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What happens to a person in early childhood can have an impact for a lifetime. The implications of this truth are being highlights in research coming out of Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child. According to their findings, early childhood experiences and environments have a profound effect on a child’s developing brain. In the first years of life - also called the early sensitive period – a child’s brain develops rapidly. During this time, the child’s healthy emotional and cognitive development is shaped by dependable and responsive interaction with adults. These interactions can be small, but they are necessary for healthy growth. For example, when an adult responds to a baby’s cry or a parent responds to a toddler’s needs with care and attention. It has been proven that children who lack this type interaction experience a decrease in brain activity. Children who are placed in orphanages shortly after birth show dramatically lower brain activity when compared to their non-institutionalized peers.

The presence of a responsive and protective parental relationship is also important in helping the developing child’s brain cope with stress. Under typical conditions in the care of a family, a child learns to cope with everyday stresses, and physiological stress responses (including increased heart rate, blood pressure and stress hormones like cortisol) quickly return to a baseline. When stress situations are frequent or prolonged – as in the case of extreme poverty or abuse –stress becomes toxic when the care of an adult is absent. Stress responses remain heightened and excessive cortisol disrupts developing brain circuitry.

As would be expected, the more adverse experiences in childhood, the greater the likelihood of developmental delays and other problems. Adults who faced greater adverse experience in early childhood - like poverty, abuse, neglect, parental substance abuse, and exposure to violence – are more likely to face problems like depression, alcoholism, heart disease, and diabetes as adults. While these findings are troubling, there is hope. Research also indicates that early intervention can prevent these consequences. Children taken out of institutional neglect and placed into family situations showed increased IQ and were more likely to experience normal attachment behavior.

All of this research reaffirms the importance of family. Studies have shown that toddlers who have secure, trusting relationships with parents or non-parental caregivers experience minimal stress hormone activation when frightened, while those who have insecure relationships experience a significant stress reaction. Providing responsive, supportive relationships as early as possible can prevent or reverse the damaging effects of toxic stress on children.

The country of Rwanda has responded to research such as this by deciding to close all their orphanages and place those children into permanent families. The Orphan Care Initiative is coming alongside local churches to help reach this goal. You can help children leave the isolation of the orphanage by going on an Orphan Care PEACE trip or sponsoring a family in Rwanda to adopt a child from the orphanage.

Click below to learn more about early childhood adversity from the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, or read more in this working paper from the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child:

 

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Last week People magazine chose to feature Paul Pennington – an adoptive father, friend of Saddleback, and co-founder of Hope for Orphans – and shared the inspiring story of how the Pennington family is working to help orphans around the world find families of their own by equipping the local church.

Paul says of Saddleback Church and the Orphan Care Initiative, “Thank you and your team for all the many ways you guys have supported and inspired us… Thanks so much for your friendship.”

Read the Penningtons’ story below (reposted from People Magazine)

 

Paul and Robin Pennington Have Helped Thousands of Orphans Find Homes

By Annie Lang

Paul and Robin Pennington believe all orphaned children should have a chance at finding families – and they've spent much of their lives working toward that end.

The couple, of Driftwood, Texas, have spent 35 years growing their family of six with children adopted internationally, and it's a tradition they've passed on to their next generation, as well as to other families throughout the country.

"It was never intentional to go out and adopt a child who would make our family diverse," Robin, 53, says. "It was always just a case of, 'What child needs a family?' "

Since founding Hope for Orphans in 2001, a nonprofit with a mission to educate churches on how their congregations can adopt orphans around the world (with the goal of finding homes for orphans through adoption and foster care), the Penningtons have helped thousands of kids find homes.

"These children," says Paul, 58, "might include kids who are older, sibling groups, kids with medical issues, kids from abuse, kids with fetal alcohol syndrome and other brain-related issues. Also, kids from disrupted adoptions, or those with PTSD."

The Penningtons have firsthand experience with special-needs orphans with several of their own five adopted children (they have one biological child) and 11 grandchildren.

Along with their biological firstborn, Elizabeth, 32, their family includes Seth, 27, who was adopted in the U.S. and diagnosed with Graves Disease at age 10; Hope, 19, who was adopted in South Korea and was born with five heart defects, requiring numerous surgeries; and Noah, 17, who also was adopted in South Korea with very short arms and a heart defect that has since been corrected. The remaining siblings are Kit, 29, adopted in the U.S.; and Ethan, 19, adopted in South Korea.

"Paul and Robin are incredible,” says Joshua Zhong, president of Chinese Children Adoption International, whose organization has worked with the Penningtons for a decade. "They’re somewhat unique compared with other adoption advocates, because they’re adoptive parents themselves, so they have a much more sensitive heart. They’ve had their own personal journey, including both failures and successes."

All of the Pennington children are either thriving in school or in the working world.

"When we adopted Kit and Seth, we were adopting in order to have a family," says Paul. "But with the next three, we were adopting in order to give a child a family. Increasingly, we're seeing that sentiment all around the world, people adopting to give children families, and infertility often has nothing to do with it. That's a major change."

Ethan was the Penningtons' first international adoption, when the boy was 3½ months old. When Paul flew to Seoul to pick up Ethan and toured the orphanage wards housing children with special needs and medical conditions, who were likely never going to be adopted, he realized he needed to do more to educate people about adopting.

"Those were kids with congenital defects, terminal illnesses and the like," he says. "That’s when the idea for Hope for Orphans began."

Carrying on a Family Legacy

Today, Paul and Robin's grown children are carrying on the family legacy: Elizabeth, who works for Generations, a nonprofit adoption agency in Waco, Texas, and her husband Mathew Golic have six kids, including Victoria, 16, adopted in Ukraine; and Alise, 14, adopted in China. Their four biological offspring are Jack, 11, who has had three open-heart surgeries; Henry, 10; May, 6; and Emmeline, 5, who has had surgery to correct a heart defect. (The Golics’ son Benjamin, who was adopted in South Korea, died in 2011 at age six of complications from a heart defect.)

Kit, who lives near Dallas and is married to Kelly Taylor, adopted the family’s first child (Oliver, now 9) from Eastern Europe at 14 months old while she was pregnant with another son, Stuart, now 8. The couple’s remaining children are all biological, including George, 6; Charley, 4; and Eloise, 2. But Kit (who is newly pregnant with child number six) says she and Kelly haven't ruled out adopting again someday.

"What inspired me to adopt in general were my younger siblings," Kit says. "The experience changed my life. It taught me how to love someone other than myself, how to nurture and protect."

Paul and Robin say they're proud that their oldest daughters have adopted internationally and are helping to get out the message that more families are needed to take in orphans – particularly those who might be hard to place – from many countries.

"When a child goes into an adoptive home that is prepared for that child's needs, the reward is seeing that child become someone different right before your eyes," says Robin. "You see what love can do."

 

To learn how you can make a difference globally or locally in the life of an orphan, please email orphans@saddleback.com.

 

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Are you considering foster care or adoption, but aren’t sure of your next steps?

The Orphan Care Initiative is here to support you! Every month we host a monthly seminar called “Thinking About Adoption or Foster Care” designed to answer your questions and provide helpful overviews and next steps in a no-pressure environment. Learn more and register for the next class on Feb. 5th here: http://saddleback.com/events/eventdetails.aspx?id=69212

 

Watch and read (below) Amber and Dave’s story - how the journey of foster care and adoption brought two beautiful daughters to their family:

 

 The moment Amber Healy laid her eyes on her foster daughter Summer, it was love at first sight. She and her husband David had two sons and had been longing to grow their family. Amber had no idea that she would soon learn how love would transform her family in ways she never imagined.

 Amber and David’s desire for another child led her to speak with a friend who was a social worker about the idea of becoming foster parents. She liked the idea of being able to provide a safe and loving home for a child who was in need of care. Armed with the information and support provided by the Orphan Care Initiative, Amber and her husband signed up to be foster parents through the county and eagerly awaited news about when they would have a child placed with their family. When the moment they had been waiting for finally arrived, they were filled with excitement about adding another child to their family—even if it was temporary. The next day, Amber and David picked up their foster daughter, Summer. “When the social worker walked in with Summer, I remember being love struck and thinking to myself, ‘she is mine’,” Amber recalls.

 The months that followed would be a ride on an emotional rollercoaster. Most days were filled with joy as Summer began to find a secure place in the Healys’ hearts and family. They loved her as their own daughter and sister. The transition period was tough, and the couple’s small group wrapped around the family providing meals and rearranging schedules to have Bible study at the Healys’ house so that Summer would have the stability of going to sleep in her own bed at the same time every night.

 Amber understood that the emotional involvement involved with foster care is a two-sided coin. Over the months, she enjoyed being able to love, hold, and bond with Summer. However, she also learned that no matter how strong you are, the love you have for your foster child may not always be enough to prevent you from breaking down during the difficult times. She knew that deep in her heart, God was calling her to raise this child for however long was needed, and He was giving her the strength to endure the emotional difficulties she faced. The day finally came when the Healys learned that the court decided that Summer's biological parents were unable to care for her, making Summer eligible for adoption. They were filled with gratitude, relief, and joy that they could finally adopt Summer and legally make her their daughter.

 When Summer grew a little older and the Healys felt like she was ready to not be the youngest in the house, they made the decision to adopt again. This time, Amber and David explored international adoption and decided to adopt a child from Rwanda. But six months into the process, Rwanda closed it’s doors to adoption from outside of the country, and devastation set in for Amber. She compares the heartbreak, loss, and grief she experienced equal to that of a miscarriage.

 Now back at square one, Amber found herself discouraged and uncertain  in how to go forward. She laughs as she recalls the irony in having already completed the foster-adoption process once, yet having no idea how to start the adoption process from scratch. Amber was not comfortable with private adoptions. In her quiet time with God, she told Him that she didn’t want to adopt privately or adopt a young baby or infant. But God had a different plan and directed her steps onto a course she wasn’t expecting to take.

For three weeks straight, Amber stayed up nightly till 2:00 a.m. researching how to adopt. She sought advice from the Orphan Care Initiative that helped her explore all her options. One day while speaking to a Christian adoption service, she overheard a conversation between a facilitator and a woman who was expressing her desire to not be treated like an incubator or commodity and was contemplating abortion.

 Amber was overwhelmed by the depth of genuine care and love the facilitator had for the distraught woman on the other end of the phone. At that moment, she felt God calming her fears and giving her peace about adopting privately. As she stepped out in faith and bravely opened her heart to a process that had recently led to great pain, God miraculously orchestrated the private adoption of a baby within a matter of months.

 The Healy’s adopted from a 38 year-old-mother who lived in another state. The woman did not want her family at home to know she was pregnant, so she spent the last months of her pregnancy with the Healys. Amber recounts how she continued to learn the depths of what God means when He says “love never fails” by walking straight into this birthmother’s world of pain and loss. She remembers sobbing in a hotel room with the woman as she explained how she couldn’t get the money to abort her child and how she had wanted the adoptive family to be African American. In the midst of all this sadness, Amber was able to share that this was not what she had originally wanted either, but that God had a better plan than what they both wanted to choose for themselves. In the end, it was not a difficult decision for either of them, but rather an incredible gift that God had placed right in front of them. 

 In the short amount of time they spent together, the Healys grew to know and love this birth mom. Their children would hold her hand and walk and talk with her, and they even spent a day with her at the aquarium. When their daughter Ellie was born, Amber said the most difficult things she had to do were to take baby Ellie and say goodbye to the woman she had chosen to love.

Ellie was given the middle name “Love” as a symbol and reminder that this special little girl had come from a place and person full of love. The Healys will be forever grateful to Ellie’s birth mom for her heroic, loving, and giving act of selflessness that gave them the gift of their daughter.

 

If you have any additional questions about adoption or foster care, please email us at orphans@saddleback.com or call Orphan Care at 949-609-8555.

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Have you ever considered that there is a child living with HIV in the United States or around the world who is outside of parental care, waiting for a family of their own?

According to UNICEF (2011), there are 153 million orphans worldwide. It is accurate to say that millions of these children are living with HIV. Without a family to care for them, their risk of death is inevitable. Their deaths are preventable. Not only can the church care for children living with HIV, they can provide what every child needs most: they can help children reunite with their families (if they are separated because of orphanage care), and they can help them get adopted into legal, loving, lasting families of their own either within their country of birth, or within a family beyond their borders who will welcome them as their own child through adoption.

In 2011, in the United States, only about 9,000 people adopted from other countries, and tragically, of that small number who adopted, only a handful of children living with HIV were adopted. Families report that stigma, fear, myths and ignorance keep them from adopting children who are living with HIV.

There is hope. You can explore our sister site, www.HIVAIDSInitiative.com. You will learn what causes HIV and what doesn’t. You’ll learn how a child with HIV is not dangerous for a family and that HIV is not transmitted through ordinary daily contact. You’ll also receive hope and community to find other families who have adopted HIV positive, who can share what it means to have your child living with HIV.

Adopting HIV + children is part of the Orphan Care Initiative at Saddleback Church. Adopting children with HIV should be a well-informed decision. There are many issues to consider. Access to good medical care, how to deal with schools, friends, future relationships, and marriage are just some of the issues that need to be explored. Adopting child living with HIV is not like adopting any other child with a chronic disease. HIV affects the child and family in multiple ways, and becomes more complicated as your child grows and matures.

We believe that not everyone should adopt, but everyone who names the name of Jesus should ask themselves, “How can I help a child get into a permanent family of their own…every child-including those living with HIV.” There are many ways you can help others adopt. You can also support a family who is adopting a child who is living with HIV. We believe there are millions of children living with HIV who need a loving, legal, life-long family of their own. Could you be one of those families?

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Have you ever wondered if surrounding your adoptive or foster child with affection and compassion may not be preparing them for adulthood and the harsh realities of the “real world”? Dr. Karyn Purvis dispels this myth as part of her video series “10 Common Questions Adoptive Parents Ask.”

Building connection with your child is excellent preparation for the real world. Nuture when in balance with structure gives your child the tools and self-confidence needed to tackle the tough challenges of life in the future. Meeting the deep needs of your adoptive child, building solid relationships filled with trust and respect, and teaching loving limits allows them to develop secure attachments that are the solid basis for their future. As they mature, this basis teaches them to seek healthy relationships and apply healthy limits within their adult lives. For children from hard places, being nurturing is not permissiveness – it allows for the healing of old wounds and preparation for life.

To hear the entire series from Dr. Purvis visit http://empoweredtoconnect.org/topics/10-common-questions/ or explore more of Dr. Purvis’s resources for adoptive and foster parents at http://empoweredtoconnect.org.

If you are interested in connecting with other adoptive parents and learning more about adoption support at Saddleback Church, email orphans@saddleback.com or call 949-609-8555.

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