandoning your child was the most selfish act a mother could do, but now I have realized how selfless that really is. Many mothers live in rural areas without adequate medical facilities, therefore they believe it would be better to send their child to an orphanage in hope of their child’s survival. After hearing this, my heart was moved. My sympathy went out to these women. But today when I held onto a child that I have gotten close to over the past couple of weeks, I actually experienced a glimpse of the reality of goodbye. He had a heart defect and a cleft palate. His clef palate expanded his mouth but it was not unattractive. His smile was just that much wider; his laugh that much bigger. As I looked into his milky brown eyes, I wondered about his future. I just kept repeating, “one day you will have a forever family who loves you even more than I do.” I wondered, will he go to school? College? Will his heart ever be fixed? If I love him enough, will I make his heart whole? I thought to myself, “Am I holding a hero?” But that one I knew the answer to. He was. He hadn’t pulled anyone out of a burning building. He had never given CPR. But in my arms was a miracle, an inspiration, and the ultimate example of perseverance. And to me that makes him a hero. Coming on this trip I expected to do charity work and give myself a pat on the back, but I gained so much more. My perspective is forever changed and part of my heart will always remain at China Little Flower. While holding onto that child, I realized I only was witnessing the first chapter of his life, but I also realized that as Lifeworks students, when we return, we have to start a new chapter of our lives. A chapter where we spread the word about China Little Flower and maybe through that someday we too can become heroes.