On Top of the World

When I think of Sammy, I think of M&Ms.

He turned 9 years old when we met him at his orphanage in October of 2006, and we bought him a small package of M&Ms as a present. The orphanage was housed in a narrow, tall building in the middle of the bustling downtown, and we took him up to the rooftop balcony to sing happy birthday and give him his package of M&Ms.  Our intention was to give him the gift away from the other children so he could enjoy the candy by himself.  And as he jumped up and down upon seeing the candy, I thought about how most kids his age would hardly blink if they were handed a bag of M&Ms.  And then he took his package of candy right back down those stairs we’d just walked up and shared with the other children in the orphanage.

sammySammy and Jacob, my husband, back in 2007 when we visited his orphanage.

Sammy quickly had our heart.

The day we left the orphanage, Sammy accompanied us to the airport with a few other children and some orphanage staff.  I wrote this about our painful goodbye a few months after it happened:

The last day at the orphanage predictably broke our hearts.  The orphanage sent Sammy and a few of the other kids to the airport to see us off.   When we were saying our goodbyes, Sammy broke down into deep and rolling sobs.  He hugged us tightly and wouldn’t let go… especially when it came time to say goodbye to Jacob.   Our visit to the orphanage drew a lot of media attention, and the reporters were touched by this small child and his open heart and deep love.  In fact, his tear-streaked face made the front page of the newspaper in the article covering our last day.  One reporter, who I know was just trying to help and comfort Sammy the best way he knew how, started telling Sammy something in Chinese.   I didn’t know what was being said, but I could see Sammy trying to stifle his tears and wipe his eyes.  Sammy was nodding vigorously in response to the reporter’s comments and clearly was trying to be strong.   I asked a translator what was being said, and I was broken-hearted to hear that the reporter was telling Sammy that if he was good, didn’t cry, and did well in school, he would be adopted by us.   Thinking about that moment still makes me cry… I managed to get a translator to explain to Sammy that he was perfect just the way that he was.  I told him that we loved him and that if we could bring him with us we would, but we were too young to adopt him.  In my heart, I promised then to do what I could to find him a home. 

Fast forward 6 months later… It’s May of 2007, and I was part of a Yahoo Group for waiting children in China.  (Some of you may remember Yahoo Groups — it’s how we all networked and discussed shared interests before Facebook and other social media really took off.)  And each day, I’d get multiple email digests that were filled with 20-30 emails about kids who were waiting for their families in China.  It was a lot of email, and to be honest I rarely opened or read any of them.  But one day in May, I “happened” to open an email digest, and I “happened” to scroll through all the emails, and I “happened” to read one about a little boy who was about Sammy’s age and from the same province and had the same special need, and though I knew there were probably 40-50 other children who met the same description, I thought “what the heck,” and I emailed the agency with his file and asked if it “happened” to be him.

And it was.

The agency had been trying to find him a family for several months, but all they had was some basic medical information and some grainy pictures.  Older boys are the hardest kids to place in adoptive families, and they hadn’t had any luck.  They could only keep his file for a few more weeks, and since his file had been sent out to other agencies before with no placements made, this agency was concerned time was ticking and that he’d soon be deemed “unadoptable” and the Chinese government would stop sending out his file for consideration.

Suddenly I knew that it was not happenstance that made me open that email.  I had no doubt God gave me an opportunity to make good on my promise to do what I could to find him a home.  I quickly sat down and wrote out as many memories I could recall from those few days we’d spent together — how kind he was and how he cared so deeply for the younger children in the orphanage; how he shared his food with the other kids the first time he ever got to go to McDonald’s; how he fretted about how much money were spending on him at Wal-Mart when we bought him new shoes.  I wrote it all down and sent it out to the same yahoo group and asked others to share it as well.  The story spread.

Within a few weeks, a family saw the email and decided to adopt him.  I’m not sure I can describe the gratitude I felt to know he’d have a family… that he wouldn’t grow up wondering if he was a “good enough” boy or student to deserve a family.  We stayed in touch with his parents through the years and I exchanged a few emails with his mom.  I was always grateful to hear he seemed to be adjusting well.  We saw each other once right after Alea came home at a time when I was really struggling with life post-adoption.  Everything felt chaotic and overwhelming and sometimes I found myself wondering if we’d ever feel like a “normal family” again.  In one of my lowest moments, a package arrived from Sammy.  In his note he said, “Without your yes, there wouldn’t be a Sammy in this world.” And though I felt like I was at rock bottom, I heard God whisper plain-as-day to my heart, “Without your yes, there wouldn’t be an Alea in this world.”  And in that moment, it was Sammy’s letter that felt like a lifeline and gave me hope… just like my letter had been in his life a few years before.

Time marches on.  Our family did find stable ground again.  I started following Sammy on Instagram and could see he was a happy, well-adjusted young man with a great group of friends and a close-knit family.  And then one day, a graduation invitation arrived in the mail.  Though it’s hard to believe he’s already reached this milestone, this past weekend our family drove to Dallas and celebrated Sammy’s graduation from high school and his upcoming college adventure at Biola University in California.

Saturday night we attended his graduation party at the top of Reunion Tower in Dallas. His parents rented a whole floor of the tower, so my kids had the chance to literally run circles around the place.  Waiters served plates of Asian-inspired appetizers.  Like a proper 19-year-old, Sammy ordered the salmon AND the filet for dinner.  Everyone was relaxed and happy and easy-going, enjoying the eagle-eye views and the chance to just savor the moment and celebrate Sammy’s accomplishments. And it seemed fitting — all of us standing at the top of the world, spinning in wide-eyed wonder as we marveled at how many miracles God had done to bring us to this day.  At one point, I glanced to the desert table.  Beside the cupcakes, sat a bowl of M&Ms. In his school colors and printed with Sammy’s picture, they celebrated the present, heralded his future and also reminded me of the past… to that first small package of M&Ms and me wondering if it would be the only birthday present he ever had.


As we went to leave, Sammy’s dad gave me a hug and said, “Just think – all of this because of an email!” and we were both struck with the sheer beauty of it all.  God never stops his redemptive work.  He’s always weaving our stories together, enabling his people to encourage and edify and carry one another along.  It’s so beautiful and sacred and glorious and lavish – like a whole floor of Reunion Tower reserved just for you with all the dumplings you can eat… it’s beyond description really, and it’s a story I often think about when I find myself confronted with circumstances that seem hopeless or forgotten.  It’s a story to remember when we wonder if God hears our prayers.  He does!  God is persistent and faithful and he will never stop working to bring good things out of the rubble of our lives.

Sammy, congratulations!  I know the adventure of your life is just getting started.  “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9) When I got you a graduation gift with this verse on it, I didn’t realize it was your favorite verse. But I do think it sums up your life perfectly. You are strong and courageous. It takes both strength and courage to say yes to being adopted by a family you don’t know and start life over in a new country with a new language. It took and will take unbelievable trust and hope to combat the fear and discouragement that could easily be a natural part of the struggles you faced and may face in the future. But God is with you, and you can never outrun his love and provision.

Sammy, even at just 19 your life’s story is already a powerful testimony to God’s unfailing love.  It gives me great hope.  I’m so grateful to know you, and I’ll always have M&Ms for you.





One thought on “On Top of the World

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.