TOGETHER by AGCI

Together by AGCI is a brand new podcast from the creative team at All God’s Children International.

        

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Learn more about the Waiting Child Program by reaching out to smanzano@allgodschildren.org.

Episode 16

The Waiting Child Journey: One Chance to Thrive

[MS] You’re listening to Together by AGCI, I’m Madi Salvati.

What does it mean to be a waiting child? As international adoption numbers have declined significantly in the last decade, we have been asking ourselves at AGCI the true meaning of what it means to “wait” for a family, as well as examine every avenue of hope for these amazing kids in the process. After taking a closer look at the stories of the children we advocate for at AGCI, we launched a new initiative in 2020 to place more children with families. We recognize the true importance of finding families for kids, NOT kids for families. It’s our greatest joy  to put a child’s needs at the forefront of our efforts in advocating for them, and a true privilege to learn about and honor their stories, their needs, and what they will need to thrive in the long-term. While paying close attention to what these children need to thrive, we recognize that adoption might not always be the answer, nor is everyone in a place to adopt a waiting child. The fact is though, everyone can help a waiting child thrive. AGCI Waiting Child Coordinator, Soojin Manzano, is a beautiful example of exactly that. I am so honored to have her on the show today to tell me more about her role in AGCI’s waiting child program and how she has seen it grow, change, and evolve — this year’s initiative being a big part of the evolution. We’re here to redefine the stories of waiting children, so that they would no longer be marked by years of trauma, waiting in an institution, but rather marked by a story of healing, love, and hope. 

I can’t wait for you to hear Soojin’s passion and fire these kiddos. It’s 100% contagious, so be ready. Here’s Soojin . . . 

[SM] So, my name is Soojinn Manzano and I’ve been with AGCI for about 14 years now. And during that 14 year time period, um, I’ve had the honor of managing several, several different programs. Um, you know, anything from Guatemala to Nepal, India, Bulgaria, Colombia, um, Ukraine, I mean, you name it. And that really allowed me to get to know our waiting children from all of these countries from all over the world. Um, getting to know them, their history, their background, how they came into care and, uh, and what they are able to do, you know? Their potential and what they’re able to become, uh, once they’re home. So it’s been a really fun journey for me and obviously a learning curve for me as well. But I think, um, this new role as the waiting child coordinator, it gives me the opportunity to solely focus on these children, not the process, not the paperwork. It really comes down to the needs, the needs of the children, finding the right families for these children. So, uh, you know, I honestly, it’s kind of a dream job where I spend all day getting to know these children from all over the world. You know, getting to know the personalities, you know, seeing their videos, their photos. And for me it’s seeing the potential in these children. You know, it’s so easy to jump… that when you’re reading this medical report, it’s so easy to jump into special needs and focus on special needs, you know? Uh, but for me, I always want to, want to go to the front. I always want to kind of work backwards where I want to know how these children came into care, you know? Um, I want to know what they were able to accomplish, you know, between the time that they’ve entered the home till now. 

[MS] Right.

[SM] You know when they’re institutionalized. 

[MS] Okay. [SM] I think that’s been my biggest, um, my biggest advocacy. I want to hear their stories. You know? Each of these kids have their own stories to tell and it’s my job to tell that story.  

[MS] I love that. Yeah. 

[SM] It’s been really great just being in this position to just advocate. 

[MS] I mean this role has totally taken you… I mean, it sounds almost personal in some ways because you get involved in knowing their stories and their personalities. Um, how would you say it’s impacted you so far in this role? How has it changed you? 

[SM] It really has allowed me to see it from the children’s perspective. Um, you know, for me, I, especially when we’re looking at our China children, from China, I always wonder, and I shared this with the team before, you know, all of our kids from China are abandoned. They’re found out on the streets, you know, near a train station or in front of the orphanage or a fire station or police station. Right? And they’re always found in a basket or wrapped in a blanket. And I always wonder how long were they out there until somebody noticed them, you know? In the middle of winter, you know, how, how long were they out there? Were they out there for five minutes? Were they out there for an hour, you know? And in the middle of summer, you know, you know it’s hot in these countries. So how long were they out in the heat? And I also wonder, you know, were the birth families hiding somewhere behind a building, behind a tree to see if somebody would pick them up, you know? And that’s where my brain goes. I always want to know how they came in and that that allows me to understand their history and their background. And I want our families to understand that before they dive into special needs. Because understanding their background will help you understand their special needs. Does that make sense?

[MS] Yeah, definitely. 

[SM] It will allow you to see . . . okay, they, they came in with nothing if you think about it. They started their, their life being abandoned with nothing. And, you know, they are institutionalized. 

And you know, some institutions provide best care and some don’t. But through all of that, they’re able to overcome each of those obstacles. And I want to share that with the families. This is what they can do. This is what they have accomplished, even with limited resources. So imagine what they could do when they’re home, when they’re under, you know, that roof, you know, when they’re with their mom and their dad, siblings and all the medical resources that we have here in the states, you know? So I want our families to focus on the potential and see what they could be and become once they’re home.  

[MS] Right. That’s such a great point. And just thinking about the potential of home life for them. And I think that is the overarching goal of placing more kids in families. Um, and when you think back to your experience too, with, I mean, so far with this program, with the initiative, is there a particular story of a child or maybe a family or an experience you’ve had in this industry so far that you’d like to share? 

[SM] Yeah, for sure. I mean, every child is special to me. I definitely remember my first referral to my last, but I think the one that stands out, um, a few years back, uh, my, um, coworkers and I went to Colombia and we visited this home called Luz y Vida, and, uh, we came across a six year old boy who was just in the corner in a wheelchair, um, and he had oxygen tube in his nose and that oxygen tube was only maybe like three feet long. So he was limited, um, you know, getting around. But as soon as we walked in, he had the biggest smile and used his hand to wave us down, saying, Come over here, come over here. And we’re like, who is this kid? So I went over and I got down on my knees, you know, to his eye level, and he saw that I was holding my cell phone and he grabbed my cell phone and… this smart kid knew how to slide my phone to open my iPhone. So I’m like, Oh my gosh, there’s a light, there’s something in this little boy. You know? He, he’s in a wheelchair and he’s got oxygen, and obviously, you know, to a lot of families this is a scary situation to see. Right? But for me, when he was interacting with us, he was communicating. He was showing us what he could do, you know? That really allowed me to see potential. 

[MS] I want to provide a little more context for this story. I’m going to call him Joshua for now to respect his story and his current situation. When our team first met this amazing little boy, he was 7-years-old, living in an institution in Colombia. As Soojin mentioned, he was in a wheelchair and needed supplemental oxygen. Joshua was in an institution that cares for those with the most significant needs. We initially found him in a room of adults with severe special needs –this was not a place where he could grow and thrive. Soojin saw the potential of this sweet boy—he was so bright, charming, and so dedicated to learning and building new skills. During their visit, Joshua brightened up immensely each time he saw our team. From walking to just about running, it was hard to keep up with him! He was quick to soak up all the time he had with us and clearly connected with anyone who crossed his path. His story spoke volumes of potential and it became clear that we didn’t truly know what his potential was, only God did. Joshua was diagnosed with a heart and lung condition that doctors believed would prevent him from living into adulthood. He had a heart surgery that was completed too late, but in spite of his circumstances, he was always pushing his own limits! Doctors did not believe Joshua would ever walk, talk, or even communicate—but there he was already doing all of those things when Soojin met him! We know God is “able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” and that miracles happen every day! And the best part about Joshua’s story? I’ll let Soojin take it from here . . . 

[SM] Um, and of course we spent all day with them and we came back more motivated and pumped and we spent weeks and month after month trying to find the right family. And we finally found a family who was willing to look beyond that. They also saw the potential, they also saw that there was something in him that he could thrive in. You know what I mean? He, I was able to share my story and my experience, and the family also agreed. Wow. And the family also wanted to know his history. Tell me about how he came into care? Tell me about the accomplishments he has, um, you know, done, you know, in the time that he was in an institution. Cause from what I understand, they first found him in that home on the floor, on a mattress. They literally thought he was going to die. They didn’t want to take care of them because he had heart conditions, he had breathing issues. So they left him on a mattress. But something about this kid also got the attention of the orphanage director. So they pulled them up, put him in a wheel, wheelchair, allowed him to kind of move around. And from that, they started seeing progress. So it’s a little potential like that that allows us to, that allows us, to actually make me want to advocate more for these children, you know? Cause they deserve a chance. They just need that one tiny chance for them to thrive. 

[MS] Yes, exactly.

[SM] And guess what? He’s home.  

[MS] Oh, that’s amazing.

[SM] Yeah. He’s got three siblings, two brothers and a sister. So he’s doing so well and that right there shows me, yes, if you look at his picture, you know, in a wheelchair and oxygen tube, it’s a scary situation. But we really want our families to look beyond that. Now don’t 

get me wrong. Certain special needs are pretty significant and pretty tough, right? 

[MS] Right. 

[SM] But it does take that special family to look beyond that. And that’s what I want to share with our families. 

[MS] Got it. Well, I think that’s, that’s such a great goal, especially in moving forward with the initiative that I think will ring loud and clear to families. And, um, yeah, that’s just so beautiful and just, you can totally hear your passion behind it and just getting to know these kids and what makes them tick. And I think that’s part of what makes this initiative different and unique when it comes to AGCI. But what else would you like to share with the audience? Just maybe about what makes this different, um, maybe compared to other programs of its kind. Um, and what are you doing to place more children with families as we go forward? 

[SM] I think for me, getting to know the children, I mean it’s… It’s a huge blessing, for sure, getting to know the kids. But I think the biggest challenge for me is educating the families about special needs. Educating families about what it means to adopt a child was certain special needs. What does that look like? What are some of the resources that, you know, that the family’s willing to have? So I think this program, even though it’s a challenging process, it allows me to have those types of conversations with their families. Because that is my sole focus. It’s advocating for these waiting children and advocating for the family. Giving them the information that we receive from these countries and giving them the opportunity to go out and do the research. Let me share about this child. Let me share their story. But at the same time, you know, let’s kind of look at some of the resources in your area. What are some of the things that you’re able to, to manage? You know, let’s look at hospitals, let’s look up therapists. Let’s even look at the children in the home. How can we prepare them for this transition? 

[MS] Right. 

[SM] So I think this program and this initiative allows me to solely just focus on that versus, you know, sometimes we get bogged down with paperwork and process and you know, all 

that stuff, right? For me it’s just going to be the kids and the families. I think that’s what makes us so unique. That is my attention and my focus.  

[MS] And with that too, just seeing how international adoption has, I mean, it’s been on a decline by 80% in the last decade. Um, that’s just the reality I think we’re facing as, um, we try and help find families for kiddos. And with that in mind, from your perspective, how has the landscape of international adoption changed since you started working in that field?

 [SM] Right, I mean, the last 14 years, I have to say, I’ve seen highs and lows throughout the entire adoption process. You know? I’ve definitely witnessed a lot, but I think, um, the wait time has definitely increased than before. Um, and the reason behind that is Hague. Um, it definitely increased the regulation, which great for these children, because we want 

to make sure that these children come to us, uh, you know, in a proper way. Making sure that, you know, all the, the paperwork is legally done, all the research is, you know, all the trainings, all of that have been done. But I think the regulation has definitely increased the time for sure. And, and we’re definitely seeing, um, older children, uh, and more complex special needs than before. 

[MS] And for those that, oh, sorry, for those that might . . .  just so we can clear this up too, for those that might not know what Hague is or the Hague Convention, how has that played a role? Cause you were mentioning regulation and just stricter policies, can you maybe expand on that for families too?  

[SM] Sure. So it’s an international treaty, right? 

[MS] Right. 

[SM] A treaty which implemented a lot of regulation, meaning they added a lot of steps to make sure that children are, uh, you know, legally orphans. Because, you know, we definitely see corruption is in the past. Correct? We’ve seen, you know, bribery happening in a lot of the countries. So Hague came in to limit all of that. And making sure that children are truly orphans, you know? We’re not placing kids who already have families or, or who are bribed. Right? So with that comes delays, ’cause there has to be, um, you know, research, they have to reach out to a lot of family members. I know, for example, for Bulgaria, you know, um, they obviously will reach out to a lot of the relatives to see if they will take full custody of these children, right? 

[MS] Right. 

[SM] If that doesn’t work, then they will reach out to domestic families, cause to them, why not give this opportunity for the children to stay in their own country? Right? Um, it would be in the best interest. So they’ll give time to domestic, you know, families. If they do not find families, or domestic families, then they enter international registry for international adoption. So, as you can see, there are so many separate regulations that families have to go through, or these countries have to go through, that just increases the time, the waiting time for a lot of these children. So, we see, you know, kids who come into care at age two, but is now four or five because of the regulation. So it’s hard because, you know, a lot of families go young as possible, right? 

[MS] Right.

[SM] So to see kids who are much older makes it a little bit challenging and difficult. Um, however, we’ve seen so many families who, um, understand the, the new Hague process, understand that the timing of it has increased, but yet they’re saying, we still want to adopt these children. It’s not their fault that they were placed in this situation, it’s not their fault that the system failed them. Right? So yeah, it would’ve been great if we had brought them home at age two, but they’re five. It’s okay. We still want to bring them home. They still deserve a family. And even kids with complex special needs, they still deserve a family. We want to bring them home. So it’s been really good to see families open up so much more. Because as I mentioned, I’ve definitely seen, I’ve seen highs and lows. When I first started this 14 years ago, it was all infants. Everyone wanted healthy as possible, right? 

[MS] Right. 

[SM] Throughout the years, we’re seeing that transition, right? And we’re seeing so many families who are open to so many more special needs that… yes, the time I’ve increased and yes, we’re seeing much older kids and yes, we’re seeing more complex special needs, at the same time we’re seeing so many families being open to that even more. So that’s the transition that I have seen.  

[MS] Yeah, that’s exciting. I mean, I think open-mindedness is key going forward with this initiative. Um, and it’s really cool to hear just the work that you’re doing behind that, especially with special needs and making sure families know exactly what’s ahead. That’s really, really awesome. And with that too, where do you see, where would you like to see, what are your hopes for international adoption going forward?

 [SM] We definitely want to see more positive options, but these children, especially for older children and sibling groups. There are so many  siblings and unfortunately some countries do separate them, thinking that it’ll give them more of a chance to be adopted. But you know, I’ve got two younger sisters and I cannot imagine being separated from my sisters. So the goal is to, yeah, definitely want to focus on these sibling groups not to be separated. I want to focus on these older children before they age out because once they age out it is so hard for these kids to support themselves in these countries, you know? So I think I’d definitely want to see more options for these children, whether it’s in-country, you know, providing, you know, homes like our Dream Home in Colombia, you know, or the option is adoption. Having families come on for older kids and sibling groups. 

[MS] Yeah. That’s so great. Um, And I can totally just foresee like all of that in the future, that is what we need. Like that is the energy that we need behind all of this in order to find families for kids, which is so cool.  

[SM] Absolutely. 

[MS] Yeah. And again, like going back to, um, you know, telling stories, to relating this to our audience in a way, um, that just gives even more context to the magnitude of it all. Um… What has been maybe one of the harder things that you faced in this role so far? Um, as a part of the waiting child program within the initiative behind it, um, what’s been the most challenging? 

[SM] I think the most challenging part for me is trying to get updates on a lot of our children that we receive. Um, I know, for example China, they do their best to provide us with, you know, as much information as possible. But a lot of the reports that we receive are outdated, sometimes two years old. And um, trying to get updates has been a little bit challenging because… We want our families to have the most up to date information. Right? It’s hard to make decisions based off of information that’s like two, three years old when we know that these kids have improved beyond that, you know, during that time. So I think, um, getting updates from a lot of the foreign governments has been a little bit challenging, for sure. And I do know from my experience videos of these children help a ton. Cause sometimes you could tell, um… You know, you could get more information out of that video than the medical report itself. But um, you know, trying to get updated videos, updated information from these foreign countries has been the biggest challenge. So walking families through that has been hard as well. I would say that’s been my biggest challenge. 

[MS] Okay. And to mirror that, what would you say has been the greatest joy about this role? What… 

[SM] Sharing their stories! Talking to families about these kids. About their background, their history, their personalities, and just like I talked about before, their accomplishments. You know, I see a three year old child who was abandoned when the child was an infant, right? A newborn. But he’s now still living in an institution. But when you’re looking at all of his accomplishments, walking, you know, even holding a cup by himself, you know, eating by himself, changing clothes by himself, you know? Those are accomplishments. And I love sharing that with our families. And I really hope that the families will, will see that as well, you know, and get excited over what these kids can do. 

[MS] Awesome. Well I’m so excited for you Soojin and just hearing everything that this is all about. I mean, it’s great perspective too for everyone tuning in. 

[SM] Yes, I hope so. 

[MS] Yeah. We’re gonna… We can go ahead and wrap it up here a little bit. Um, but did you want to leave any final thoughts, any final stories with the audience about what’s going on in your world right now? 

[SM] Yeah, I mean, we are receiving, um, you know, children’s information all over the world and, and I cannot say this enough, it’s been such a blessing just getting to know these kids. And I’m praying and hoping that our families will, will start to open up their hearts even more for these children, you know? For older kids, for, for siblings, and obviously in significant special needs. I know it’s not easy, but I really am praying that our families will, uh, you know, just start opening up more and, um and I will do my best to share these children’s information and their stories and of course educate our families, um, as I walk this journey with them.  

[MS] Well, that’s so great. Thank you so much, Soojin for your time. We really appreciate it. 

[SM] Thank you. Thank you for having me. This was fun.

[MS] Every child deserves to thrive. I love what Soojin said about giving a child like Joshua that one chance to connect and show his potential. That’s all he needed! Providing opportunities like that for children to connect with those around them and giving them a platform to tell their story is at the heart of not only this waiting child initiative, but at the core of how we are called to love one another. We are so blessed with the opportunity to do this together as a team at AGCI by lifting these children up, providing them with a voice, and advocating for their potential and how far they come. We want to keep sharing their beautiful stories of hope. If you would like to learn about more of the stories that inspired this initiative, as well as how you can be a part of the journey of a waiting child go to allgodschildren.org/waiting. If you have questions about AGCI’s waiting child program and would like to learn more, please email Soojin at smanzano@allgodschildren.org. You can also watch a sweet video about Joshua’s story by going to the link provided in the show notes. 

We’re so grateful to keep moving forward with you, together. Thanks for listening, everybody, we’ll talk again soon.