Lost and Found

A boy who had nothing. A family with enough. And how God brought their worlds together.

The old building is situated along a busy road, and its doors open directly onto a treeless street lined with an old tire shop, potholes, and stores fronted by barred windows. But Hogar San Jeronimo Emiliani, a Catholic orphanage in the very poor “Zona 1” of Guatemala City, is clean and well cared for. The sisters who have dedicated their lives to orphaned and abandoned children pour love into each and every one. Including Edy.

Born to a teenage mother in 2003, Edy was a typical, healthy little boy. Unfortunately, he ended up in the care of someone who abused him so violently that he suffered a traumatic brain injury that left him permanently and severely mentally disabled. His grandmother, who was raising children herself, eventually found him. There was little she could do for the boy, so she took him to the hospital and left him in the capable care of the nuns of San Jeronimo.

Sadly, Edy’s story isn’t an anomaly. Tropical and bordering four neighbor states in Central America, Guatemala is by area a little smaller than Pennsylvania. For much of the 20th century, the country was locked in a cycle of civil war, terrorism, and violence. It is a difficult environment—especially for children—and an estimated 370,000 orphans are in the country, including 5,000 homeless children living on the streets of Guatemala City.

When Edy arrived, there were about 100 children in the orphanage at any given time. And while the orphanage remained poor, the children were loved. They were bathed and fed every day, played with often, and offered cookies in the afternoon.

Thousands of miles away, the Nelsons—Steve, Ellen, Cate, Lucy, and Josh—lived in Belmont, a quiet suburb of Boston. Their street was quaint and tree lined, with kids everywhere. It was something straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting, one of those neighborhoods where people plant roots and you can watch generations come and go.

Steve worked at a local university. His wife Ellen had spent most of her life raising their three kids and was nearing the point when all of them would leave home. Ellen and Steve, though they might not have admitted it out loud, were looking forward to the freedom of an empty nest.

In 2006, their oldest child Cate graduated from high school, and despite gaining admission to Harvard, decided to take a “gap year” to travel and do community service before beginning college. Cate loved her town but was tired of suburban life and wanted something more. So she joined her friend Jesse volunteering in Guatemala with an organization called Cross Cultural Solutions. They were originally assigned to teach primary school but within two weeks ended up at San Jeronimo.

Cate was assigned to the toddler room, a large airy space with turquoise walls and windows facing a spacious outdoor courtyard. Twenty plain white cribs stood to one side, with a play area in front, and when Cate first arrived, it was naptime. Although the children were meant to be resting, she could see their sweet faces peeking out from their cribs, and she went down the row, touching and saying hello to each child. In the last crib, she found a chubby little boy in white cargo shorts and a royal blue Quiksilver t-shirt, lying on his back. “He looked like a little surfer,” Cate says. She’d eventually learn that this was where Edy spent most of his day since he couldn’t sit or stand.

Cate fell in love and nicknamed the boy “Edy Grande” because he was so much bigger than the other children in the room. Each day, she would take him out of his crib and sit him between her legs so he could play with the other kids as they waddled by. At first, Edy tended to fall over because his muscles were atrophied, but over time, Cate helped him sit straight, and his back grew strong. He was hard to feed, often biting himself, but he liked eating with Cate and soon improved in this area, too. “Edy eats so well with you!” the sisters told her, beaming. Soon Cate’s parents and friends noticed how frequently this little boy was making appearances in her email updates. On her 19th birthday, Edy laughed for the first time, and she emailed home:

Today I was holding Edy with his head snuggled tightly and peacefully against my chest. “I want nothing more than for you to be close to my heart.” As those words passed through my mind/heart, I realized that more than I want Edy to walk, more than I want Edy to speak, more than I want Edy to have a family, I want him to be close to my heart and Jesus’ heart and to know love.

Cate, anguished by the thought of leaving the orphanage, considered foregoing college and adopting Edy herself. As she spoke to her mother on the phone one morning, she was sobbing. “Who will love him when I go?” she asked.

Without hesitation, Steve smiled and told his wife, “Ellen, let’s bring Edy home.” The nest would be empty no more.

Ellen had seen the power of adoption firsthand, yet her response to Cate’s plea was negative. “There is a verse in Isaiah,” Ellen recalls. “God asks, ‘Whom shall I send?’ and Isaiah answers, ‘Send me!’ Well, I was clearly not having an Isaiah response. I was having an Ellen response. Rather than ‘Send me!’ my heart was screaming, ‘Not me!’”

Ellen visited her daughter while she was in Guatemala. The first day, she didn’t immediately feel anything for Edy. But the next day, the boy fell asleep in her arms, and she was as smitten as her daughter. She was nearly in tears leaving the orphanage but didn’t tell Cate how she felt, for fear of disappointing her if they couldn’t do something about Edy. When she met Steve at the airport in Boston, she said, “I think we’re in trouble. Something happened to my heart.”

Without hesitation, Steve smiled and told his wife, “Ellen, let’s bring Edy home.” The nest would be empty no more.

The road to adoption was not easy.

While Cate continued her gap year working in Mozambique, her friend Jesse remained in Guatemala. Ellen asked Jesse to inquire about Edy’s status, and she learned that the first hurdle to bringing him home was that he was not declared legally abandoned. Though his family had not seen or visited him since he’d come to the orphanage, the Mother Superior believed they did not want him to be adopted. From there, the difficulties mounted. The orphanage itself had no U.S. partner agencies, and the adoption process was going through rule changes that made it more difficult.

The road to adoption was not easy. But for every setback there were small miracles. The Nelsons prayed. They trusted God. They never lost hope.

In 2006, nearly 5,000 Guatemalan children were adopted by American parents. But unethical practices were uncovered, and when the country signed on to the U.N.’s Hague Convention on Adoption in 2007, adoptions in that country essentially came to a standstill. Over the course of two years, Ellen would be in and out of Guatemala seven times, and her final trip kept her in country for three months. Steve and others made their own trips as well, spending time with Edy and trying to get face time with government officials. Hundreds of people—agency officials, translators, lawyers—got involved. More often than not, the entire process seemed utterly hopeless.

But for every setback there were small miracles: nuns dedicated to getting Edy to his new home; officials in the U.S. and Guatemala who intervened at just the right time; people in the United States working through adoption organizations and praying for the Nelsons; a woman in Guatemala who gave Ellen free room and board when she ran out of money during her final three-month stay. The Nelsons prayed. They trusted God. They never lost hope.

And on December 17, 2008—more than two years after Cate first embraced Edy in the orphanage—his visa was approved. Two days later, Ellen and the then five-year-old Edy flew from Guatemala to Boston and into the embrace of the family he’d finally found.

They arrived in the middle of a snowstorm. And when they got home, Cate’s sister Lucy presented gifts to the family—matching adult “onesie” PJs. The family spent their winter break home together snuggling with their newest addition. In the house in Belmont, Edy slept in Steve and Ellen’s room in the same crib Cate, Josh, and Lucy had used.

Life has changed dramatically for everyone in the family. Whereas Edy spent most of the first four years of his life in a crowded orphanage, he came home to a beautiful house where he was the center of attention. Ellen homeschools him, and they’ve hired therapists to help him develop mentally and physically. He now loves riding horses, swimming, and playing with drums, maracas, and tambourines. He can drink through a straw and even use modified signs for basic needs. He’s sweet and content, and Ellen likes to say that he brings out the best in everyone around him.

Edy’s 12 years old now—thin with dark hair and lively eyes. But despite the prayers of the Nelson family, he’s still unable to walk or talk. He has seizures, sometimes multiple times per day, and recently underwent hip surgery needed because of the nature of his physical disabilities. But when you talk to the Nelsons, they will tell you he smiles more. He’s stronger, more engaged. And they won’t ever give up on him or love him any less if the things they are praying for never change.

Ellen and Steve recently bought a new house in Hamilton, a town on the North Shore in Massachusetts. It has more space and a bigger yard, and they are busy making the house “Edy ready,” adding accessibility features to every room. They’re considering a school for Edy in the area and have found a great church that has a summer baseball program that pairs able-bodied kids with those who have special needs.

Edy Nelson’s early life was full of pain. He was lost to the world, though not to his Creator. He was hurt and abandoned by those first entrusted with his earthly protection.

But Edy was also an answer to a question no one knew needed to be asked. He was the little boy with whom Cate would fall in love. He was Josh’s and Lucy’s brother. He was Steve and Ellen’s son. Their home is now his as well, and while the entire Nelson family has sacrificed much, they have gained something greater—a love, kinship, and perspective they would never have experienced without “Edy Grande.”



Photography by Matt Kalinowski
Related Topics:  Mercy

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