“Sometimes I am in awe of the life I am living. It seems, for over a decade, dominoes have been lining up to lead to the life I am now living. Yet, I am in such a different place in life than I could have ever dreamt. I went on my first mission trip to Romania as a junior in high school and nothing has ever been the same. Some kids grow up knowing what they want to do with their lives, but I didn’t. I had to cross oceans and borders for my heart to be set in motion for calling God had for me. It was in Romania I first saw true need: families that needed food, children that needed love, and a world that needed hope.
I also met this guy in Romania. We had both spent our lives growing up in the same small town, but our paths had never truly collided until we circled the world and spent two weeks serving together. It took us a bit, but five very long years later, we decided to officially give the relationship thing a try, and the rest is history. In those five years between Romania and the day we finally realized what everyone else had seen all along, we both went on our own separate journeys that would lead to more dominos. He would go to Peru and feel called to learn Spanish. I would find myself spending a summer in Guatemala, having my heart so captured a little boy living in an orphanage there my heart would never be the same.
When we said ‘I do’ seven years after we met in Romania, one thing was abundantly clear: we would spend our lives using our mutual love for Jesus, Spanish, children, and our passion for the vulnerable to make the world a better place. A year into marriage, we were able to travel to Guatemala together, and it became clear all of our training and experiences were leading us there. International adoption had been closed in Guatemala since 2008. They had a very limited foster care system at the time, and as a result, institutions were packed with children and teens that were receiving subpar care due to limited staff and resources. We strongly believe children belong and thrive in families. So, we began preparing every day to move our family to start a family-style orphan care program in Guatemala.
Our dream was set in motion three years into marriage when our firstborn was only nine-months-old. We signed with a missions agency and publicly announced our intent to move our family to Guatemala. We spent the next year traveling the country, speaking in churches, meeting with business owners, and building a team of partners for our work in Guatemala. In that year, so many dominoes were put into place: the connections we made, the training we attended, and the conversations we had. We thought all this was preparing us for the life we would build in Guatemala, but we had no idea they were just another step in the direction we were really meant to go.
A year later, in September of 2018, we boarded a plane with our 21-month-old son at our side and a new babe growing in my belly. We spent our first six months in Guatemala learning the culture, applying for residency, and gaining further mastery of the Spanish language—all of the things you do when you want to build a life in another country. Eventually, we began managing the coffee farm our children’s village would be built on and working with a lawyer to get the legal paperwork done for it.
Before we knew it, six months had passed and we returned to the States at the recommendation of my obstetrician to give birth to our second son. I’ll never forget the feeling of freedom and peace that came over me the night we pulled back into our small town. I was as if a whisper deep in my heart said, ‘You are home.’ But I wasn’t home. Guatemala was my home now, so I didn’t utter it to anyone. It was just another domino to putting our true purpose in motion. The next few months were a blur of appointments, newborn snuggles, and trying to track down birth certificates and passports so we could finally return to Guatemala as a family of four and start the work we had been preparing our whole lives for. So we thought.
When Gideon was two months old, we finally had clearance to go. We boarded a plane, filled with complete joy and anticipation to return ‘home’ and continue our work. After a long day of travel, we walked in the door to our apartment to all of the troubles of living in a third world country. The days that followed were filled to the brim with cleaning up volcanic ash, trying to get our water turned back on, grocery runs, immigration appointments, and unpacking. All of this left us little time to pay attention to our newborn’s worsening health. Having grown up near sea level, I knew very little about altitude sickness. I knew it caused people to get out of breath quicker and occasionally caused headaches when people traveled to the mountains, but I didn’t know how dangerous it could really be. Until the night of June 16th, 2018, that is. It became apparent Gideon, our two-month-old was not well and it was likely altitude related. Everything we read online stated it should resolve after a few days and if it didn’t, the only solution was to descend to a lower altitude. I spent the day in bed nursing him and letting him rest, hoping he would feel well enough for us to celebrate Father’s Day the next day.
It’s hard to forget the terror of that night. Around 1:00 a.m., things began to take a drastic turn. He had lost all color. His skin was clammy, and he was arching his back and screaming for air. After counting, we realized he was taking ninety shallow breaths per minute. Literally panting for air. We were quite literally stuck, surrounded by mountains, all of our friends in neighboring regions fast asleep. All we could do was pray and pack. We took turns holding him and packing a suitcase for him and I to catch the first flight out of Guatemala the next morning. That next morning, I walked out of the front door of my home, never to return.
In lieu of a Father’s Day celebration, my husband selflessly hugged his baby boy and put us on an airplane. When we landed in Atlanta, his breathing began to slow, giving me hope we did the right thing. Yet, I will never forget standing in the long, snail-paced customs line surrounded by boisterous and joyful vacationers recounting their leisure on tropical islands. I felt so alone and unseen in that moment. I wanted to scream, ‘This baby strapped to my chest almost died last night. Our world is falling apart. Could you please stop exchanging travel advice?’ Heading toward baggage claim, I remember telling myself, ‘You can do hard things. You can do hard things.’ I knew I would have to lug two very full suitcases, a car seat, and the baby that was still on my chest to our next destination. Little did I know, that would become my mantra over the next year.
The days that followed are a blur of the Emergency Room, pediatrician, and specialist visits. We found his blood pressure and heart rate were critically elevated even the next day. With each test run, it became increasingly more likely our original diagnosis of altitude sickness was likely. Still unsure of what that meant for our future, we waited between appointments, watching Gideon’s color return and our bouncing baby boy become more and more like himself again. Finally, a month later, the pulmonologist diagnosed him with High Altitude Pulmonary Edema, a rare but potentially fatal form of altitude sickness. The doctor reassured us we did the right thing by flying him home. We were faced with a mixture of gratitude and devastation with his diagnosis. Our baby boy was going to be okay, but our dreams of serving orphans in Guatemala were shattered.
It took months to put the pieces back together of our crumbling life. My husband, Brad, split his time between the States and Guatemala, trying to tie up loose ends and sell our belongings there. We were juggling the heartbreak of losing a life we had put so much time and preparation into with the gratitude our precious baby boy was alive and totally healthy at low altitudes. Career decisions, housing decisions, and so many other life-changing decisions weighed so heavily on us each day, still not realizing our journey to Guatemala and back was just another domino leading to the place we were meant to be.
In the midst of all of our confusion, foster care numbers in our state hit a record high, and the governor a campaign to recruit new foster families. I also remembered an idea I had while living in Guatemala. The idea detailed specifics on a ministry to support foster, adoptive, and relative placement families in our hometown. When the idea had originally come to me, I remember thinking, ‘This is great, but someone else is going to have to do it, because we live countries away.’ Little did I know, less than a year later, we would find ourselves back in our hometown looking for purpose.
We took that idea and started small. We packed duffel bags with items for local children entering foster care and offered periodic childcare nights for foster and adoptive families. It was nothing revolutionary, but it was clearly our next right thing because the doors of opportunity flew open. We immediately had churches that had partnered with us in Guatemala asking how they could get involved. Within a few months, we were making huge connections with similar nonprofits and even meeting the First Lady of our state. It quickly became evident this was no longer a grassroots project, but a nonprofit in the making.
In the spring of 2019, less than a year after we thought all was lost, Be the Village was formed. Since its inception, Be the Village has grown into a nonprofit that serves foster, adoptive, and kinship families from ten different counties in our part of Kentucky. We now have our own Resource Center, host monthly gatherings for families, and have several new programs we plan to unroll as soon as is safe and possible to do so. It is now clear all of the training and connections weren’t actually preparing us for a life in Guatemala but were preparing us to love children and families in our own backyard, and even our own home.
On a personal front, our family opened our hearts and our home to a two-month-old little girl who has been with us for seven months now. Her story is still unfolding, but it has been an honor to love her and her birth parents through foster care. I would cross oceans for this baby girl and in a way, I think I already have.
For so long, my eyes were set so firmly on the needs of the world I couldn’t see the needs of children right in front of me. It may have taken a million dominoes to get to where our family is today. So many conversations. So many experiences. So many life changes. But I wouldn’t change it for the world. We are finally right where we were meant to be, loving vulnerable children and their families both inside the walls of our home and out.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Stephanie D. Roberts from Southern Kentucky. You can follow their journey on Instagram, Facebook, and their website. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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