The journey that changed my life
by Alexa Dantzler
Exactly one year ago, my parents told me news that forever changed my life. One evening, my parents gathered us in the living room. We called our oldest sister, Dana, at college. And then my dad said, with a grand smile on his face, “Girls, your mother and I have decided to begin the adoption process of a little boy, in an age range between 4 and 7, from Ethiopia. We know you have always wanted a little brother. Now, the opportunity has presented itself to us.” After hearing this, it seemed as though our living room turned into a water park – we all broke into tears.
I was so overcome with joy and excitement that I could barely sleep that night. I prayed, asking God and St. Charles – the patron saint of orphans and adoption – to please watch over our adoption process and let it progress quickly. From that night on, I prayed every night for my brother’s health and spirit.
In June, we were matched with our little man, Berhanu. He was four years old and looked so adorable that I wanted to just take him out of the photo, hug and squeeze him. It was so exciting to hear my dad read Berhanu’s monthly health and social assessments, and see updated pictures of him. Finally, one afternoon, my dad called us. It was early December. He told us that we should start packing our bags – on Christmas day, we would pick up our “little prince” in Ethiopia!
All of a sudden, it was December 23rd. I was more than ready to take off for Ethiopia! We arrived in the capital city of Addis Ababa on Christmas Day, which was actually night in Ethiopia. When I stepped out of the airport and into the night air, I sensed a feeling of returning home, as though I just belonged in Ethiopia. In bed that night, I still couldn’t believe we were finally there, and that my brother was sleeping peacefully right next door in the Addis Ababa transition center.
The next morning, we were ready to meet our little man.
At the Holt Ethiopia headquarters, a wonderful Holt staff member named Tawabech Mengista advised us on what to expect the first time we met Berhanu. She said he might not run up and hug and kiss us as we imagined. All children greet and accept their new families differently, she explained. Then, after a brief overview of the Ethiopia’s history, she taught us some commonly used Amharic words. Everyone in our group tried saying the word for ‘thank you’ – amesegenallo – and we all chuckled as we pronounced it. It was a mouthful, but with some practice, she said, we would get it. And we did!
At last, the moment we had all been waiting for finally arrived. We walked up the stairs, our hearts racing with excitement. As I walked in, I was awestruck by the bright, colorful building where my little brother had lived for the past six months. We walked into a room where two rows of mostly older children sat, looking adorable in their traditional Ethiopian clothes. Upon entering, I felt a great sense of love and care had been given to these children by the spectacular Holt Ethiopia staff.
Then we spotted our boy! Once he saw our five faces, which he recognized from the scrapbook I made him, his face lit up. As if he and my dad were magnets, Berhanu instantly rose from his little plastic chair and ran into my dad’s arms. Hearing the news that we would adopt was tear-jerking enough; but that moment couldn’t compare to the tears created by this miraculous union. It wasn’t quite planned for him to get out of his chair as we walked in, as the children would later be formally presented to the families; I suppose Berhanu just couldn’t contain his excitement!
We gave him numerous kisses and hugs, and held him in our arms. Everything just felt so right.
The next day, we traveled to the Kambata-Tambaro zone in southern Ethiopia. Here, we would visit the Holt Durame in-take center, where all of the children come into care before moving to the transition center. I could never have imagined how this day trip would change my life forever.
Since the sixth grade, I’ve dreamed of becoming a doctor in developing countries, a journey I’ve begun by volunteering at Medical Missionaries in my hometown of Manassas, VA – an organization that sends donated medical supplies to serve the poor in such countries as Ethiopia. After this day trip to southern Ethiopia, I realized this is where I truly belong. I have always been deeply saddened by the world’s great poverty. And helping others is definitely my passion in life. I was in shock when I saw the immense poverty in Ethiopia, and the help terribly needed there.
As we were driving to the hotel the first night in Ethiopia, I saw a little boy sitting on the side of the road in tattered clothes. He was parentless and homeless. In a van right next to him, I sat, brokenhearted. It tore me apart to see this child in such a miserable state. But I couldn’t have anticipated that first night how many more children l would see on my journey – children in far worse circumstances.
On the six-hour drive south that second day in Ethiopia, we frequently stopped on the side of the road to stretch our legs. This was by far one of my favorite parts of the trip; at most stops, kids came running up to us, bombarding us with hugs and smiles.
At one stop, I was hugging several toddlers when I realized, I have to do something for these children. I wish I’d brought all the food from our pantry at home to give these kids. I wished I could run over to Target and buy them shoes and a clean set of clothes. But I could not. I felt absolutely hopeless. I could not do anything for them, and it hurt inside to realize this. So I acted on impulse. I walked over to a group of toddlers and wiped their runny noses. Everyone, the toddlers included, thought I was a little crazy. But amid so much desperate need, what could I do? I felt a natural instinct and urge to help them, even by the simple act of wiping a runny nose.
I knew that this was the beginning of my lifelong journey to serve the poor.
Next, we visited the Shinshicho clinic, which Holt donated to the rural town of Shinschico. I was so impressed by the fact that the clinic serves more than 250,000 residents of the surrounding area. My dad and I talked to the Ethiopian doctor, and he said that many American doctors periodically come to the clinic to help out and show them new medical techniques and procedures. My dad told him that I wanted to be a doctor and come back to Ethiopia to practice. The doctor said I could do this once I’m in medical school!
That night we stayed at the hotel in Durame. During the night, I woke up with horrible stomach pains. It was raining hard outside, the room was damp and cold, the bed was hard, and I was miserable. But I looked out my window and knew for certain that there had to be someone out there who was suffering greater than I was that night. So I prayed through the night for those out in the rain and cold, suffering from something far worse than the flu. In the morning, I still felt awful. As I was getting into the van to leave, I started to get sick and ran to the side of the road. I looked up and saw two little boys in ragged, muddy clothes. They had such concern on their sweet faces. I wanted so badly to tell them that I was okay. On the bumpy road back to the city, I kept getting sick in the car. With the Holt doctors and staff at my side, I felt as though I had 20 mothers and fathers caring for me. Throughout the entire day, I kept reminding myself of the suffering in Ethiopia and how blessed I am to have such caring people around me. By the end of the day, I felt much better.
Our trip ended way too soon. Ethiopia is the most amazing place I have ever been. Love is everywhere: in the streets, in the Holt centers, in everyone. It was truly hard saying goodbye to the wonderful Holt staff and the other precious children at the transition center.
In a mad dash and scramble at the airport, we did not have the chance to say goodbye to everyone, including my favorite driver, Segal. As we entered customs, I started crying my eyes out. I could not stand the fact that we had to leave Ethiopia, the country I fell in love with. This country changed my life. We were blessed with the opportunity to adopt Berhanu and finally bring him home with us. But this trip made me realize the great need of this world. Ethiopia represents just a fraction of that great poverty.
Now home with a new little brother, life is very different. The energy is constant. We have enjoyed making so many new memories with Berhanu in the last four months. I’ve watched him change and grow as well, as he learns English, attends school, and thrives in our family. He is such a happy little boy. And we are so happy and blessed to have Berhanu, and each other, in our lives.
So, I want to say amesegenallo to many people. I want to say a grand amesegenallo to the Holt staff for their compassionate care for these children. Even though waiting for Berhanu was tough at times, we knew the Holt staff were doing their absolute best processing the adoption papers to find permanent, loving families for the children. I am also so grateful for our well-organized trip to Ethiopia. Holt arranged everything, from taking us to dinners and ceremonies and the U.S. Embassy to exploring the southern region. They provided everything we needed, and took care of us with such love.
I want to say amesegenallo to the nurses who cared for children as they would their own sons and daughters. Every time we gathered, we thanked God for our many blessings, especially for being able to give Berhanu a safe, caring home.
I also want to say amesegenallo to Ethiopia – for helping me realize the great need in the world, and the hope that we need to discover in our hearts. Amesegenallo, Ethiopia, for bringing me close to your people and allowing me to one day return, and help the suffering. That brings me to say my final amesegenallo, to the Almighty God – the ultimate source of love and life, our source of hope, who will one day welcome us into His arms as we continue to follow His example by loving and welcoming the less fortunate into our very arms. As He has.