Whoa, it’s been a while.  I cannot believe it’s January 6th.  I feel like I’ve been in a time warp, in an alternate reality where time should for some reason be stopped still back at home, frozen until we get back. 

But I know of course that’s not the case. 

Life has gone on, and we will all wake up bleary-eyed to get back to school tomorrow morning, after arriving bleary-eyed from the red-eye plus another flight later today.  Christmas is waiting to be taken down, Bo will need to be picked up, mail will need to be sorted, the fridge will need to be filled, hungry mouths fed, back to real life. That wonderful life that being away makes you appreciate more than ever.

But I don’t want all that is waiting there to swallow the important pieces of what has happened here in it’s chaos.  My mind has been swirling with all the memories that have taken shape on this trip.  The beautiful and the ugly, already wrapping their long wafting fingers around and through each other, softening and swelling my heart in ways I want so much to hold on to and try to decipher cohesively.  I don’t want to let go of any of the shards of the memories, the things I’ve learned, the family togetherness we’ve soaked in, the mountaintops of joy as well as the valleys of loss that have maneuvered their way in.

I don’t even know where to start, but I know I need to start somewhere.

So I’ll start with my journal from this morning:

January 6, 2018
I am sitting here in a little hotel room on the Santa Cruz
island of the Galapagos.  It is our last
morning of two weeks in Ecuador, and our first with strong enough internet to
make sense of the jumble of emails and instagram posts that have congregated in
my feed in that long.  
My body is tired.  It
is also covered in strange bug bites, the ankles hit hardest a week ago while
painting over the outside wall graffiti at the orphanage (we all looked down
and noticed what looked like tiny drops of raspberry juice all over our ankles
and realized they were bleeding bug bites that have turned into angry red bumps
that have itched and stretched our skin to make it extra shiny).  We have eaten pretty much solely pizza for the
last week… vegetables on these islands are apparently tough to come by, and my
body is screaming for a plate of roasted greens.  I am brewing a giant cold sore on my bottom lip and we are bracing ourselves for 26 hours of travel coming up shortly.

Yes we are tired but it’s the good kind of tired that you get when you’ve exhausted yourself doing something you love. We are filled with memories, the pieces of which
will make their way into dinner conversations and inside jokes and cement building blocks of our family
foundation for years to come.

I’m going to skip back again to our first Sunday in Ecuador and then our last.  Since this will post on a Sunday and the Sundays were the times when I had my biggest epiphanies…and also it helps introduce what we were doing in the orphanage there.  

Here was our first:

December 24, 2017
All three flights we took to arrive here were delayed.  But we got here in time to get to church, all packed on a bus with our mountains of bags bearing requested orphanage supplies, and walked into the church somewhat bewildered in a jet-lagged stupor wearing our overnight travel clothes and straggly hair to one of the most memorable Christmas Eve church services.  We loved walking in to see our friends smiling there sitting intermixed with a handful of the kids from OSSO (the orphanage we were heading to) who desire and are able to go to church.  One of them (who we would later know as Martin…love him!) passed us the sacrament, pushed in his wheelchair, holding the bread and water somewhat precariously perched in his barely functioning hand.  The whole act of taking the sacrament meant so much more to me somehow in that moment.  

The program consisted of someone reading Luke 2 and the OSSO kids acting it out…”Mary” rocking her head from side to side in her wheelchair, “Joseph” stripping off his outfit right in the middle of the reading, and our neighbors who had arrived a couple days earlier helping to guide the angels and shepherds around and keeping them calm.  

The program was short and sweet and there was something so beautiful to me about sitting in that humble chapel surrounded by so much goodness and love.  After the closing prayer we were shepherded over to OSSO, where we would be working with the kids for a week.  

Lots of rules and orienting before we could meet the kids.  The biggest one was a reminder that we couldn’t take any pictures of the kids.  Tough for me because I’m a documenter at heart, and as we fell in love with those kids, oh how I wanted to somehow bring a memory of them home with us.  But in a bigger way it was so freeing not to have my camera.  I was there.  Looking into their eyes and watching my children do the same.  And I loved that.

Finally, after orientation and trying to scavenge some food from the volunteer kitchen that would become our home away from home, we got to have a tour of the orphanage and most importantly meet the kids.  I say “kids” but the majority of them are in their twenties.  They are all quite severely handicapped, non-verbal, either in wheelchairs with curled up never-been-used legs or with feeding tubes and shriveled bodies laying out in beds.  But the volunteer directors there are pretty amazing.  The husband got a big smile out of almost every single one of them and had the sweetest things to say about each, talking to them like he was their best friend.  

This helped calm all our anxieties.  It can be a scary thing to work in such an intimate way with such deep needs.  He taught us how to help feed them and brush their teeth, and what kinds of things each liked best: everything from having their hair done to tickling their chest in a certain spot.  He explained which ones would throw a fit and knock food out of your hands, who hates toothpaste the most, and the best ways to help the “tias” (the full-time ladies there who take such great care of them).  

Then we got to work.  I loved what another volunteer told my kids that first day: “there is something pretty amazing about these kids we get to work with…they live in these disabled bodies but shine so much light because inside they are perfect.  Most have never made a mistake in their whole lives.  He told my kids to look for that light because it is there in abundance.  

And he was right.  

A lot happened between that Sunday and the next which I will hopefully get to soon.  Lucy went from refusing to accompany us to asking if she could stay longer the last night, her eyes brimming with surprising tears as she helped scoop soup into her new friend Laura’s mouth, Laura’s arm around her waist every now and again in a simple act of gratitude.  We played wheelchair soccer over and over, helped draw pictures and read books and work on sensory therapy…and so much more.

But for now we’ll go to the last Sunday, New Year’s Eve, when we attended a Spanish branch.  We sat in the pew all together, not understanding anything, my stomach starting to churn, hoping it wasn’t the stomach bug that had gone through the majority of our group by then.  

As I sat there and tried to sing the closing song in Spanish, piecing out the word syllables from the hymnal, I glanced around at the congregation.  The pews filled with people singing, kids squirming, movement amidst the reverence.  And I wondered why we were there.  Not necessarily there in that chapel, but there with limbs that work and voices that can sing and bodies that do what we want them to do.  And I thought of those OSSO kids.  Why were those kids we had grown to love sitting in wheelchairs, in bodies that don’t obey, muscles that can never be put to use, voices that cannot express.  

Which led me to ponder the whole big picture.  Something I wonder over and over again.  All the time, not just on that pew that day.  We are all brothers and sisters in the gospel.  God loves us each equally, despite our shortcomings.  Why was I placed where I was and why are they there?  What am I supposed to learn from this?  What am I supposed to DO with what I learn?  

I know the Sunday School answers.  But sitting there in that chapel with tears spilling out, my girls a little apprehensive at my side, the questions hit deeper and with more urgency than before.  There is so much to give in this life.  We just need to be open to the direction from above on how.  And not to be afraid to act and do and love and become the servants God wants and needs us to be. 

I don’t ever want to forget that feeling that will propel me to keep searching and asking for “what would ye have me do?”  I know it’s found in the every day, not just in a church meeting in Ecuador, I just need to be aware and follow the promptings.  We all do.  There is much work to do in this life everywhere we turn.  

One of my favorite pieces of advice is from a wise friend.  It was given before another friend got married but I think it relates to everything in life: “You’ll find what you’re looking for.”

We just need to be looking for the right things.


  1. Shawni, how do you know just what to write?! Your words and testimony constantly touch my heart and make me glad and in awe of God and His marvelous works. So glad he's got you there, with your family–blessing so many lives! 😀 Yay, Lucy! –Melanie VDG

  2. Welcome home. Thanks for sharing with us your deep feelings. Glad you followed the privacy rules. The hashtag #ossovunteer is heavily populated with photos of orphanage residents so many of you fellow volunteers did not

  3. Shawni, thank you for this beautiful post. My family and I just moved this last summer to Istanbul, Turkey and I have been having similar thoughts and feelings about why we are here, but more importantly, what we should be doing while we're here. Also, I've had many thoughts about why we have been blessed with so much and others have been blessed with so little. Some of the members of our branch have given up everything, family, home, etc. to be a member of the church. It's so humbling. Anyway, your thoughts about this really help to put things into perspective for me so thank you!

  4. I think we are put here to serve others. Unfortunately we often get too caught up in serving ourselves. Serving ourselves by consuming, by self indulgence, by valuing what the world values, by focusing on ourselves way too much. Even if we are trying to self correct or better ourselves the focus is still on us. Our focus needs to be on Christ and serving Him and His children. I am still trying to figure out how to do this and how to teach my children to do this.

  5. You have such a beautiful way of expressing yourself and this amazing experience. Thank you! Loved the reminder to ask God what He would have us do with the blessings we’ve been given.

  6. This is so beautiful and hitting my heartstrings. Thank you for taking the time to share when you are so tired and overwhelmed with coming home from traveling.

  7. Oh I love this and i LOVE OSSO! My daughter served at OSSO this summer. She loved those kids and I loved hearing all about her experience and how she absolutely fell in love with them. She brought home a picture of the kids (OSSO provided it) and I loved watching her eyes light up as she told us about each of them. We hope to someday go as a family, so cool you had this opportunity.

  8. I have a special place in my heart for Cuenca and OSSO! I volunteered there July2005-Oct2005 it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I know just of that Laura you write about and I can see her so vividly with that giant smile on her face! She changed my life along with the other little angels! What an incredible place to take your kids I would love to go back with my own kids at some point. I can’t wait to read more about your trip!!!!!

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