Next month marks five years since our firstborn girl broke into the world on a quiet December evening, turning our lives upside down in the best way possible. Snow fell softly outside the hospital room window but the cold winter air seemed to warm that day, expanding my heart. Five years of fitful sleep, skyscraping highs and soul-crushing lows from a depth of love and vulnerability I never knew possible.
Ava is brave, thoughtful, smart, creative and compassionate – a tender heart that gives and cares and loves with every fiber of her being.
Two years later and her best friend, constant playmate and partner-in-crime is her 3-year old brother, Levi. They create imaginary worlds together where they are puppies and superheroes and usually the best of friends. Everyone needs a sidekick and Levi is just that. Together, they take on the world rescuing and reaching and exploring as they grow and learn what it means to have each other’s back.
“Sissy loves you, Levi. You’re my best friend. Do you love sissy?,” I hear Ava tenderly ask her brother from the backseat. I steal a glance in the rearview mirror and see Levi smile and nod at his sister locking eyes with her as she reaches to hold his hand. They sit side-by-side in their car seats hands clasped all the way home.
Later that day while Levi naps, Ava creates an elaborate birthday card for him, scrawling You are a star across the top in blue marker. Thirty minutes later, the table is littered with construction paper and glitter. Ava is finished and beaming with pride.
“Levi will love it,” she says emphatically. “Did you see that I used his favorite color, mom?”
Soon, a bedroom door creeks open and tiny toddler feet shuffle down the steps. Levi emerges in blue striped pajamas, with a sleepy smile and messy blonde hair, matted and damp from being nestled under his dinosaur comforter.
“Levi, Levi, look what sissy made for you,” Ava announces, proudly handing him her masterpiece. “See, Levi, it says you’re a star!”
Levi’s face lights up and he gives her a hug, before running off with his drawing. He is filled with joy, soaring from the kindness of his doting sister – the one person who has the power to make him cry or laugh in an instant.
“He’s such a good boy,” Ava remarks before running upstairs to help Levi tape her creation to his bedroom wall. Ava truly is her brother’s keeper.
Two months later and Levi’s birthday has come and gone, but Ava’s card still hangs squarely on the wall by Levi’s bed – a daily reminder that despite sibling squabbles and unkind words, their hearts are seared together by a fierce, forever kind of love. In Ava’s eyes, Levi is a star. And sometimes, having one person who believes in you is enough.
My mind wanders to kids without a typical family to speak love into their heart – kids like Alexia and Alexis, a brother and sister who have lived at Douglas Children’s Home in Mexico for as long as they can remember. Their bond reminds me of Ava and Levi, but unlike my duo, Alexia and Alexis live at an orphanage, along with two other siblings. My heart is tempted to despair as I compare their circumstances to that of my own kids. I desperately want for the Alexia and Alexis to feel the sense of belonging that I try to cultivate for our family.
Instead, a team of committed caregivers, devoted staff and a child sponsor stand in the gap, singing words of love and affirmation over them. It’s not perfect. Some days are harder than others, but God’s kindness rains down on Alexia and Alexis through the compassion of their house parents, Marlen and Daniel and Sarahi and Emmanuel. The couples serve as caretakers for the siblings and other children who live together in a family-style home on the campus. They pray for them, check their homework, read bedtime stories and encourage them when they are sad.
Over family-style dinners, Alexia recounts stories from recess and Alexis proudly announces that he aced his math test. Their house parents beam with pride and together, they celebrate as a family with banana smoothies. That night, before Alexis crawls into bed, he carefully slides a handwritten letter from his child sponsor out of the bottom drawer of his bedside table where it’s tucked away for safekeeping. He re-reads the last paragraph of the letter from his sponsor, words he has read and re-read so many times he has begun to believe them:
You were made for greatness, Alexis. You are precious to God and to our family. We love you so much.
Without a doubt, Alexis and Alexia know they are treasured by a chorus of people who believe in them – caregivers who have become like family and sponsors who feel like aunts and uncles. Most of all, they are each other’s keeper.
Regardless of what family looks like, all kids want and need the same thing – someone who believes in them enough to stand on the sidelines and cheer them on as they face challenges and embrace change. And for Ava and Levi and Alexis and Alexia, God is providing that in unexpected ways.