The gate closed behind me and I was free. I had finished the first of many appointments for that day. And, as I walked up the snowy sidewalk lined with trees, I thought about what had just happened.
I had been apprehensive an hour earlier. Having previously visited this psychiatric hospital on several occasions. I remembered that I always felt horrible whenever I left. My “children” live there. I had gotten to know them while they were living at their previous address: a children’s home for special needs kids. According to state law (this is post-Soviet Central Asia), anyone with a certifiable mental illness is remanded to this facility for the rest of their lives after their 18th birthday. The only alternative is if a relative were willing to accept responsibility for the special individual.
For two and a half years a team of volunteers (including my family and I) have visited the children’s home and provided friendship and assistance to them as well as the staff. Many of us volunteers found ourselves as surrogate relatives to these children…the kids call me “uncle,” “papa” and “grandpa (sometimes I’m even called “mama,”).” Many in our country don’t know that these kids even exist, as they are successfully hidden. They are not hidden in an obscure rural village, but right in the middle of a residential area in a sprawling metropolis. Most of the city seems to be clueless of their existence. “I didn’t know that Down Syndrome existed in our country,” a young lady who had earned a masters degree in the UK said to me at an awareness event. “I thought this only happened in the West,” she continued. The children are glad to have people from the outside world to come to them and listen to how they feel about life. Some of them have eyes that seemed to dance when they make contact with mine. They feel valued when we spend time with them.
When we first became involved, I realized that one day we would find ourselves following the children to the mental institute. And as I’ve already mentioned, I feel terrible whenever I leave from there.
While the children are nurtured in the “internat” (the Russian term for the children’s home), in the hospital, they are bored and drugged. I understand that adults should not be mixed with children, but agonize each time I meet these adult “kids” of mine and find them in such a sad mental state. Precious souls with whom I used to have fun conversations, now repeat over and over how bored they are. One young man always asks if I have come to bring him back to the children’s home. “I’ll be good,” he pathetically pouts from a pale complexion and eyes that no longer dance when they make contact with mine.
So on this day, I was uneasy. It had been more than half a year since my last visit, as I had been home in America for a short furlough. Some of the older girls who had helped supervise younger children at the internat had finally been sent to the hospital. One girl was 29, another 26 and another 22. These girls had been in positions of responsibility in the children’s home, but now are serving a life sentence under a mental health care system that has hardly changed since Mr. Gorbachev took down that wall.
I stepped toward the door of their ward and they saw me. “Oh Peyton!” they shouted and ran out into the corridor to hug me. Tears streamed down faces as they told me how much they missed me and the children’s home and my family. It was a bittersweet reunion, as I had last seen these “daughters” of mine in the relative freedom of the children’s home, but now they were living behind a closed door, surrounded by a closed gate and guard house, in a land with a closed system.
At first I thought I would cry with them, but their tears were both of sadness and joy. I asked how they were, and they asked about other people outside. We had a great time exchanging news and getting updated. We took photos together and had a great visit.
Before leaving I felt inspired to tell them about Joseph, Jacob’s son, and his imprisonment in Egypt. His story was one of injustice and unfairness. He was stuck in a prison, and had done nothing wrong (similar to my “kids”). “But,” I told them, “the Word of God says that the ‘Lord was with Joseph’ while he was in prison (Genesis 39:20, 21), and He is with you, too!”
I somehow caught a glimpse of God and his power there in that place. I had neither goose bumps nor visions but somehow, I could understand that this place was not devoid of His perfect presence. The girls received this word with joy, and we prayed together. I understood a tremendous sense of God’s love at that moment for my “girls,” and when I left the facility, I felt I was walking on air!
Jesus told us, in the parable of the sheep and the goats that what ever we do for the least of these, we do for him (Matthew 25:40). On this day, I felt as though Jesus, indeed, was with my dear kids in a way that I could never be! I look forward to my next visit!
“…they will call him Immanuel” —which means, “God with us (Matthew 1:23).”