Born to Neglect, Raised to Hope

By Dick Peterson



Adoption agency social workers told Kurt and Vicki Johnson that bringing a little orphaned girl from Guangzhou, China, into their home would be difficult. But it wasn’t until Hope Evangeline entered the Johnson household in January that they understood exactly how difficult it would be. Neglect in the Chinese orphanage left the then 2½-year-old unable to eat solids, sleep through the night, or trust her new parents. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Vicki Johnson said.


Hope is nearly 3 now. The four months she’s been with the Johnsons have brought a litany of challenges, regressions, and tiny victories. Vicki keeps a journal to track how far Hope has progressed since she arrived at her new home in Summerville, S.C.


The Johnsons confess to having early doubts. “I’ll tell you truthfully, I was thinking ‘What did we do? What were we thinking?’ This was huge,” Vicki said. Confidence in the fact that God wanted them to adopt this child has helped, as well as friends and family praying with and for them. At times, Vicki wonders if she’s too negative about Hope’s slow progress as Kurt celebrates baby steps.


“This puts stress on a marriage, and I’m learning how deficient I am in caring for [Vicki],” Kurt said. When he heads off to work each day, Kurt leaves Vicki with their six biological children and Hope’s next challenge. When he comes home in the evening, Vicki needs him to take over.


The first challenge: Teaching Hope to eat food. She’s only ever eaten formula from a bottle, so they began by giving her a baby spoon to play with, rubbed it against her face and lips, and then tried a little pureed food to let her know it had taste. Then they tried one Cheerio, which she held in her mouth until it disintegrated. Although she had a full set of teeth, she didn’t know to chew solid food, they gently moved her jaw up and down.


At the orphanage, Hope probably never slept through the night in a room of 30 cribs filled with 1- and 2-year-olds. When she awakes, her hands and fingers are her toys. Vicki said they never put toys in their children’s cribs, so to keep her from playing at night, she wears mittens to bed. With her new bedtime routine, Hope sleeps better.


Each new learning experience begins with a clash of wills between Hope and her new parents. Whether learning to eat, changing clothes, bathing after a diaper change, or walking down the back steps holding the rail rather than mom’s hand, every challenge invites trauma.


“She’s learning to trust us and we’ve made a little headway, but we have so much to go,” Kurt said. They suspect Hope’s teeth had never been brushed. After a week of crying and screaming, introducing her to the electric toothbrush with barely a hint of mouthwash, and brushing her front teeth only, Hope now climbs up on the stool to reach the sink, giddy and smiling.


“I review my notes, and we’ve come so far,” Vicki said, referring not just to Hope, but to herself and Kurt as well. “I’ve learned a lot about our sinful nature, hers and my own.” She’s learning to stay joyful for the sake of her other children, who are just as important. And she’s learning to trust God, to forgive, and to repent of the frustrations that arise from seeing Hope acting much younger than her physical age and not being able to change her fast enough.


“It just takes time,” she said.

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