I’m pretty sure I surprised everyone I loved when I told them my plans to go to Costa Rica with a small missions team just four months after the disastrous healing and deliverance conference. But in the ensuing months, I threw myself into the goal of going on this trip. I got a passport for the first time, wrote support letters to get the funding I needed, and went to planning meetings for months prior to the trip. Our great-grandma was so opposed to Tara and me going on this trip that our great-grandpa had to sneak us a $20 bill to put toward the cost, without her knowing.
In truth, going on a trip like this was a necessary distraction for me. In last few months, I had become depressed and more insecure than ever after I’d been blamed for my own lack of physical healing. I felt like I had done nothing in my quest to live for God. Costa Rica gave me something to focus on. Costa Rica was someplace tangible that I could go, and maybe make a difference.
HAVE FAITH, WILL TRAVEL:
At first, the idea of going a mission trip was one that stopped me short. I wondered if I would even be accepted for the trip, because of my CP.
Then, I met Mike.
I still don’t remember exactly when this was, but one night, months before going to Costa Rica was even a thought, Mike came with his wife and spoke to the youth group about the children’s home they ran.
Mike was in a wheelchair.
Seeing him, and knowing he worked there every day, and had for many years, made me sure I could go there too. It was the first time I had ever seen an adult with a disability in such a distinguished position, actively helping people in another country.
It made me not have to ask the billions of questions that were usually required before I went anywhere, relating to accessibility. If Mike could get around there, if Mike could help there, I could, too. We both had manual chairs and enough upper body strength to propel ourselves. This alone was such a relief.
It also meant nobody from The Edge even questioned if I could go. Mike was my good friend Sally’s uncle. She, as the leader of Costa Rica team, had seen her uncle do all kinds of things and knew he (and therefore I) was plenty capable.
Once in Costa Rica, Mike shared his testimony with us and warned me about the steep sidewalks. When I got too close to the edge and flipped off the sidewalk into the grass one day, when Mike was just ahead of me, he simply turned and asked over his shoulder, “You okay?” sounding perfectly confident that I was.
Contrary to making me feel like Mike didn’t care, his casual reaction made me sure that disability was normal in this place. That he had likely flipped off this particular stretch of sidewalk himself before, and was none the worse for wear. Someone helped me right my chair. I got back in, and just kept going.
FAITH ON WHEELS:
Upon arriving at the children’s home, I discovered that Mike’s presence had an impact on the kids, too. The minute I got off the bus and into my wheelchair, all the kids surrounded me and were impressed that I was “like Mike”.
Right away, one school-aged child asked me what was wrong with my legs. While my Spanish language comprehension was such that I could understand most of what was said, my speaking ability was not up to par. I had no idea how to explain to an eight year old in Spanish what Cerebral Palsy was and how it affected me.
I looked to Sally (more fluent after taking long-term trips to Costa Rica herself) for some help. Approaching the little girl, Sally said honestly in Spanish, “I don’t know how to explain it well. It just is. But it’s not a problem for her,” which the child accepted and we moved on.
The first few days, I was given food preparation or household construction jobs, which I attempted, but was not great at. Eventually, I found my niche with the kids. My wheelchair was a child-magnet. Some liked to push me in it. Some liked to play peek-a-boo from behind it. Some liked to stand on my foot pedals while I held onto them and someone else pushed us slowly around the room. Once or twice, I got out of my chair in front of the kids to be on their level.
I still remember vividly an afternoon like this, when I was playing on the floor with some kids. Sally was nearby, and we both heard a boy use a Spanish word we were unfamiliar with, while looking at me. I could tell by the expression on her face that she and I were both thinking the same thing: that this kid had just used some kind of Spanish ableist slur against me.
Sally pressed him to explain: “What is gatear?” she asked in Spanish, her tone serious.
He mimed crawling.
“Ella gatea como Nico.”
“She crawls like Nico.”
Not a slur. Not even close. Because these kids grew up around disability.
In addition to Mike, there was also a five-year-old boy, Nico, who was disabled as well. I had seen him from a distance working with therapists on walking and other physical activities. Though it was evident that Nico needed adaptive equipment of some sort to move around more freely, he did not currently have any, so he was largely dependent on adults to help him move place to place. Otherwise, as the previous child observed, Nico crawled.
It was one of my last days there, when I got the chance to connect with Nico. Many of the other kids were outside playing active games on the grass, so I came inside one of the houses to see if there were any kids who had stayed indoors.
I spotted Nico, in a crib against one wall. It was a startling thing to see: this tall, lanky five-year-old in a crib like a baby. It was too small for him. But I rationalized at the time that perhaps he was resting, and if so, he would not have been safe in a bed.
I could see he was not asleep, though, and he didn’t seem particularly tired, so I approached him and started talking.
“Hey,” I greeted in Spanish. “How are you?”
Nico smiled. It was definitely his best feature. Broad and dimpled, complete with missing teeth.
“Do you want to see what I have?” I asked, trying in vain to think of what I could say to him vocabulary-wise. I was not unsure of his comprehension, but again, of my own Spanish-speaking ability. The other kids loved it when I showed them what I had with me in my fanny pack, especially the picture of my youngest brother, who was just Nico’s age.
We exhausted that option fast, but I recovered quickly. “Do you like my hat?” I asked.
It was nothing special. Just a tan baseball cap from Old Navy with an American flag in lieu of a sports logo. I’d had it for around a year, and even though I had only been in Costa Rica for a week, the hat was already marked by reddish Costa Rican dirt and little fingerprints from the kids, who loved trying it on.
In response, Nico pulled himself up to stand, holding onto the crib railing. Then, he grinned at me again.
He was dressed in a school uniform: a pale blue dress shirt with a collar, black dress shorts, socks and dress shoes. In my hat, I felt sure, he would be even cuter. So I took it off, and put it on his head, smiling. “Do you like it?” I asked. “You look very nice in it.”
Reaching up with one hand, still using the other to balance, Nico took my hat off his head, and threw it on the ground.
“Oh no!” I exclaimed, with a smile.
Nico laughed uproariously, thrilled at the game he had created.
“Where did my hat go? Here it is!” I said, picking it up and putting it back on myself.
The next thing I know, Nico was reaching for it. I learned forward and ducked out of the hat. Then, he tossed it on the floor again. Laughed again.
Over and over, we did this. Nico even started mimicking the way I said “Oh no!” when my hat would sail through the air. It reminded me of something my own brother would have done.
Our disabilities were not something we ignored. We obviously had them. Mine meant I was not able to lift Nico out of the crib, for example, but had to wait for someone else to help us. His disability meant that he had been at the children’s home for much longer than any of the other kids, because no Costa Rican family, as yet, was prepared to adopt him - and out of country adoptions were not an option there. For both of us, they meant that we stayed inside while all the kids played soccer.
But if everyone in a room is disabled, then no one is.
We had so much fun.
Later, one of the aunts (as the house mothers were called) lifted Nico out of the crib and he crawled over to my wheelchair. I put the brakes on so it would remain steady, and he used the wheel to pull himself up to stand, and smiled at me.
A few days after that, we had to leave. We stopped by the houses to say goodbye to the kids, but Nico was not there. He was often on a different schedule than the other children so it was not unheard of that he would not be where they were. Still, my heart broke that I would not be able to say goodbye to him.
On the bus as we rode to the airport, I could not contain my sadness. Most kids, I knew, were able to reunite with their birth families, or be adopted somewhere between six months and a year’s time. Nico had already exceeded the average child’s stay by two and a half times. I knew, being disabled, Nico would likely remain at the children’s home for a very long time. I hated that Nico’s disability was the reason he’d been there for so long. I hated that he was so largely separated from the other kids. That he had to suffer the indignity of being in a crib too small for him in the middle of the day, when all the other children were outside playing.
He would be loved, I knew that. But it would not be the same as having a family.
How fair was it that this great kid would probably never have a home? Would never be wanted?
The truth was, I wanted him. I wanted him very much, and though I was only nineteen years old, I naively felt that because I knew Spanish I could keep his culture alive for him. In my heart, I knew that being disabled myself would not be a hindrance, it would be a help. Because I could teach Nico how to adapt. I could show him that being disabled was okay, even though the world still told me regularly that it was not okay. I would make it so for this boy.
My desires and hopes to adopt Nico myself were futile and I knew that. Costa Rican laws were very clear. I had to leave, and leave Nico, but a piece of my heart remained behind.
FAITH FOR A FAMILY:
It’s been fifteen years since I have rolled on Costa Rican soil. Since I have experienced the intense humidity, the rain every afternoon, the inky black nights, the breathtaking mountains and sunsets. Since I have seen Nico.
But every so often, over the years, I have gotten an email from Mike and his wife, letting me know the latest news on their family, the children’s home, and the children who live there. All of the ones I got to know moved on quickly after we left, but Nico remained. And every so often we got an update on him:
At seven, he got a walker.
At thirteen, he had developed quite a work ethic and claimed cleaning one of the play houses as “his job.”
And two years ago, the best news yet, that I had dared not get my hopes up for but had not abandoned either: at eighteen, Nico had been adopted. He had a family.
FAITH IN MY COMMUNITY:
It’s difficult to articulate just how powerful it is to have had the opportunity to not only travel overseas, but to serve alongside and spend time with people who were like me. To not be the only one who was different. For the kids and the adults to have a context for disability, to understand that it was not a bad thing, just something to consider.
There is something so amazing about having a role model. Mike was that for me in Costa Rica. His voice had just much weight as his wife’s voice. We respected them equally.
And Nico’s presence was just as important. To be able to be there and spend time with a child like I had once been. To spend time with a kid who never even cared about the wheelchair or why I had it or admonished other kids to “be careful” when they pushed me. He just wanted to play.
My time in Costa Rica remains one of a few shining examples of faith and disability existing in an easy, respectful harmony.
I loved my experience there so much.
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