This year has been hard, but having the chance to reflect on the stories this last year have been so good for my soul. One of my favorite stories of this year has actually been unfolding at Ohana for many years. It is the story of Gio, one of our Ohana youth. He is now 18 years old. He came to Ohana 4 years ago after being dropped off at the Phoenix Children’s Hospital and was never picked up. Gio has special needs and has been in foster care for most his life. When he first came to Ohana he was so scared and angry. I remember one of the early days several years ago, chasing him through the park and blocking rocks from being thrown at my truck because he didn’t know how to express his sadness. He missed the life that was taken from him at such a young age. No one should have to endure this amount of pain.
In 2018, I remember sitting with him at Sea World as we watched the dolphin show together. He turned to me and said this was his first vacation. His shy, half smile is forever part of my soul. I was watching him experience family again.
In May 2020, Gio graduated high school! He had the loudest cheering section at his graduation full of his Ohana family. It was a milestone we weren’t sure would happen. But he did it! We hosted his graduation party full of cat themed décor (Gio’s choice!). He convinced me to buy him a puppy for graduation…and I did. Why do I do this? A word of caution…don’t buy a teenager a dog he has to train (total disaster!)…I should have just bought him another cat.
As he neared graduation, we talked about his future, his house manager encouraged him (more like a full court press) to get his first job. He enrolled in a jobs training program and excelled. Just a few months ago, he completed the work program and he is now an official employee at the Walgreens down the street! He walks to work every day on his own, he is learning independence, and becoming quite a responsible young man.
This Thanksgiving another breakthrough happened for Gio at our Annual Turkey Bowl. Because of Gio’s special needs, physical affection is not his thing. However, without prompting he walked up to me and gave me a hug and said Happy Thanksgiving. I have been giving Gio hugs with his hands held glued to his sides for the last 4 years. But this year, with Gio’s arms wrapped around my shoulders I received the best hug I could have asked for all year long. A kid who hates physical affection felt safe and can hug his Ohana family. I am watching healing happening in real time.
Lastly, the most significant moment that is forever part of me happened earlier this year. The Ohana leadership team hosted a prayer dedication for a new Ohana house and Gio showed up unexpectedly. He walked around the each room inspecting the quality and then asked if he could lead the prayer. It was beautiful. Gio prayed for the kids who will be moving into this home to experience the love, family, and friendship he has experienced all these years. There were tears welling up in my eyes as I listened to Gio’s prayer. It was a holy moment. Gio’s heart was full of love. Gio has experienced a deep sense of hope and healing, and now he is extending that same love he received to kids coming after him.
This is why we exist. Even in the most weariest of days (and years…2020 and 2021…please end) this is why the work we do matters. This year has been the hardest year in many respects. But Gio reminds me of why this all matters. His progress is undeniable. His love for God is real and true.