As the sun sank low in the sky, the teachers and care-givers at Kind Hearts gathered the kids together in the schoolyard. Moments before, the yard was full of children running and laughing, with an almost frenetic energy, like they were trying to squeeze out every ounce of fun & play possible in their last few minutes with us.
Now - as they grouped together in a circle, 100 children fell eerily silent and hushed and still. They knew that it was time to say good-bye.
Tesfa, Children's Hopechest country director, asked if any of the kids wanted to say something. I really wasn't expecting the kids to say much, let alone to stand up and share heart-felt, profound words ... but they did.
Three of the older children stood up front with Tesfa, and in soft-spoken Amharic, with Tesfa translating for them, they told us how much they loved us, and how thankful they are for their sponsor families. They asked us "please don't forget us" and "please come back again!"
My sponsor child, Mulunesh, was one of the children who stood up front, (she's on the far left, with her long braids freshly shaved, because of a lice outbreak at home) bravely speaking in front of her friends in her quiet voice. She was so thankful and proud to have me and Emme there to spend time with her and her friends.
(On a side note: The photo below has special meaning to me. I was so busy with all of the kids and all of the coordination with the travel team and activities, but Mulunesh was always nearby, holding my hand or making sure she was in the group of kids I was working with. And if she wasn't right next to me, she was always keeping me in her line of sight and making eye contact with me from afar. I snapped this picture of the group of kids, and only later did I look back on this photo and see her eyes looking directly at me from the crowd of kids.)
Some of the kids settled on to an open lap (below, Michael Schaefer's sponsor child, Yikram, sat on his lap) while the rest of the kids gathered into a group. Three of the oldest kids stood up front to say a few words and then Tesfa asked if any of the other kids wanted to add anything. A few hands went up, and as Tesfa pointed to each child individually, they bravely stood and shared their hearts with us.
When all the words had been spoken and hearts had been shared, the kids bowed their heads together ... and they prayed. They prayed for us, who were standing there with them and were about to fly back home to America, and they prayed for their sponsor families, who they know by name.
This was one of those sacred moments and I quietly clicked my camera without even raising it to my eye - letting the lens auto-focus and hoping it would capture some of these precious moments when the kids prayed for their sponsor families.