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Thursday, March 5, 2009

Crossing the border

"¿Cuantos años tienes?" said the little voice accompanied by a tug at my jeans.

I paused for a second to quickly translate the question from Spanish to English in my head. The little girl who asked just looked up at me, smiling, patiently waiting. First I had to remember how old I was, then I had to remember how to say it in Spanish (I studied the language for two years in high school and three semesters in college, but my fluency, which was once so advanced that I could think in Spanish, is long gone). The mental process took about three seconds.

"Treinta y ocho."

Her eyes grew so wide they nearly popped out of her head. Immediately, she let go of my leg and ran over to a table across the room and whispered something to another little girl. Giggling ensued.

I'd like to think that means I don't look 38. Or maybe they had a bet. I hope Tamara (that was the girl's name; she's 10) took the over.

That encounter was one of many that have been permanently etched into my memory following my March 1 visit to the Casa de Misericordia (House of Mercy) Orphanage in Nava, Mexico, which sits about 10 miles across the Rio Grande from the town of Eagle Pass, TX. It's run by Karen Smith 95G and her husband David, two of the most energetic, friendly, caring people I have ever met.

The Smiths, who have two adopted children themselves, opened the Casa in 2005, and it now houses 36 children ranging in age from 4-17. Actually, calling the Casa an "orphanage" is a bit of a misnomer. All of the children have parents. Many, though, have been abandoned by those "parents" or taken away by the Mexican government and placed under the supervision of the Smiths. So far, five children have been placed--two of them in Georgia. About 10 others are in the process of being adopted (a process that can take more than two years).

There is no question that these children's young lives have been filled with too much heartache and struggle. But their attitude is remarkable. First of all, it's like the Smiths' first stop in populating the Casa was Central Casting at the Disney Channel. All of the children are off-the-chart cute and overflowing with energy. Maybe they were just playing up to the visitors (a church group from Ohio had arrived at the Casa the day before to do some work), but I don't think so. Before coming to the Casa, joy was probably in very short supply for these children, and while a group home--no matter how nurturing--is not an easy way to grow up, the Casa is surely the best place these children have ever seen. And that positive atmosphere flows directly from the family who takes care of them.

Karen Smith graduated from Mercer University with a degree in music and earned her master's in sacred music from Emory. A native of Georgia, she and David lived in Georgia all their lives; she taught music for the better part of two decades. In their spare time, they took frequent mission trips with their church to Mexico to help out the orphanages there. After their children had moved out of the house and graduated from college, their experiences in Mexico led them to make a significant change.

"This is something we've been called to do," Karen said, and in 2004 they moved to the dusty desert of south Texas to get the Casa started. In 2005, they moved into their current facility.

We'll be posting a lot of photos from the Casa really soon, and there are several more stories from the Casa to tell. It'll take a few days to post the photos, since I have to get them developed. Yes, I took a film camera. The EAA has a digital camera for staff use, but I just feel more comfortable taking pictures with my own machine.

One more vignette before I go ... the kids love cameras, and they love having their pictures taken. As soon as they saw me take it out of my bag, they were lining up to be photographed, each child's smile bigger than the previous one.

Once I took their picture, they'd grab the camera (not rudely, they just wanted to have it). Many of them wanted to take pictures of me (I'm VERY interested in how those turned out ... I wonder if I have a head), but all of them wanted to see digital samples.

Which my camera didn't have. Which brought a quizzical look to their faces. The best I could do to explain was to say, "Camera vieja." Old camera. They had never seen a film camera before.

You should have seen their faces when I showed them the record player I had in the car.

That was a joke.

--Eric Rangus, director of communications, EAA


  1. Love the anecdote about the camera - I used film too until about six months ago and always got the same reaction.

    Nice work on the blog, by the way - keep it up!

  2. Thanks! You should've seen the kids faces when the camera automatically rewound. I think they were expecting it to blast into space.--ER

  3. I've been to Casa de Misericordia, and I've been telling people the place is "Disney-magical". So I appreciate your note that the kids are Disney-cute.