Turning 18 is a big deal. Here in America, it means you can legally make decisions for yourself. You can vote, be drafted, buy lottery tickets, sign up for a credit card. It means you are considered an adult.
But for most of us, it’s not much of a change. We are still usually in high school, or just starting college, and our trajectory continues on as normal. We live in our parents’ home or can easily call for some extra pocket money. We often talk big, but the reality of our situation changes little.
Not so for the orphan in Eastern Europe. Turning 18 is a big deal, too. But it means the end of state mandated care. At 18, these children, most of them still in high school, are given a bag of personal items, a small stipend that amounts to maybe $50 or so, and are sent on their way.
These children are offered “apartments,” but the rent and utilities are much higher than what any subsidy they receive can pay for, and the places offered to them are in dangerous neighborhoods filled with crime and drugs. They live piled on each other’s couches, sometimes as many as 20 to a room, and are forced to drop out of school to get jobs. Of course, the only jobs they can get are unskilled ones, like a shop clerk or waitress. These jobs don’t pay the rent, either. So they turn to crime or prostitution to make ends meet. Even the ones who are trying to stay on the legal side of the law are offered sketchy jobs: dance on a bar in a bikini to lure men into a restaurant; carry a package from here to there with no questions asked; answer phones in a hastily put together office. It is a bleak life, and few of them succeed or move out of these situations. Many girls end up trafficked because they answer the wrong ad or trust the wrong person. Some boys even plan where and what crimes to commit so that they can be put into the jail they heard was more desirable—at least there, they have meals and warmth and know what to expect.
I know these kids. I’ve met them. These aren’t stories I’m making up based on statistics or research. These are living, breathing people who have looked me in the eye and told me their stories or the story of their friend or their cousin or their sister. These are kids who think that maybe they will be the exception to the rule because facing the truth that they probably won’t be is just too hard.
In just one month, Peter Pan turns 18.
In just one month, this could be his life.
In just one month, he will be figuring out how to survive.
Except we found each other. Peter Pan sat at my kitchen table with his head in his hands and laid out the truths of his life. He counted out the people he knows who have fallen into the traps of an aged-out orphan. There aren’t parents. There aren’t calls for pizza money. There aren’t plans anymore.
There isn’t hope.
Oh, the weight of that. The way his eyes flicked from his hands to my face to his hands again. The way the despair lingered in the air.
Turning 18 is a terrible thing. Turning 18 is the end of life, not the beginning.
This is the Peter Pan who came to my house this past Christmas: a boy without hope, without a plan, without a way of escape. He was a boy in mourning.
But something happened between us over that month he was here—we invested in each other. We loved. We whispered secrets. We shared histories. We became companions in our journeys.
And this boy found himself trusting me with things that he has never spoken out loud. We built a foundation that allowed him to tell me of his fears for the future and how hope didn’t exist for someone like him.
But then, it changed. I offered him the possibility of a student visa, and the ability to not be alone. Here he can finish school. Here he can live with a family. Here he can have a home—a real home, not a lonely apartment, with people he loves.
Our excitement at this possibility mounted, and as I began the steps to investigate how to make this a reality, we quickly discovered something: due to some problems with visas in his country, the lawyers are no longer working with anyone trying to get a visa for a child under the age of 18.
What a relief he was going to be 18, I thought. We started working, with all paperwork to be finalized a week or so after his birthday.
One day, I turned to him and said, “I’m so glad you are going to be 18. I’m so thankful.”
And that child didn’t flicker this time. This time he looked me full in the face with his beautiful eyes and said, “I also am glad for this.”
Oh, the joy in that. The way his eyes held laughter. The way the very air crackled with his hope.
Somehow, in that month at our home, turning 18 had been redeemed.
In just one month, Peter Pan’s life trajectory completely changed.
In just one month, ashes were exchanged for beauty.
In just one month, our deep mourning was turned to gladness.
Hope springs where only despair had lived.
It is not going to be easy, and we have much to do and much to fear still. There are obstacles and hurdles that feel insurmountable in this process. But we are not living like those without hope. We know we have One interceding for us, and though we do not know the outcome, we know that there is joy in the walking.
And so we are dancing and praying, laughing and hoping. He’s almost 18! My boy, almost grown. My Peter Pan, ready to fly to a place where he doesn’t need to be alone.
It’s dream he never thought could come true.
Please continue to pray with us through the hurdles that this dream will indeed become a reality, and that we can celebrate 18 with him in our arms.
Peter Pan isn’t the only one who needs the hope that a month in America can bring. Hosting changes lives. The connection and the transformation that happens is not something I can overstate. Please consider being that spark to others who need a chance to see through the despair. It’s a month of your life that can forever change the trajectory of theirs. Go here to view the children who are available for summer hosting. I have personally met so many of them and heard their stories. They need you. Call me, write me, ask me. I want to be their voice. Please listen. Please host, support hosting, share about hosting. You can make a difference.