Sit back. This will be a long post.
Once upon a time, not very long ago, my dear friends Emma and Marc adopted a baby girl from Ethiopia. They are loving and kind and smart and they have money and great resources, both personal and material. It has always astonished me that their little girl started life under circumstances that weighed heavily against her. Ethiopia continues to be a country where infant and child mortality rates are among the highest in the world. With ongoing warfare and the AIDS plague decimating the country's resources and population, a child born in Ethiopia has pulled the short stick in life's lottery. For this little girl, that all changed when Emma and Marc became her parents, and from being one of the unluckiest children, she became one of the luckiest. Today she is healthy and beautiful and the world is at her feet.
This summer, Emma began to talk about returning to Addis Ababa to do a photo shoot at the orphanage (Emma's a top-drawer portrait photographer). Why not come with? she asked me and two other friends. We began to talk about what such a trip might entail, and then began to consider what we could take as gifts for the children of Layla House. In no time, we conceived of Bedtime Stories, an effort to take books and pajamas and toiletries to these kids. Most of these kids will be adopted into American families, and the orphanage includes English lessons in its school program. So children's books in English, along with warm pjs (at high elevation, Addis gets quite cool in the winter) are at the top of the wish list.
Last Saturday I was doing an educator appreciation event at our local B&N. While signing stock copies of The American Story afterwards, I asked the community relations manager if the store has a policy for donating books. When I explained the project, she said she could run a book drive -- that it would be the simplest thing to do and I could get as many books as I wanted. "100?" I asked, thinking about bulk and weight for our luggage.
"Done," she replied.
I came home and wrote a long email to her outlining the project in more detail, and then an amazing thing happened. She called the next day to tell me that while she was briefing members of the staff about the project, a customer overheard her and offered to buy the books, up to $500.
(You can say what you like about greedy, materialist American culture, but we're still the most generous people in the world.)
I then had the great pleasure of going to the store to select the books -- board books, counting and color books, visual dictionaries, graded readers, flash cards, picture book biographies, books about the seasons, American holidays, books about the states, books about your first day of school - and silly books, fairy tales, animal stories, books with pictures of brown children and pink children, books about puppies and soccer and trucks. I have never had an experience like it -- knowing that these books would be, for many of the children at Layla House, their first glimpse of America, the place that with a turn of Fortune's wheel, will become their home. Families in the United States are waiting to adopt these kids, but as quickly as the children at Layla House are matched with a waiting family, another infant, or toddler, or sibling group, arrives at the orphanage -- left parentless by poverty, disease, or civil disorder.
I know that we don't help the country by swooping in and taking their children. But we help the children. Perhaps when they are grown they will return to the place of their birth and do something more, something to help end war and famine and plague. Until they are ready to do that, they need good books, good food. They need good.
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