It was the first time I had ever seen him on a basketball court. He ran with a limping, broken, uncoordinated gait. It was obvious he did not understand the game; he chased the ball no matter which team had it, slapping at it as he had seen the other boys dribble.
Occasionally, someone would toss the ball to him, and he would run toward a basket and clumsily throw the ball in the general direction of the goal.
The boys, all younger than him, knew that any really competitive game was impossible with him on the court. But they just smiled and kept playing because he was welcome here; they knew how far he had come.
I met Tiago during my first visit to the City of Youth almost five years ago. He had been with us only a few months. Severely mentally handicapped, Tiago had been “warehoused” for the first fifteen years of his life, passed from orphanage to orphanage, given minimal care. He spent his days sitting against a wall, unengaged. He had to be fed, his diapers changed; he could not walk, and he never tried to communicate. He could have been the poster child for all that is wrong with longterm orphan care.
But love and attention make a difference.
Slowly, so very slowly, we began to see a change in Tiago. He began to lift his head and look at people. He would hold on to a staff member and try to stand. He took a spoon in his hand. And then he took a step. And slowly, still slowly, a person began to emerge. It turns out that he did have favorite foods, and could make choices about what he wanted to do. Eventually he gained the dignity of taking care of his own shower, changing clothes, and going to the bathroom.
And then one day he smiled, and came up to a staff member and hugged her.
Tiago acts as the older brother to our kids, but he will never grow up as they do. To see their care for him is remarkable. At last year’s Easter egg hunt, as the children ran wildly across the campus to hunt for hidden candy, everyone made sure that the obvious and easy pieces in front of Tiago were untouched, and more than one child dropped a piece or two within a few feet of his searching eyes.
Caring for the Tiagos of our world is yet another way we care for the least of these, but it’s a bigger-than-usual challenge for us. A child like Tiago doesn’t come to Hope and then graduate after a few years, making room for another needy child as the vast majority of our kids do. No, Tiago will be our child forever; there is no other place for him. Huge challenge? Yes. Blessings beyond measure? Absolutely!