Douglas resident Sarah Witbrod holds on to a sleeping baby boy named Daniel in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Sarah was due to adopt Daniel in 2011, but famine claimed his life before she was able to bring him home to the U.S. He is one of four children Sarah lost during the adoption process. Today, she helps families across the U.S. adopt children through a web-based non profit organization she founded called Wren’s Song.
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With a belt full of grenades and a loaded bandolier strapped diagonally across his chest, the guard slowly nosed open the wardrobe door with the barrel of his AK-47 before falling to his knees to make sure that nobody was hiding in the six-inch gap beneath the bed. When he signaled that the coast is clear, Sarah Whitbrod could enter her hotel room.
This is her fourth trip to Africa, and she’s off to a rocky start. After nearly being abducted on her way to buy supplies for the orphanage, she understood the value of having a body guard. Admittedly, she neglected to do her homework before getting on the plane and had no idea that Mbuji Mayi, in the central Congo, was such a dangerous place for an American woman. Instead, she was focused on the task of getting the much-needed supplies to the orphanage. Luckily, the supplies survived the flight, though her luggage didn’t.
All things considered, this is less dramatic than some of her earlier trips, including the trip in 2011 with her husband Tony, which unfortunately coincided with the DRC’s first national election, an event that essentially led to a coup as opposition supporters turned on recently elected President Kabila, leading to open gunfire in the streets. Sarah and Tony huddled together in a corner of their hotel room in absolute darkness, punctuated only by the passing flares of bullets.
In the end, the important thing is getting the supplies to Daniel’s orphanage. In a country where one out of seven children dies, time is of the essence. She’s already lost four would-be adopted children, and doesn’t have the heart to lose another.
ONE CHILD AT A TIME
It’s Sarah’s mission to improve conditions in the orphanages in Africa, which are abysmal at best. Imagine 12 to 14 barely clothed, if not naked, children who are not potty trained. Picking up a child means getting peed on. There are no diapers, no bathrooms. Instead, the dirt floors and surrounding grounds serve as a communal bathroom as well as an incubator for germs. Combine this overwhelming scent of urine with equatorial hot, humid conditions and you get an idea of the conditions that these children are accustomed to living in.
“Africa can just smell bad in general,” Sarah shrugged. “But, you get used to it.”
What she can’t get used to, however, is the day-to-day life of the children. Images of children pulling tiny worms out of the soles of their feet or picking at the scabs covering their heads haunt Sarah.
She’ll never forget the sight of one little boy, Christian, who had gotten his foot caught in a snare in the woods and ripped off part of his toe. Without a first-aid kit or someone on hand to help him, Christian instead sat bleeding in the dirt, crying quietly to himself. Throwing a tantrum or sobbing loudly won’t help as there is not enough help to go around. Instead, Sarah paid for him to see a doctor, and as a result, today, he is a healthy, happy little boy.
What sticks with Sarah most, however, is the children’s vacant idleness, which is on par with victims in a concentration camp. There are no toys, no school. Instead, they wait only for their next mug of rice water, slowly withering away. And with few workers on hand to care for the children, many succumb to illness or starvation and die.
Despite her efforts, Sarah realizes that equipping orphanages in the Congo is akin to using a Band-Aid on an amputated leg. Adoption is not the answer, either. What’s needed is a monumental systemic change within the country, which appears at present to be a bleak concept.
Dubbed by journalist Lisa Ling as the “worst place on earth and the most ignored,” the Democratic Republic of Congo is also the poorest country with the highest rate of infant mortality. It’s estimated that 1,500 people die in the Congo every day, a ratio higher even than that of the Holocaust.
Rape and sexual assault are viewed as viable military tactics, and as a result, women become mothers whether they like it or not. Without money or resources to feed their children, many mothers are forced to make the hard choice about which child to save.
Orphanages cannot turn them away because these children have no place to go.
“There is no government to step in to feed the children,” Sarah said. “So, right now I’m feeding them. If I don’t, they will die. The Congo has an estimated 4 to 6 million orphans. I am trying to feed around 200, a very small drop in the ocean. But, you never know how far your ripple will reach.”
In the interim, Sarah and Tony have sold their 4000 sq.-ft. house and four acres and moved into a 1000 sq.-ft. fixer upper, bordering the railroad tracks in Douglas. To date, they’ve sent more than $15,000 to keep the orphanages going, both in personal funds and donations from others. They’ve roofed two buildings, donated a building, and built walls around another to keep the children from being stolen.
Despite the progress, Sarah acknowledges that single-handedly helping to feed and maintain these orphanages is only a short-term answer. The goal is sustainability. Now, she’s looking into purchasing a hog-and-chicken farm that will allow the orphanages a more viable, long-term solution for feeding themselves and creating a means of sustainable financial support.
Nonetheless, there are small victories to be celebrated along the way. This Christmas, several families from Douglas and beyond sponsored a child. All of the children received a new outfit and pair of shoes. For the first time in their lives, they sat down for a chicken dinner. One 13-year-old boy received a pair of patent leather silver pants that he still wears every day, despite the oppressive humidity that laminates the pants to his skin. He wears them anyway because they are his.
In the ‘90s, while most 11-year-old American girls were busy collecting Beanie Babies, rocking out to No Doubt, and applying lip gloss, Sarah was obsessing over atrocities in war-torn Rwanda. From her home in Gillette, Sarah was riveted as she read on the Internet about the thousands of people dying vicious deaths in this civil conflict, and the hordes of displaced children with missing limbs who were left to fend for themselves in the streets. Out of solidarity, she even memorized the Rwandan national anthem, which admittedly even her parents thought was a little weird, though they encouraged her.
“I was obsessed,” Sarah said. “It was my first exposure to things that happen in the world.”
The seeds were sown and her interest in Africa stuck with her throughout her young adulthood, until finally, at age 25, she hit a moment of panic when she realized she was “so old,” and had not yet done anything she set out to do in her life, including going to Africa. She then contacted the University of Wyoming about studying abroad, and though they could not accommodate her desire to go to Rwanda, she went to Ghana, instead.
In Ghana, she learned to play the talking drum, studied traditional African healing medicine, and even learned to speak a little Twi, the native tonal language.
“I loved it there,” she said. “I would have stayed forever, except I had to come home to get married.”
When she finally left, she emptied out her suitcase, leaving behind all of her clothing, because she felt like her host family and fellow villagers needed it more than she did.
“They were thrilled to even get a pair of socks,” she said. “It was amazing to be able to do that for them.”
THE LIVES OF THE DEAD
Now, nearly a decade later, Sarah’s connection to Africa is even more personal. To date, she and her husband Tony have adopted two children from the Congo, along with a child from Guatemala.
Sarah, who had never felt a biological urge to have children, felt that it was important to adopt a baby who most needed a home.
“Adoption has always been a huge deal with me,” Sarah said. “Both Tony and I agreed. There are so many children out there who need parents.”
After being married for two months, the couple decided to call an adoption agency. Within two days, they received their referral, which threw them for a loop. Tony, the more pragmatic of the two, worried about money, but in the end, they decided to go for it.
Together, Tony and Sarah make a good team. Tony, who works as a computer specialist for the State of Wyoming, keeps the couple on track, financially speaking.
“If it were up to me, we’d probably be living in a cardboard box,” Sarah laughed. “I’d just give everything away.”
Their first daughter, Lillian, was adopted from Guatemala, and when the country subsequently made adoptions to the U.S. illegal, the couple turned to the Democratic Republic of Congo, which had recently begun to allow international adoptions.
Within a month, the agency sent them a photo of a tiny girl with chicken-bone thin legs and eyes full of tears named Wren, who was sitting with bare legs in the dirt. Immediately, Sarah felt a strong connection to her, as if this adoption was meant to be. One month later, they also received a referral for Wren’s sister, Emory, who they planned to adopt as well.
About another month later, as the couple waited for the paperwork to process, they received a heart-stopping call: Wren’s orphanage had been overcome by a bout of malaria, killing 12 of the 16 children, including Wren.
Emory survived. After Wren died, however, Emory’s family retracted the adoption despite their previous consent, because they believed that the girls’ mother, who had since died, was so against the idea of this adoption that she had come back from the dead and killed these children. This superstitious thinking on the part of the family officially put an end to the adoption proceedings.
“That was really, really hard to take,” Sarah said. “I didn’t know if I could go through with that loss again.”
By Thanksgiving, however, Sarah and Tony received a second referral for a boy named Micah, who was coincidentally one of the four children who had miraculously survived the malaria outbreak at Wren’s orphanage. Fate held, and in the end, they adopted Micah and were able to bring him safely home.
Less than six months later, they were excited to receive another referral for a girl named Merriville, who was at the time homeless and living in the streets with her mother. Before the adoption paperwork could be processed, however, Merriville died.
“They were living in filthy horrible conditions, and she just died,” Sarah said. “At that point, I was sort of done. I didn’t think I could ever do it ever again. I figured our family was complete with Micah and Lillian.”
Once more, however, fate stepped in and the adoption agency made another call in April to Sarah and Tony: They had found a little girl, lying alone on the muddy banks of a river. She had no family, nowhere to go.
“I had to do it,” Sarah said. “And, gratefully, it worked out just fine. Now, this little girl is my daughter Rita.”
Rita’s successful adoption boosted their confidence to try to adopt again, so they accepted yet another referral. This time for a small boy named Daniel. After spending three days with Daniel at his orphanage in Mbuji Mayi, Sarah was captivated and couldn’t wait to bring her new son home. Before the adoption papers were complete, however, Daniel died of malnutrition at 13 months old.
“It’s not a good place to be a kid, it’s just not,” she said. “Being an orphan in the Congo is almost like a death sentence.”
The cost for adopting an international baby through an agency begins at $30,000. In theory, part of this fee goes to helping feed the children at the orphanage from which the baby will come.
However, when Sarah and Tony arrived in Africa to pick up Rita, they were alarmed to find her so emaciated that she could barely lift her head. She lay on the floor with splayed limbs, her belly bloated to twice its size due to starvation. At 13 months, Rita weighed less than 10 pounds.
Sarah was dismayed to learn that the adoption agency was actually pocketing more than half of the money, and less than 7 percent was actually going to food, care and adoption costs for the orphans.
This did not sit well with Sarah, who returned home with a new set of convictions to help others adopt independently. She knew the steps. She had been in the country and had met honest, kind people and had struck up a friendship with a man at one of the orphanages, who would later become her business partner. At the very least, she figured she might be able to help a few people successfully bring a child home.
She had no idea what she was about to begin. After launching her blog, turned website, Wrens-Song.com, she was surprised by the initial response. It began with her writing journal entries as a means of dealing with her grief of losing Wren and the others. At best, she thought it might be one way to get some public support and raise awareness about conditions in the Congo.
After her first post, she was astounded by the responses and the fact that people had actually read it and took the time to respond. Soon thereafter, she was fielding questions about adoptions for families, both in Douglas and several other states. She still has no idea how word of her website spread across the country from coast to coast.
In Sarah’s mind, she does not have the right personality to be an activist. Reticent and reserved by nature, she is an unlikely hero whose passion for saving Congolese children is rapidly spreading throughout the country.
“It was kind of unnerving at first,” she said. “But then I realized how I could help.”
Now, on any given day, there might be anywhere from 17-70 text messages, emails, and phone calls a day to answer. A woman in upstate New York calling to find out how long it will take to process the adoption paperwork, another in Detroit worried about a recent outbreak of malaria in her baby’s orphanage, or her business partner in Kinshasa calling to ask about supplies. It’s a full-time job for Sarah, an accidental career she’d never imagined.
To date, she is in the process of helping 22 families adopt children from the DRC, and has already helped three families bring children home, including Amy Tate of Douglas, who has already adopted one boy and will be completing adoptions for two more children, as well as Stephanie Hill, who will soon be bringing home her daughter Bella.
As for a fee, Sarah asks only that her families donate $500 to the orphanage in person when they pick up their child. She takes no money for herself.
These will be Sarah’s last adoptions, however, as the U.S. has since passed a law making independent adoptions illegal.
Now, Sarah will turn her attention to feeding the orphans and other ventures to make the orphanages more sustainable. And, of course, raising awareness about the conditions in the Congo.
“My new goal is to make people uncomfortable,” Sarah said. “Adoption is uncomfortable. Loss is uncomfortable. Most people want to tune it out, but it’s there, regardless.”