LOCK HAVEN-When Gail Hanlon went to an orphanage in Honduras recently, she discovered something worth knowing.
Working with kids doesn't just help them-it transforms the helper.
Hanlon, 47, went on a service trip with 17 local church members who a part of the Friends of Renacer who support the Hogar de Renacer ("Home of Rebirth" in Spanish) orphanage in Cofradia, Honduras. She is a member of the Great Island Presbyterian Church on Water Street.
The trip was from June 26 to July 8, and although they had a stormy start (harsh storms hit the East Coast when they left) which caused some flight issues, the moment Hanlon stepped foot onto the orphanage grounds, everything else melted away.
Children ran toward her and it was the most beautiful sight she'd ever seen.
"I saw these beautiful children. They were smiling, their eyes were glistening, and I embraced them, taking them as they are. This overwhelming feeling of warmth filled me. You know right away that's where you're supposed to be, and I thanked God for having me there," Hanlon described, her own eyes moist as she remembered that experience.
It was her first time to Honduras, and in fact, her first time on a big plane, and out of the country.
She spent the remainder of her time with the children.
"I've never colored more in my life!" she exclaimed. The children at the orphanage loved coloring, and she colored for hours with them in coloring books.
She also helped teach Vacation Bible School. The first night focused on God's love, and how the whole world is in his hands, she said. The second night, she taught the biblical story of Noah's ark.
"The kids loved the stories," she said. They also enjoyed the crafts.
But there was one child that was always on her mind.
He was homeless, she thinks, and due to behavioral problems, couldn't stay in the orphanage.
"I kept thinking, where is he going to keep his crafts?" Hanlon said.
Despite his behavioral issues, Hanlon's heart went out to this boy, and she continued to work with him.
On her last day there, he handed her a small piece of notebook paper. Wobbly hearts drawn from a green pen decorated the paper, and at the bottom, he had printed his name.
A week or so after she left for home, someone at the orphanage told her this boy whose heart she touched now smiles more.
"How you can change these children, and with (that boy), it was a breakthrough," she said.
In fact, her heart had a rebirth of its own.
"I had a personal experience with God. I was born again there," Hanlon said.
Though she said she's always been a Christian, by being the hands of feet of Christ at the orphanage, she came to know God better.
"I never really talked with God, but I started to there. I started with a few words which grew into paragraphs, and now I daily commune with God. There was one day there, I actually opened my mouth and said, 'God, here I am. I am yours,'" she said.
Next year, she plans on going back. But this time, it may be up to a year; she'll teach English at the school on the grounds of the orphanage.
This was also a special trip for Benjamin Lins who has pastored Great Island Presbyterian Church for almost five years.
"The most significant part of the trip for me was, because I'm learning Spanish better, I'm able to dialog with the kids there. I had real conversations with the kids, eating with them, playing cards, tucking them in at night.
"Personally, I'm more interested in the future of the home. I'm very interested in long-term planning. I believe in the mission much more strongly now; it helps the (orphans) to become stable and self-sufficient. I see Renacer making a life-changing difference in their lives. It is not an exaggeration to say many of these kids would not be alive alive if the churches were not helping there. A handful were found in the trash on a sidewalk and were taken to the orphanage by strangers or family. Other less extreme examples, their parents just couldn't take care of them.
"I believe in what's happening there," Lins emphasized.
While there, they did several service projects. First, they built a new chicken processing building.
"Two years ago, Great Island Presbyterian bought 100 chickens to help them start a micro-business. As a side note, one of the best ways we can help people in third world countries is to give them the supplies to start their own business," Lins said.
They also renovated the outdoor kitchen with a new metal roof, concrete floor, waste piping, and more.
Finally, they painted one of the children's homes, both outside and inside, that houses 12 children and a house mother. Gail helped paint and stencil the interior.
Others also surveyed the land for a large sewage evaporating pond. When they go back in January, they'll construct it.
On this trip, for the first time, they met the church family in Honduras that birthed this ministry, Brigades de Amor Cristiano (Brigade of Christian Love), and the Friends of Renacer have partnered with them.
Brigades helped fund it as one of their seven orphanages in Honduras, Lins said.
In 1998, Bobbie Updegraff and Kathy Temple of Lycoming Presbyterian Church and Trout Run Methodist went to Honduras to help after Hurricane Mitch hit. They got introduced to the orphanage, and began the Friends of Renacer, which is now an ecumenical support network for the children's home and the connected Christian school. Great Island Presbyterian Church, South Williamsport Methodist, Lycoming Presbyterian Church, and Trout Run United Methodist Church make up the group.
Some time after Updegraff and Temple went, Steve Sente of Great Island got involved, and when Lins began his pastorship at the church, he went to Honduras to check it out for himself.
"After being there my first time in 2009, it was obvious Renacer was the right thing to invest in. So we began promoting it more at our church and inviting the church to attend the trips. The other Pennsylvania churches support Renacer financially and physically, as do a church in Sweden, Spain, and Denmark.
"Brigades is still committed to Renacer, however they are only able to fund it to about 25 percent of the needed budget. That is where we other non-Honduras churches pick up the deficit," Lins explained.
It's not just a financial deficit; it's an emotional one for the orphans.
Hanlon loved the time she spent with the kids and feels she helped fill in the parental gap, if only for a while.
"The girls love to talk and play with my hair, braiding it," she said. "They don't have mother-daughter time, but we talk and bond."
The orphanage has an on-site school, and a technical school for the older children.
"One of our main goals is to give the kids hope to continue on. Because of the time we spent with them in the past five years, it has caused them to go on a completely different trajectory in life. We've seen the juvenile delinquent system in the U.S., and observe how our own kids end up if they're not loved by their parents," Lins said. The same thing is true for them there.
He continued, "We also follow-up year-round with the children and staff. We try to get them on the right path, we continue that long-term financial support. We send them to the university there; our church gives kids who want to go but can't afford it full tuition. For others who don't want to go to college, we give them vocational skills."
Lins also noted they finally secured long-term directors for Renacer, Julio and Nabey, pastors from Spain. They started Aug. 1, 2011.
This stability is crucial for the children's development.
"In five years, the orphanage has had five different directors. Now....we have seen a direct difference in the kids because they're not leaving. They parent the kids just like they do their kids," Lins said.
To get involved, donate, or participate, contact Lins at (570) 484-1705 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.