Charity Spotlight: Fighting Human Trafficking

by Erica Moody

Innocents at Risk take annual trip to Niños de Cristo Orphanage. 

By Erin Doley

Innocents at Risk group photo (Photo courtesy of Deborah Sigmund)

Innocents at Risk group photo (Photo courtesy of Deborah Sigmund)

August 3, 2015

After weeks of fundraising and reaching out to their supporters for donations, the Innocents at Risk team was finally embarking on their annual trip to the Niños de Cristo Orphanage in the Dominican Republic. Founder Deborah Sigmund first visited the orphanage in 2009 and has been going back ever since.

“The first time I saw Niños de Cristo, I fell in love with the children and promised to come back,” Deborah says. “The founder, Sonia, told me if I bring help, she would be able to keep taking in children from the street. I have kept that promise.”

The morning of July 16, 2015, Deborah and her four interns, Hannah, Louisa, Bo and Erin, departed from Reagan National Airport with complimentary tickets from American Airlines. After a quick layover in Miami, Fla., the girls arrived at their final destination, the beautiful city of La Romana. Soon after arriving, they made their way to the Casa de Campo hotel, where they immediately began planning the visit to see the children. The girls organized the supplies and gifts they would carry with them to the orphanage the next day. During the week prior to the trip, the team had chosen and bought a gift designated for each kid. Now, with everything organized and ready, they were anxious to finally meet the children they heard so much about.

Erin Doley (Photo courtesy of Deborah Sigmund)

Erin Doley and children (Photo courtesy of Deborah Sigmund)

As the van slowed in front of the orphanage gates, the team could immediately hear the excitement of girls eager to meet them. Before arriving at Niños de Cristo that day, they had stopped at the local Jumbo to purchase snacks and drinks for the kids. As they began to carry in bags of cookies, fruit and juices through the gate, they were approached by many helpful girls, each insisting on carrying the groceries for them. After generously carrying the bags, the girls ushered the team inside the orphanage.

Situated in the heart of La Romana, Niños de Cristo houses around 150 orphaned girls, whose ages range from 1 to 18.

Guided by the young hosts, the team weaved through a sea of smiling faces to a long, open pavilion lined with picnic tables. After gathering everyone together, they opened their many bags and distributed the gifts. Items such as clothes, games, coloring books, lacrosse sticks, purses and beauty supplies were handed out one by one to each of the girls. Though the gifts were simple, everyone was greatly appreciative.

“The squeals of delight and expressions of sheer joy on their faces as they received their gifts were absolutely remarkable,” said intern Erin. “I remember one little 3-year-old in particular as she raced up to receive her new teddy bear. As soon as we gave it to her she clutched it to her chest with immediate adoration and snuggled against it.”

Innocents at Risk interns with children (Photo courtesy of Deborah Sigmund)

Innocents at Risk interns at orphanage (Photo courtesy of Deborah Sigmund)

The remainder of the day was filled dancing, games, chatting, reading and lots of laughter. Though they all talked and played together, each of the interns made special bonds with a few of the girls. Immediately after arriving, two of the orphans, Naomi and Lucia, glued themselves to Hannah. Though they did not speak the same language, the girls were content with sitting on her lap, playing with bubbles and taking selfies on her phone. Bo also made an immediate connection with an 8-year-old girl named Yeimi. Thanks to their mutual interests, the two struck up a conversation and ended up spending the rest of the day talking, painting and dancing together. “She was focused on painting in a drawing of Princess Sophia in her new coloring book and took my hand in hers to show me how to paint,” said Bo. “Her goofiness was adorable and we had a blast learning dance moves from each other.”

In what seemed like no time at all, it was time to leave. After exchanging a series of “Hasta Mañana’s” and hugs, the team was on their way, excited to return again the following day.

As the group drove back on the second and last day at Niños de Cristo, they found it hard not to feel a heavy cloud hanging over them. They didn’t want this to be the end. Pushing this feeling aside, however, they greeted their new friends and picked up right back where they had left off. As a treat for the girls, the team provided a lunch of fried chicken and french fries. The rest of the day proceeded with roller-skating, kickball, dancing and more laughter. After having a blast playing tennis, intern Louisa and Naomi spent the rest of the day together playing sports, dancing and braiding hair. “Once, when I mentioned I was thirsty after a game of kickball, Naomi seized my hand and pulled me through the orphanage to the kitchen,” said Louisa. “She took my empty water bottle and carefully filled it. While I drank, she watched me and held out to the water tub, ready to pour more. Her willingness to serve was humbling and inspiring. I felt so special and loved.”

Deborah SIgmund with Ninos De Cristo girls and basketball coach (Photo courtesy of Deborah Sigmund)

Deborah Sigmund, Niños de Cristo girls and basketball coach (Photo courtesy Deborah Sigmund)

When the time came to pack up and leave, the team reluctantly said their final goodbyes with hugs, kisses and heartfelt words. “It was heartbreaking to watch the now familiar walls of the orphanage vanish behind us as we drove away,” remembered Erin. Before returning to the hotel, the team made a stop at the boy’s orphanage, the second of the two Niños de Cristo campuses, to give them their gifts. The boys were waiting for them when they arrived and were eager to show the group their home and athletic field. Though they couldn’t stay long, the team loved spending time with the boys, who were each so welcoming and respectful. After taking a few group photos and saying a round of goodbyes, it was time to head back to Casa de Campo. For the most part, the ride back to the hotel was silent, though not for a lack of words. They each shared a quiet understanding that this time was meant for an individual reflection on the impact these last two days had left.

Throughout the visit to the orphanage, the team was continuously overwhelmed with the level of gratitude displayed by the girls at Niños de Cristo. “They appreciate all that they have because they know what it’s like to have nothing,” said Erin. Now, since finding solace at their new home, the orphans have the ability to see the world as a place of opportunity and new beginnings. They have set goals and developed career paths they previously thought were unattainable. Jordania, who is 15 years old, is practicing to be a professional boxer and recently won the 2015 National Child Boxing Championship. Dalusia, 18, aspires to be a nurse when she is older, despite a harsh background of abuse. Naomi, who wants to play professional tennis, showed the interns her impressive backhand as they played together on the court. The list of similar courageous aspirations is endless. When they do finally move on to accomplish their goals however, they never forget the orphanage that they grew up in and frequently come back to visit. This fact alone sends the strongest message. The girls, though some are now models, lawyers, and Olympic athletes, remain humble and grateful for this place and the people who raised them.

Though in different ways, the Innocents at Risk interns all benefited from meeting the Niños de Cristo orphans. “It’s ironic, really. We [came] on this mission trip with the idea that we’d be helping the children, yet it turned out that they [helped] us just as much,” reflected Louisa. The kids had shown them what it looks like to live with immeasurable joy and appreciation, and for that, they are forever grateful. Though parting on that last day was tougher than they could have imagined, the interns remain comforted by the place in which they were leaving their new friends. Niños de Cristo is a permanent home. It provides the children with a school, library, computer room and chapel to worship in. Above all, it provides them with a family that loves and supports them. There, they are free to dream, learn and appreciate all that life has to offer.

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