Sunday, July 12, 2009


It’s near the end of another Lighthouse Project trip; we’re in Rolla, Missouri, this time, a town I’ve passed through driving I-44 toward Tulsa, Oklahoma, to plan and coordinate my trips there. It’s small town America, memorable only since I love Rolo candy, so if you’d told me my last time through that next time I’d stay a week to help a new coordinator run her first trip, I’d have found the claim dubious, at best.

When Elaine first wrote to me asking about running a trip to Rolla, it was on the heels of my January Tulsa trip. I’d just arrived home and was recovering from the almost unspeakably exhausting task of coordinating a trip, so I begged out of calling her right away. Not to worry, she said. She’d just gotten home five days earlier with her new twelve-year-old daughter from China and was recovering herself. I was on alert that Elaine was either very naïve about the rigors of running a trip, or else she was strangely ambitious, maybe had a Wonder Woman suit under her clothes.

Elaine was the first potential coordinator I didn’t manage to scare off with my description of the grueling task of coordinating. Through hours and hours and hours of conversations, we discussed how to present the project to callers, the merits of every potential host family, where children should go, everything I’d found that worked and didn’t, running Vacation Bible School, producing the evening program, how to promote the kids while they were in town, how to entertain the translator and chaperone, where to buy Russian Bibles, how to troubleshoot a palette of problems, and myriad other subjects too numerous to count. Elaine listened, understood, and followed through with aplomb. The truth is she doesn’t have a Wonder Woman suit; she’s got a whole closetful.

It wasn’t her fault I left one part off.

I didn’t tell her about the impotence she’d feel as the trip sputters toward its conclusion and there are kids left for whom a draining of her mental resources is insufficient to finding families. I neglected to tell her how she’d feel when she’d done everything, absolutely everything she could think of, and the world keeps turning and nobody notices that a few kids have been on a wild goose chase halfway around the globe. I didn’t say that if you’re conscientious, you’ll ask yourself a thousand times what you could have done but didn’t, what stone you left unturned, that sends a child back to the orphanage thinking there is no one, in Russia or America, who wants to be mom or dad. She didn’t hear that when you finally assuage your conscience realizing you did everything you reasonably could, and then some, resultant comfort is minced since it hardly matters to a still-motherless waif who depended on you without their even knowing it. And the most deflating epiphany might come at the end if families you thought were committed back out later, leaving you no time to further mine the nooks and crannies of resourcefulness.

The secret is out tonight. When Elaine left this evening, she told me to call her if I came up with any brilliant ideas, but her phone’s not ringing. There are three children for whom there is no one; worse, one child is on his second trip. It’s not for lack of spreading the word or praying; Elaine’s been on the radio, sent out a crazy number of press releases, sent 300 letters to churches, made roadside signs advertising the evening program, contacted homeschool groups, offered free housing to out-of-staters to entice them to host a child, and talked herself hoarse. Three kids wait, oblivious to, and unaided by, the efforts expended on their behalves.

Ten-year-old Vasily has the freckles I fall for. Most kids, the first time they meet you, ignore your attempt at basic Russian pleasantries. Not Vasily. My butchered “Preveyet, Vasily! Kak dela?” was met with a hearty “Haroshow!” and outstretched hand for shaking. Freckles? Check. Fun-loving? Check. Friendly? Another check. Vasily’s my favorite child on the trip, but I’m left lamenting that my enthusiasm was less than contagious.

Unobtrusive Vladimir, ten, is Vasily’s polar opposite. Vladimir bowed his head and cried during the question and answer segment of the evening program when he got a question about his visit to the local fire station. He didn’t have a parent to engulf him in a reassuring hug and help him through his shyness. When the trip is over, it appears he still won’t.

Most distressingly, Andrei, age 13, a two-trip alumni, must face his friends in the knowledge that visits to two states were not enough to find someone who wanted him. He still has his glasses from the first trip and wears them religiously, even though it’s not cool, so he’s earning better grades in school. The cynic within me tonight taunts me, saying scholastic improvement is irrelevant, since it looks as if no parent will ever see his report card.

It’s God’s program and the results are His. Elaine knows that. I know that. We’ll take comfort in that later when the kids are gone and there is truly nothing else we can do. But right here, right now, the kids still hope and they still have a chance. Watching the clock tick down toward Monday morning’s departure, we think we should do something. Just what is less clear. And when you’ve done everything you can think of and it’s still not enough, feeling impotent comes naturally.

So I’m sorry, Elaine, that I didn’t tell you the greater the effort, the greater the letdown when that effort is still insufficient. But I’m even sorrier for the kids who will go back, wondering what’s wrong with them, having met so many people, but not one parent.