Led by a child

Merging two homes for girls—one for survivors of trafficking and the other for children affected by HIV/AIDS—has not been straightforward. It’s like bringing two families together and figuring out how the new combined family members will relate. Some things have been awkward.

Yet we’ve had a vision that each of the carers would come to say, “All of these girls in this expanded home are ours,” and one factor that helped this to happen was the coming of six-year-old Ivy*, the second special needs child ever assigned to us.

Ivy’s sixth birthday meant she had aged out of the home for toddlers to which she’d been sent as an infant. Her baby photos show an emaciated orphan, mostly skin and bones—the stereotypical image of a “destitute child in need.” The staff at that home cared for this medically high-risk child for five years, doing their best. By the time she was sent to us two weeks ago, she no longer appeared malnourished (though she is still small for her age), she could walk with a wobble (she needs help on the stairs), and she could say rudimentary phrases.

But the first few days in our home, Ivy didn’t politely walk around and speak her simple words. She screamed and yelled for long spells—she didn’t want to let the carers wash her hair or help her get dressed after bathing. Clothing seemed to irritate her. “We need to get her eyes checked—we can’t make eye contact,” reported one carer. Indeed, Ivy constantly looks upward, eyes roaming back and forth. We suspect autism, though she has not been formally diagnosed.

It didn’t take long before the two main carers for the younger girls (who live upstairs) had reached the end of their rope. They called on their new teammates for help. The next time Ivy had a shouting fit, one of the women rushed up the stairs to help calm Ivy down. Later, she walked with Ivy downstairs to spend the rest of the afternoon with the older girls.

We called a partner NGO that specialises in autism, in whose online school the other special-needs girl is enrolled. Their teacher came to the home and spent a day-and-a-half observing Ivy and giving practical recommendations of how carers could adjust their communication style to better engage her. All the women on the team, upstairs and downstairs, heard these recommendations and discussed how to implement them.

By the end of her first week in the home, Ivy was settling down. She still screams, but not for very long. Women on the team have begun to detect what triggers her outbursts and can respond in ways that help her to communicate. Already our carers are saying, “She is a lovely child; I love her.” We know there will be many challenges ahead for Ivy and for us. But we all would like to learn how to better care for this special needs child, who is God’s gift to us. Our team is more cohesive than ever, and this is not something that happened in spite of the challenge of caring for Ivy; rather, it is because of Ivy’s presence in the home.

Isn’t it just like God to use a young child to draw people together? We think of Jesus, willing to be born as a helpless baby to a poor family who would one day flee as refugees. It is in this upside-down Kingdom that we are learning what it means to be led by a child.

By John May*

— names have been changed