Spokane, WA has been one of my favorite U.S. cities for sometime now. I love this particular part of the great Northwest. There is such beauty in this area… the wide, rambling river that runs through the center of town… the snow-capped mountains forming a frosty horizon that encircles the city… the ability to breathe deep-lung-fulls of clean, crisp air… the fact that it snows in April and people don’t freak out (unless you’re visiting, like we were).
But I also love Spokane because it’s home to the best hotel we stay in all year, The Davenport… and then right around the corner is one of my favorite restaurants, Niko’s Greek Restaurant and Wine Bar. It’s one of my top 3 favorite dining experiences… the other two being The Carnivore in Nairobi, Kenya (grilled Zebra anyone?) and then last year’s 4th of July candlelit dinner in my backyard – where I prepared a gourmet spread of Americana Cuisine for 20 good friends. And being quite the international bunch… each brought a tasty beverage that represented their culture and/or heritage. I loved celebrating America’s Independence with friends from India, Costa Rica, Mexico, the Czech Republic, North Africa… and so on.
So, back to Spokane (man, I get sidetracked!): Saturday night reservations at Niko’s were in tact… which included a private room and Pauline, the restaurant’s Sommelier, who personally took us through the VIP “family-style” dining experience… including wine-pairings that take you to such culinary highs that you want to cuss, and then call your Mama. The curry alone will cause you to weep. Needless to say, we approached the work-weekend with great anticipation. But little did I know that this particular trip to Spokane would be so memorable… for me, and for many others on the Women of Faith team. But it went beyond our dining adventure. Way beyond…
Now certainly, the fabulous Greek dinner, shared with the greatest of friends… is memorable enough. But let’s back up 12 or so hours … to Saturday morning:
We arrived at the arena, bleary-eyed and toe-dragging, around 7:00am. We work 17 hours on Fridays (usually ending around 11pm)… so most Saturday mornings require a combination of pep talks, coffee shots and a Red Bull chaser or two. This morning was no different. After gulping some watered-down catering coffee, some scrambled faux-eggs and bacon-like strips… we stumbled to the concourse for our Saturday morning routine of preparing our booths for our volunteers to arrive.
Side Note: My job as a World Vision tour rep at Women of Faith, has become a little more complicated this year and takes a lot more time and energy… but it’s been completely worth it, as we’re seeing double the results from last year. This season, instead of just having picture folders at 3 or 4 tables on the concourse, we’re putting an additional 5000 picture folders, hanging inside bright orange plastic bags on the seats of the attendees. Roughly every other seat has an orange bag hanging from the arm, next to the yellow program bags, that contains a picture of a World Vision child who is waiting to be sponsored. There are no duplicate photos, these are not samples… these are actual children… actual lives that need to be rescued. Can you imagine the impact this makes when people come face-to-face with the pictures and stories of these children? Children whose stories need to change… whose hearts need hope… whose lives need a future.
Okay, back to the morning routine: Not five minutes after reaching my booth, I was radioed by Ryan, a member of the bookstore team whose job that weekend was to work inside the “bowl” (aka, the stands and floor inside the arena). Ryan simply said,
“Uh… Deb… have you been inside the bowl yet?”
“No Ryan, I just got to my booth… why?”
“All the kids are gone.”
“What? What are you talking about, Ryan?”
“The kids… the orange bags… they’ve all been thrown away? The bowl… it’s empty.”
“They’re gone? What do you mean, ‘thrown away’? WHAT?!”
“Um… you better just come look for yourself…”
I ran through the breezeway that leads to the second tier of the arena seats… and looked out over the massive bowl. Empty. Clean swept. Spotless. Not a scrap of paper or bright orange bag to be found. I’m sure there’s a cleaning crew somewhere who was very proud of their diligent work.
My stomach sank. My heart started to do that palpitation thing. Then I saw Ryan, and Lauren, the Event Planner on the main floor. I bolted down the steps… taking two at a time… jumping over seats… frantically trying to reach them in hopes of some logical answer. My mind was still in shock and my bewilderment kept making all kinds of irrational assumptions. Maybe they’re still there and I can’t see them? Maybe, just maybe… they have the children in a safe place and are going to redistribute them? Maybe… ?
Soon the Arena Manager got involved. She was apologetic, but calm. Until she found out that it was pictures of World Vision children that her cleaning crew had thrown in the dumpster. She took one look at the picture folder I held up for her to see… let out a rather colorful expletive… and bolted off.
Word spread quickly. Within minutes, people from the various Women of Faith teams rushed over with offers of help. The Production Crew, the Operations Team, Management… “What can we do, Deb? You name it!” “Let’s get those kids outta the trash!” I just stood there stunned… unable to respond.
Michael Jones (better known as Jonesy) from the Production Crew, saw my distress, not to mention the utter dismay on my face, and pulled me aside…
Jonesy: “Deb, this can turn out good. I know it looks bad… but we can make this good. Let’s look for the lemonade here. It just looks like we got lemons… but it can be lemonade!”
Me: “Jonesy… what are you talking about? Lemonade? I have 5,000 kids in the dumpster! How is that lemonade!?!”
Jonesy (smiling calmly): “You still have kids at your tables, right?” (I nodded silently, lip quivering) “How many?”
Me: “About 2,000.”
Jonesy: “There’s our lemonade. Talk to Mary [Graham] and have her tell this story from stage. You’ll probably have more kids sponsored than you ever imagined!”
The Arena Manager re-appeared to tell us that some of her maintenance staff had begun digging through the dumpsters. They’d already begun pulling orange bags from the refuse. “How bad are they?” I asked. “Some are pretty bad… but we have disinfectant spray. I think we can salvage some”.
Jonesy’s words of encouragement, not to mention the prayers I knew were already taking place on our behalf, began to kick in. My paralytic moment passed. I shook off the overwhelm – and got my game face on.
We immediately rushed to the trash compactor area and saw a handful of arena staff digging into the large, black trash bags. There were 4 dumpsters next to them, piled high with the previous night’s cleaning… and an industrial trash compactor ¾ full of the same. The entire Production Team and most of the Ops Team quickly donned the blue rubber surgical gloves and paper face-masks the arena provided. One group began spraying the orange bags with disinfectant. The next group wiped them down and handed them off to the next group who ran the kids back to the seats of the attendees.
Before jumping into the fray, I saw Mary Graham entering the backstage of the arena. I rushed over and filled her in… hoping to give her time to process what would happen from stage. Then I dashed off to re-join the teams working in the trenches.
I began attacking the garbage bags… ripping each one open, digging through the contents. One by one I’d find another precious orange bag containing a child’s photo… many dripping with Coca Cola, or covered in grease or food stains. Some were beyond recognition, or repair. But miraculously, many survived despite the bed of refuse they’d slept in all night. The more orange bags I found, the more determined I became that these children could be rescued… and might have a chance at being sponsored today. Without thinking, I jumped smack-dab into the middle of the 8 ft pile of filthy trash bags, and began madly searching for children.
While I was busy sorting through sticky, soaked fliers and programs and trying to avoid grabbing half-eaten hot dogs or getting mustard and ketchup on my bare arms… I could hear Trent and Kristen on my radio… calling to each other, obviously frantic and busy. Trent was running back and forth between my booth and his – directing the volunteers – managing both tables and sets of volunteers. Kristen had the busiest booth – at least 60% of the people were coming to her… little did I know, that while I was dumpster-diving, the two of them were managing a record-breaking morning… with almost 200 children being sponsored during that one hour. And that was BEFORE the morning’s catastrophe had been announced from stage!
I will never forget the team-work I witnessed, and was part of, this weekend. Tears filled my eyes (partly from emotions, partly from fumes) at the encouragement, support and hugs I received (even though I really smelled!) throughout the weekend. But tears flooded my eyes as I realized that we were able to rescue nearly 2,000 children from the dumpster. It would have taken weeks, if not months, to discover the missing children and get them back out for sponsorship. And when you live in a crisis environment, like these sweet children and their families… a month can sometimes mean life or death. I was grieved at the 2500 or so we were unable to retrieve from depths of the trash compactor… but I know that with our prayers and the crack team at World Vision’s processing center… they will soon be back out with us… and will have the chance for someone to sponsor them. Because, to quote my friend Marilyn Merberg… “God knows where they live!”
Jonesy’s optimistic prediction came true. Mary did an amazing job from stage… telling the audience what happened. She told people that “the children had been rescued once that morning… now they needed to be rescued a second time… by being sponsored”. And Marilyn followed that up again before lunch… reminding people that “no one should be thrown away”. 875 children were sponsored that weekend in Spokane… triple what we did last time we were there.
For those of who were a part of the search and rescue team… “thank you”… it’s not nearly enough… but “thank you”, is all I have. And keep in mind, that when you sponsor one child… you affect a minimum of five people (their family, community, etc). Your rescue effort will affect at least 13,000 children and their familes.
So, on behalf of myself.. and families throughout East Africa… “namshukuru Mungu”
(I thank God for you)