Smiles, miles away

Northwest Arkansas Times: Sunday, January 25, 2009

Smiles, miles away: Fayetteville woman finds calling in caring for children in Africa

Her defenses were thin. The visitors took notice. They serve as a reminder that she is, indeed, a world away from her former life. A third world away.

When trying to describe how different living it is living in the heart of Africa to those who remember her, Amy Blevins simply looked down.

“The ants are just everywhere,” Blevins said from her cell phone in Jinja, Uganda. “I’m looking at my floor right now. There’s got to be a hundred huge ants crawling around my kitchen floor. … I ran out of bug spray and so here they come.”

When Blevins first started to picture her possible way of life in this poverty-stricken land, she did not envision the ant army. Or the variety of deadly snakes. Or flocks of birds pecking at the large rusted Dumpsters filled with trash on every street corner.

No, when she first stumbled across the Web site of the Amani Baby Cottage in the summer of 2006, she saw the children she could help, their big brown eyes yearning for an opportunity for a better tomorrow.

“It’s kind of hard to explain. I just really felt this was something I was supposed to do. I ran across the Web site and it kept coming back to me,” the now 36-year-old woman said.

“She just saw that and it just wouldn’t let go of her. She was convinced then that God wanted her to go there,” added her mother, Jan Blevins.

In early 2007, Amy Blevins, who was raised in Elkins and had done her undergraduate and graduate studies at the University of Arkansas, decided she would volunteer at the baby orphanage for a year. She took a leave at her job as a Wal-Mart vendor. She gave her car away. She remodeled, and then rented out her Fayetteville home. She cashed in one of her 401(k)s. She left for Uganda in March 2007 with the support of her family, friends and church—sprinkled with a pinch of dismay.

“People couldn’t believe it, couldn’t believe someone would do something like that because it’s counterintuitive to the average person,” Jan Blevins said.

When Amy Blevins first arrived at the orphanage, which was founded in 2003 by an American woman, she helped update the same Web site that snagged her as well as oversee general maintenance of everything in the cottage.

Jan Blevins visited her daughter by herself—her husband, Bruce, is not fond of flying—in October 2007, to get a glimpse into Amy’s newfound world. Her memories, and the phots saved on her work computer, still astound but at the same time fascinate her.

“I was absolutely thrilled to be there every minute I was there,” she said. “It was just so different from here.”

Amy Blevins, who has been back to Arkansas only once since she left, has now been in Uganda for 22 moths. She arrived with “absolutely no intention of adopting.” That was before she met a boy now named Emmett, who celebrated his third birthday Tuesday. It was motherhood at first sight.

“She said one time, ‘Mama, when I look at him, I can see him grown up, but I can’t see any of the other children in this room [that way].’ And he picked her out, too. Boy, he just cling to her from the beginning,” Jan Blevins said.

Before too long, Amy Blevins found out about a 2-pound baby who was found in a plastic bag following a night of torrential rain. He was staying at a local hospital. He was eventually given the name Isaiah and is now almost 2 years old.

“God kind of pointed that little boy out and said ‘You need to take him home’ and then ‘Him, too,’” Jan Blevins.

Amy Blevins, who coincidentally serves as the orphanage’s foster coordinator, initially hoped to return with the boys back home by this March. Now, in the middle of a mass of paperwork, she is prepared to stay as much as a year longer. Whenever she does return, she will more than likely apply for jobs that will keep her away from the boys more than her current position “so I’m really enjoying the opportunity to spend time with them.”

Until that time comes, she will continue her less-chosen path. After ending the phone call, another thought came to her, one that was relayed through her mother.

“I used to think that what I was doing was not very important, because I was not changing the whole world,” Amy Blevins said. “But now I think that what I do is very important. For each that we put in a permanent home, we are changing that child’s whole world.

“They will not become street kids, prostitutes, go hungry and malnourished. They will be loved by long-term parents, be fed, educated, fitted into a society, given hope for a meaningful future whether a Ugandan or international couple adopts them. That is the whole world of one child.”

Just ask Emmett or Isaiah in a few years.

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