As the director of a Children’s Cross Connection-affiliated orphanage in the village of Soddo, Ethiopia, South Africa-born Stephne Bowers has made it her mission to provide an environment that is as wholesome and welcoming as possible.
The traumatized children who come under her wing already have experienced more than their fair share of pain and unpredictability. The circumstances that bring them to the orphanage vary but three criteria must apply: they are fully orphaned (both parents are dead), they are “half-orphaned” (at least one parent is dead and the other is incapable of providing care) or they have been abandoned.
There were 52 children — more than double the ideal capacity — living at the orphanage when I visited it with Paradise Valley couple Brian and Keri deGuzman earlier this month.
Most adoptive parents are discouraged from attempting to visit the village orphanages, which is a complicated subject I will reserve for a later day. Suffice it to say that a lack of cultural sensitivity from visiting families often leads to situations that are more harmful than helpful to the overall well-being and adoption hopes of Ethiopia’s estimated six million orphaned children. Children who have been referred for adoption are always transferred to foster homes in the capital city of Addis Ababa while they await unification with their adoptive families. The families typically stay in Addis only long enough to obtain the visas they need to bring their children home.
Our situation was different. Keri deGuzman recently was named to the board of directors for Christian World Foundation, a North Carolina-based, non-profit organization that raises funds to provide humanitarian aid to children in Ethiopia and around the world. Some of the outreach Stephne conducts — including a local, self-sustainable project to provide nutrition-dense MITTIN to local children and families — are supported by CWF fundraising. So Keri had a legitimate interest in observing operations there.
Our visit also was personal: Stephne and Keri have become close friends during the three-and-a-half years the deGuzmans have been making trips to Ethiopia. This was a chance for Keri and Brian to spend time with Stephne in her Soddo home for the first time.
The Bowers home is an oasis of calm, located at the back of a mission compound that includes a hospital and the Eye Care Center that Stephne’s husband, optometrist Harry Bowers, runs in Soddo. It is located in an abundantly verdant area far from the rutted, unpaved street and protected by a guarded wall and gate.
The cottage is charming and immaculate; in a previous life, Stephne worked in interior design and her home reflects both the artistic, tasteful approach of that training and the modest tidiness befitting a missionary family.
It is important to Stephne to maintain a beautiful, welcoming home. Everything else about her life is completely overwhelming. It’s all too big — the enormity of the need, the frustrating lack of control over environmental, cultural and governmental challenges, the devastating stories of so many children she cannot help constantly diminishing the successes stories of those she can.
Most of us lack the courage, or fortitude, to live in her world. Brian deGuzman, a cardiac surgeon at St. Joseph’s Hospital & Medical Center in Phoenix, willingly admits he couldn’t do it. That’s why he and Keri have committed so much of their energy, and money, to supporting the work of people, like Stephne and Harry, who can.
Gaining strength through reflection and prayer, families like these manage to get up each day and face it all again, hoping to make an incremental difference in the lives of so many desperately poor and disadvantaged people.
For Stephne, there is comfort and hope in maintaining a pleasant, predictable home for her family — and for the orphans in her care.
Tomorrow: Photos from the orphanage in Soddo.