Late one night, I paced back and forth at the international arrivals area of JFK Airport. I was searching for a face that was 8 years old, female and African-American. Finally, a stewardess came out pushing a wheelchair with a little girl.
"Anyeirys?" I asked.
"Yes," the stewardess answered.
I produced my passport for identification and took the child's hand. I knelt to her level, cupped her chin in my hand and gently asked, "Are you scared?" Anyeirys responded, "No. I am very brave."
My family's aim as a host family for Healing the Children Midlantic, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing donated medical care to impoverished children in the United States and abroad, was to heal this child. Her family's job was to trust us to care for what they stated was their "greatest treasure." Anyeirys came to us because the care she needed for her physical disabilities was not available to her in the Dominican Republic. She needed to have her blind eye removed and replaced by a prosthesis. Also, she was missing one of her arms and the lower half of one leg. Anyeirys needed prostheses for both limbs, and, if time allowed, repair of a small but significant facial deformity.
Our four children quickly embraced this delightful child whom they nicknamed "Angie." Like the other four children we had hosted, she came with little more than the clothes on her back and a huge amount of trust. Angie spoke no English, so we initially survived with gestures and "Spanglish." But, as had happened with the other children, Anyeirys became fluent within a few months. Everything was new and exciting to her: cars, supermarkets, swimming pools, toys and most of all, new friends. Her enthusiasm for all these things opened up a new way of looking at the world for my children.
The bonds with Angie developed quickly and deeply. She was undergoing some difficult experiences, and our family had to stretch from its usual routines to be supportive. At bedtime, one of us would read to Angie and tuck her in with a kiss sent from her family. It was a sacred time for all of us, I think, as we knew that if it were a child from our home whom we had entrusted to another anonymous family far away, we would be aching at the nighttime hour to know that our child was safe and cared for.
Weeks then months passed as we obtained Angie's care. All of us did normal family things like hanging out in the neighborhood, learning to swim, having lemonade stands and visiting relatives. Then one morning, it was time to put Angie on a plane with an off-duty flight attendant who volunteered to accompany the child home. Saying goodbye was hard, but Angie was ready to go, dressed in the fluffy white princess dress she had selected. Her face looked beautiful with her new eye and corrected nose. She wore her new leg and, for the first time, had two arms. The stewardess called me the next day when she returned to the United States. She described the scene in the Dominican Republic, where Angie's family and friends welcomed her at the airport with hugs and tears. The note back to our family from Angie's family thanked us for healing their greatest treasure. The truth is that healing was a tremendous gift to our family.
I cannot adequately describe the deeply rich experiences the children affiliated with Healing the Children Midlantic have brought to us. Make no mistake, caring for children requiring medical and surgical care is not always easy. The physical differences they present are often an adjustment for most of us. Post-surgical care can be difficult and tiring. All of this takes hard work on the part of both the host parents and the host siblings. But in return, the rewards are priceless.
Our family has hosted five children during the last ten years. My 14-year-old son turned to me last week and asked, "When can we get another child, Mom?" My children refer to these children on a daily basis. They were profoundly affected by them and their experiences here in New Jersey.
The rewards have come in many unanticipated waysó our child's pursuit of a career in healthcare, the ability to relate to people from other cultures, acceptance of people with physical disabilities, strength in dealing with a diagnosis of thyroid cancer in our child, a desire to help people less fortunate than ourselves, and an appreciation of good health and prosperity. We feel very lucky. It feels like a privilege to have been a part of healing children via Healing the Children Midlantic.