by Christine Bolaños Posted on Tuesday, February 07, 2017
The children look up at the young adults and smile. They may not speak the same language and they may not look like them, but the children feel safe and loved. The young adults were once foster children and feel a connection to the orphaned children that needs no spoken words. For a moment, they all forget about their trials and tribulations and allow themselves to feel the warmth and joy of the Christmas spirit.The young adults are Jarvis Spearman, Jimmy Alphonce and Jessica Oliver. All three received scholarships from the Texas-based nonprofit International Student Foundation which provides scholarships, mentoring and leadership training for foster care and orphaned children. Without the scholarships, their dreams of attending college and earning a better life would have been nearly impossible.The International Student Foundation sets out to fill the gaps once children age out of the foster care system. The organization recently partnered with Orphan Outreach, which reaches out to millions of at-risk children throughout the world, to help meet their spiritual, physical, emotional and education needs. Together, the nonprofits made it possible for the three college students to travel to Guatemala to serve orphans during the Christmas season.They helped decorate the orphanage for a Christmas party, hand out small gifts and engage in friendly activities with the children.“I’m originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, so seeing that wasn’t very new,” Jimmy says. “What was new is I had not seen this in the continents of South America or North America. I did not know there were people living like this.”Despite the struggles, they faced, the children were innocent and hopeful and Jimmy says he was reminded of his own childhood.“We were trying to give those kids hope and support and celebrate with them and make them feel like we do care,” he says. “It was really a great moment for me. I feel I learned so much. I came back with a totally different view of the entire world.”Jimmy arrived in the US when he was nearly 17 years old and is now only in his 20s but has overcome many obstacles already. He transferred from a two-year college to the University of Texas at Dallas where he is studying international political economy with a focus on diplomacy. He wants get a job in government after he graduates in December God-willing.“I can say ISF has made a huge difference just by supporting me and making me feel like I have people who do care for me,” Jimmy shares. “I have people who are willing to do whatever they can to help me. The human kindness they have shown me has taught me how to become a good person.”Jarvis lives his life with a philosophy centered on appreciation and humility. The trip to Guatemala served as reaffirmation of his purpose.“Those people in Guatemala, some of them cannot speak for themselves and they need somebody to help them,” Jimmy says. “I feel like I’ll make a difference with what I’m studying.”He grins as he recalls the smiles on the children’s faces.“I can see how happy they were,” Jimmy shares. “I was able to tell from the facial expressions and from the engagement we got to do in different activities that we made a difference.”Jessica is enveloped in inner warmth when she thinks about those smiles.“It was emotional like when we went to the all-girls orphanage it’s like being able to relate to them,” she says. “When you grow up in foster care you end up feeling alone, like you never have anyone.”Jessica has gained an extended family at ISF and is grateful for the experience to travel to Guatemala. She remembers a sense of overwhelming joy when she saw the genuine gratitude on the children’s faces.“I literally cried it was so emotional,” she shares. “They were thanking us for making them happy. All the girls were either pregnant, had babies and many were sexually molested.”Jessica said the mothers ranged in ages 7 to 18 years old.“To be in that situation, with children, and not having any family to rely on, while living in an orphanage,” she shares, her voice breaking.The experience gave Jessica a profound sense of self awareness and gratitude of her own situation.“It shows you that you don’t have to pity yourself and that it could always be worse,” she says.Jessica is gearing up for a promising future as a junior studying psychology at Sam Houston State University. She knows her extended family at ISF is just a call or email away if she hits any bumps on the road to graduation.“It makes me feel like I’m not alone,” she shares. “Having a mentor and being able to talk to them whenever I want, or go visit my mentor at her house, it makes me feel like I have somebody there all the time and I’m not alone.”Like Jessica and Jimmy, Jarvis too would return to Guatemala in a heartbeat.“Just being there for other people and forgetting about yourself for a while and helping other people through their struggles is the most rewarding thing,” he says. “To put a smile on those kid’s faces it just brightens your day. I enjoy helping people and being there for other people.”Jarvis first heard about ISF through his place of work where he is a life skills specialist. The scholarship ISF granted him made it possible for him to enroll at Grambling State University in Louisiana where he is studying social work.And like Jessica and Jimmy, Jarvis is eternally grateful to the donors and others who made it possible for them to travel to Guatemala.“Just being there was a whole different perspective,” Jarvis shares, adding that the experience made him feel closer to God.“They changed my whole view of life,” he says. “It made me realize there are other struggles besides mine and enjoyed being with kids that didn’t have anybody, shared similar interests and similar stories. It was very heartbreaking some of those things. I loved everything about the kids and just the mission of it all which was for us to go serve under God.”He shares that above all he learned that no matter how hard life gets one must continue pushing forward.Jessica, Jarvis and Jimmy are just three young adults to be impacted by ISF.ISF staff reports that since the organization’s founding in 2008, it has awarded more than $200,000 in scholarships to 68 students. Twenty-five of those students have graduated so far. Thirty-nine students currently attend universities spanning 20 states and two foreign countries.The organization’s Facebook page states that 20,000 young adults age out of the US foster care system every year. “Every 2.2 seconds, another orphan child ages out with no family to belong to and no place to call home,” the “about” section reads.Blair Ritchey, executive director of ISF, echoes those comments.“There is an ongoing crisis in our nation regarding foster care children and especially those children as they age out,” he says. That is why donations, sponsorships and support of its annual gala are so important.“One of our goals in terms of our students is to cast a vision in their life for leadership and develop that leadership,” Blair shares.He says founder Ben Carroll, along with other leaders, had a brainstorming session where they realized taking North American orphans and fosters to a resource-challenged part of the world where they could serve orphans could open a wealth of opportunity.That is what drew the organization’s leaders to Orphan Outreach. And they are so glad with their decision.“Everything that we hoped for in terms of what could happen did happen,” Blair shares. “You have to remember these are orphan kids and they’ve had a hard time growing up without a dad or a mom. Some of them have had 6, 8 or 10 foster placements. Some of our kids literally grow up on the streets. It hasn’t been easy for them.”But he knows when they visited with the Guatemalan orphans they saw life in a new light.“Here in America we have opportunities that don’t exist in other parts of the world,” Blair says. “Every one of them came back looking at their own situation a little differently.”He hopes their faith was deepened as well.“We accept students regardless of their faith background,” Blair shares. “This mission trip has an impact in a far greater way than anything we could’ve done here in North America.”He says ISF has a profound respect for the work Orphan Outreach and looks forward to a continued partnership.“We love what happens when our students are with the Orphan Outreach team and we intend to cultivate that,” Blair shares.