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Family spends summer helping Colombian child find a forever home

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The 12-year-old girl from Colombia has large brown eyes, a ready smile and laugh, a talent for art, and a love of her Catholic faith. What she doesn't have is a forever family.

Maria Camila, who goes by "Cami," was abandoned by her parents and has been bounced around in the Colombian foster care system for years. "Her life has been hard - heartbreakingly hard," said Mary Beth Long, a parishioner of Blessed Sacrament Church in Alexandria.

Long, her husband and their two children opened their home to Cami for four weeks through Summer Miracles, a collaborative effort of Kidsave and Catholic Charities of Baltimore. Kidsave is an international nonprofit that matches older children living in orphanages and foster care homes with parents in the United States. The Longs worked with a Catholic Charities social worker to prepare for the visit, and the organization assessed the family's home, processed paper work and provided training.

Summer Miracles, one of several Kidsave programs, arranges for Colombian children to spend four to five weeks on vacation with a U.S. family and experience an array of educational and cultural activities. The host family eventually may adopt the child or - through the family's social and church networks and weekly Kidsave-hosted events - introduce them to others wishing to adopt.

Long said the goal is for children like Cami to have "as many opportunities as possible to find a mom and dad."

"I could see us being her perspective family, but I want to find the best scenario for her," she said.

Even if a child is not adopted, the time in the United States is still beneficial, according to Bonnie Williams, Kidsave development manager. "It's a chance for them to see something different and to travel," she said.

Kidsave provides medical, mental health and dental care for the children and continues to advocate on their behalf if they do not find a permanent family.

Most children do, however. Since 1999, more than 1,700 children have participated in the summer program and more than 80 percent have found families as a result.

Long learned of Kidsave at a neighborhood gathering last winter and was immediately interested. "Whether or not we could adopt, I thought maybe we could help a child," Long said.

When she went to her husband, Bill, "he quickly realized that our hearts were big enough and open enough to offer hope to a child with none," Long wrote on a blog dedicated to the hosting experience.

The final decision to host was based on faith. "I felt like it was our calling as Catholics, as something we could do to give back," said Long. "We'd been given so much in our lives, and we wanted to extend that in some way to another."

Cami arrived with a Kidsave chaperone in late July, one of seven Colombian children hosted through Kidsave this summer by families in the Washington metro region.

Greeting Cami at the airport, the family was struck by how polite and gracious she was. "Despite such a hard life, she's this beautiful, sweet girl," said Long.

The language barrier created initial challenges, but Cami's English and the family's Spanish has improved with time - and often-funny mistakes.

An effort to translate "sleeping eye mask" through Google Translate turned into a phrase about a blind elephant.

"Everyone was laughing so hard," recalled Long, adding that certain things transcend language. "Laughter, love, hugs - they don't need a translation," she said.

Over the course of the summer, Cami has been exposed to many activities American children, especially in wealthy Northern Virginia, take for granted: visiting museums, shopping in malls, sleeping in hotels and swimming in the ocean.

The family also gave her a belated birthday party, complete with cake, balloons and festive hats.

The past few weeks have been an "unforgettable" experience, said Long, and she's continually inspired by the 12-year-old. "She's funny and very kind and nurturing. If one of the kids falls, she's right by their side asking, 'Are you OK?'"

Long said there will be many prayers after Cami leaves Aug. 1, as the family decides if it is meant to adopt her.

Back in Colombia, Cami will have time to share her thoughts on the summer trip and to "debrief after everything," said Long, who hopes more local families will host children and help connect them with potential parents.

A few weeks after Cami returns to Colombia, the Longs or another family in the States may begin the adoption process.

Long said she worries about Cami, but she's trusting that "God knows what's supposed to be."

Her prayer, she said, is for Cami to find "the best home for her - for good."

Find out more

To learn more about Kidsave and hosting or adopting a child through the organization, go here.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016