A ministry to orphans
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Mary Blandino was reading her Bible seven years ago when James 1:27 stopped her cold. "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress ... ."
The dentist and mother of three wondered what she had ever done for orphans. The question haunted her until she became involved with the OrphanCare ministry at North Way Christian Community in Pine. With timing that she believes was God's alone, in August she and her husband, Alan, adopted the older brother of two siblings adopted by another couple in their church.
"James also says not to merely listen to the word [of God] but do what it says," she said of their decision to welcome Will, 10.
On Saturday, 8:15 a.m. to 1 p.m., North Way will host the third annual OrphanCare Expo. Adoption and social service agencies, both secular and Christian, will have exhibits. There will be 17 workshops on topics from Adoption 101 to how churches can help troubled families in ways that prevent children from becoming orphans. Attendees are encouraged to bring new shoes to donate to an orphanage overseas.
"The expo is unique. Nobody else has done anything on this scale in the area that I know of," said Sandra McLaughlin, executive director of Bethany Christian Services of Western Pennsylvania. Bethany works on five continents to facilitate adoptions, including embryo adoptions, and provide support services to troubled families.
Ms. McLaughlin, who was adopted from Korea, will speak on "What Every Adoptee Wished Their Parents Knew" and "Search and Reunion."
The expo has raised local awareness of the millions of children who need help, both in the United States and globally, she said.
"When people hear the word 'orphan,' they think internationally. But we're looking at children here in our own community that need the church to come around and care for them if the child cannot remain with their birth family," she said.
Karen James, 59, the wife of a pastor at North Way, initiated the OrphanCare ministry three years ago after hearing repeated media pleas to help children whose parents had died or abandoned them. UNICEF estimates that 15 million children have lost both parents through death or abandonment, while another 130 million have lost one parent.
"I've always had a heart for adoption because my two children are adopted. But I had never really considered the global crisis of orphans until I was confronted with those statistics everywhere I turned," she said.
"Finally I said to God, 'What do you want me to do about this?' "
Ms. James, now 59, invited friends to dinner at her home in Pine to talk and pray about it. They began designing a ministry to empower church families to help orphans -- or those at risk of becoming orphans -- whether through adoption, foster care or other volunteer services.
Their church now regularly holds a Bible study on orphans and adoption, and a workshop on how to become foster parents. OrphanCare supports an orphanage in Honduras and holds an annual shoe drive for global orphans. The ministry also established a fund to provide matching grants and interest-free loans to assist families with adoption costs. It recently made its first grant to a couple adopting a toddler from Ethiopia.
Orphans are now a major mission emphasis at North Way, where attendance exceeds 4,000.
"I remember wondering three years ago how we could get the pastoral staff to realize this is an important issue. I really see this as a move of God," she said.
James and Nancy Banze, of West View, joined North Way because of the OrphanCare ministry. They had endured multiple miscarriages, ectopic pregnancies, failed infertility treatments and two adoptions that had fallen through. Having run out of money, they reluctantly opted to adopt through foster care.
In 2007 they had just taken in two of three abused and neglected siblings, Alyssa, then 4, and Bobby, 1, when they heard about the OrphanCare expo.
"They just provided so much information," Ms. Banze said.
"We were looking for a new church community at the time, and I was drawn to the fact that this church really cared about women who had infertility issues and were considering adoption."
Social workers had brought the children to their house from the hospital where they were treated for abuse and neglect. They warned that Bobby might never walk or talk. Alyssa suffered horrific nightmares and feared waking up without food. Their 8-year-old brother, Will, who had done his best to protect them, was at Holy Family Institute in Emsworth.
When the Banzes took Bobby and Alyssa to visit him, Alyssa would leave sobbing, "I'm never going to see my brother again!"
But when social workers urged the Banzes to adopt Will, too, they balked. Becoming parents of two special needs children was taking all they had to give. They were afraid that if they adopted Will, none of the three would get enough attention.
"We felt guilty and bad about that, and we were looking for someone to pray with us about it," Mrs. Banze said.
So, on a Sunday when the pastor announced that couples were available to pray with anyone who wanted it, the Banzes went forward. They poured their hearts out to a couple they didn't know, Alan and Mary Blandino.
And that was their answer to prayer. The Blandinos revealed that they had been concerned about orphans since Ms. Blandino was shaken by the verse in James six years earlier. A past effort to become foster parents failed because there was no extra bedroom in their Richland home. But, with Greg and Nathan now in college, they had room for another child. The Blandinos were one week short of completing foster parent training with the same agency that the Banzes worked with.
"That was August. By November, Will was at their house," Mrs. Banze said.
"It was God," Ms. Blandino said of their instant decision to pursue Will. She considers it perfect timing, saying that Holy Family Institute had provided help Will needed to cope with his anger and had prepared him for life in a loving family.
Because they go to the same church, the siblings see each other often. They have sleep-overs at each other's homes.
"Will saw himself as the father figure for his sister, as the one who had to protect her. It's a big relief for him to be able to see his brother and sister when he wants to," Ms. Blandino said.
He's doing well in fourth grade, is outgoing and enjoys baseball and football. He's gone from de facto man of the family to the little brother of Natalie, 14, and enjoys rough-housing with Greg and Nathan when they're home from college,
"He's not perfect. He's argumentative and he has some anger issues. But he's progressing tremendously. And it's not like my other kids were perfect," Ms. Blandino said.
The Banzes and the Blandinos adopted Bobby, Alyssa and Will on the same day in August, almost a year to the day they first prayed together. The OrphanCare ministry threw a party.
"They've embraced us and been there for us through all of our struggles and tribulations. It's an awesome organization," Ms. Banze said.
Bobby, 4, who the experts said wouldn't walk or talk? "Now they think he's gifted," she said. He wants to be a hockey player.
Alyssa, 6, is blossoming in first grade, and enjoys dance class and Girl Scouts. Her nightmares ended as Ms. Banze taught her a bedtime litany, in which she affirmed that she had a mommy and daddy who loved her, that she was safe, and that she would always have food to eat.
"It wasn't easy. But to say they've turned 180 degrees is an understatement," Ms. Banze said. "We want to share this with other people and let them know that there are kids out there who are in need of love."
For more information on North Way's OrphanCare Expo, visit www.northway.org.
First Published November 8, 2009 12:00 am