I believe that out of our deepest pain and challenges can arise our greatest potential, empathy, and contributions in life. When we take the love that was invested in us and invest it into the lives of others, empowering them to realize their dreams and aspirations, that love will continue. And therein lies our greatest potential to change our world.
In January 2018, I met with a group of young women who would soon be aging-out of a girls’ home in Kolkata. Each were orphaned and had no parents or family. I talked with them about the Love Forward program and our commitment to help them pursue a college education and transition successfully into careers of their choosing. In turn, each of the women shared their personal dreams and aspirations, which ranged from practicing medicine to teaching.
Toward the end of our time together, I asked if they had any questions. Their only question was this:
Are you coming back?
Their question pierced my heart. The same question dominated my early childhood. I was severely neglected and abused growing up, until one day my mother abandoned me on the street and never returned. I was placed in a local children’s shelter, where my only question was,
Are you coming back?
A few months later, a couple visited the shelter and took me home with them. Years later, they adopted me. And the love that I received from my adoptive parents changed the direction of my life.
In 1998, I established Arms of Love International, an organization that operates family-based children’s homes in Nicaragua and the Philippines. I had a vision to care for abused and abandoned children who had been permanently separated from their families and to pour love into their lives, caring for them as if they were my own children.
When I started Arms of Love, I wasn’t concerned about how many children I could reach—I wanted to reach the one who had experienced the greatest trauma, who felt the most unwanted and unloved. The one that other people or organizations might consider a lost cause or not worth the investment. Because there was a time when I was the one. I wanted them to receive the message that I once longed to hear: you are worth it. And then I wanted to reach as many children as possible, with a level of care that would communicate that message,
In 2003, I had a conference call with an organization that had established hundreds of orphanages. They asked how much it would cost to build the next Arms of Love home and how many children that home would care for. When I told them the project would cost $15,000 and that several staff and up to eight children would reside in the home, they refused funding. “Your proposal is outside of our return on investment parameters,” they explained. “We can purchase a warehouse in Russia for the same cost and house 50 orphans.” Never once did they ask a question about our model of care or the quality of our program.
I proceeded to build that next home, without their help. In March 2005, a 15-year-old girl named Anzelie moved into that home. Today, she is a college graduate who is fulfilling her lifelong dream of being a teacher. In September 2017, Anzelie visited her childhood home for the first time in many years, and afterward, she wrote:
What a difference love makes. Here, in my prior home, in the middle of the night, my stepdad would come into my room and molest me. At Arms of Love, in the middle of the night, Papa Gino would check my room and make sure that the blanket was still covering me, so I wouldn’t be bitten by the mosquitoes. Papa Gina respected and valued me so much, he could not even go to sleep until he knew that I was at home safe in my room.
What a difference love makes.
In 2007, when the first kids at Arms of Love began to graduate high school and needed to move out of the homes, we faced a new challenge—how to help them transition successfully into their adult lives. In response, we developed an “Independent Living Program” that provided each student with the opportunity to pursue a post-secondary education, at a college or vocational school, covering their tuition, educational costs, and living expenses.
Over the past 10 years, I witnessed the immense impact of our program. When students age-out of an orphanage or similar program in a developing country, they are at high risk of being pulled back into a life of extreme poverty and abuse. This is especially true for women students, who face a unique set of challenges including risks of gender-based violence and exploitation. It tore me up to see some of our girls leave as minors and end up in abusive situations. In contrast, those that continued their education achieved a greater level of financial independence, which provide them with a wider range of choices, paths, and opportunities.
I started Love Forward to extend this scholarship and transition program to students aging out many other orphanages in developing countries. I deeply believe that in those who have experienced the greatest trauma, there lies the greatest potential. They are the compassionate influencers and leaders of tomorrow. And most fundamentally, love demands it. They are worth it.
A budget of only $150 to $200 per month can cover the entirety of a student’s educational costs and living expenses at a university in Nicaragua, the Philippines, or India. But it is not just about the numbers. Our vision is to do more than fund a higher education. We want every student we sponsor to know how deeply they are valued. That we believe in them. And that we are committed to helping each of them realize their aspirations and dreams.
Love Forward changes lives. In the process, we impact our world. Our students were once abused and discarded by others. When we value and empower them by providing a higher education and creating a new future, it sows love into their lives. It tells them, in a profound way, you are worth it. And that love and message is then passed on in their families and communities, impacting generations to come.
Change the future and love forward.