Children with severe disabilities, many of them abandoned, find more than just a place to live at Galilean Children's Home
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LIBERTY, Ky.-For Abdul Samad, the path from Kabul to Kentucky was shorter than he once imagined. Born in northern Afghanistan in 1976, Samad had a childhood marked by fear of the Soviet troops that invaded the country in 1979. In 1981, Samad says fear turned to horror when soldiers opened fire on a bus carrying dozens of civilians, including his father. At age 5, Samad became fatherless.
With his mother, two brothers, and two sisters, Samad moved south, where his mother began gleaning in fields. Poverty-stricken and desperate, his family returned north a few years later, while Samad stayed behind to work for a local farmer. He soon lost contact with his family and worried they had been hurt or killed.
Samad's troubles deepened: While walking through an Afghan field, the 13-year-old boy spotted a shiny object. He picked it up. In an instant, the damage was done: The exploding landmine ripped off both of Samad's hands and destroyed his left eye.
More than 7,000 miles away, in a rural corner of the rolling hills of eastern Kentucky, Jerry and Sandy Tucker were busy caring for children like Samad. In 1986, the couple founded the Galilean Children's Home (GCH), a Christian organization for children and adults who are disabled or abandoned, or both. Some need a home temporarily. Some stay permanently.
The young Samad-separated from his family and reeling from devastating injuries-was about to get a new home.
Nearly 20 years later, mornings begin early at GCH. It's still dark outside, but Mr. Tucker sits at the head of a long table in a small cafeteria, reading a devotional booklet to eight attentive residents. The Bible passage comes from Hebrews, and Mr. Tucker sums up the meaning: "Life's a race. It's hard but we've got to finish it. God is the only one who can help us do that."
For these adult residents, and others still rousing from sleep in a dorm downstairs, the race is especially hard. Some are mentally disabled, but physically functional. Others are both mentally and physically challenged. All need substantial help.
For Mr. and Mrs. Tucker, offering substantial help to vulnerable people became a way of life long ago: The couple adopted their first child 40 years ago, thinking they were unlikely to conceive. A biological daughter followed, and so did six more adopted children. After the birth of another daughter, the growing, Christian family moved to a farm in southern Kentucky.
In 1981, the Tuckers adopted Elizabeth, an 11-year-old girl with Down syndrome. The couple began learning of more children from states all over the country-and countries all over the world-with mental and physical challenges, and they wanted to do more. They were driven by Jesus' words in the book of Matthew: "Whoever welcomes one such child for My sake, welcomes Me." Against that backdrop, the Tuckers opened the Galilean Children's Home in 1986 and began hiring staff and recruiting volunteers to welcome and care for a growing number of children.
The couple adopted nearly 30 of the children over 40 years. Most of those children are now adults, and many of the chronically disabled still live on-site. There's no age limit and no requirement to leave after a set period. In the last 20 years, the home has served more than 800 people, says Mr. Tucker.
These days, Mr. Tucker's job is filled with a new mix of responsibility and sorrow: His wife of 44 years died in June 2007 after a long battle with cancer, leaving Mr. Tucker to carry on the work they began. Mrs. Tucker, known as "Mom" to everyone on campus, was pivotal in day-to-day operations. "We didn't realize just how big her shoes were," Mr. Tucker says.
From the wraparound porch of a nearly finished log cabin that the couple began building together before his wife grew sick, Mr. Tucker says the new reality is hard-mostly because he misses the wife he cherished, but also because there's still lots of work to do.
That work involves managing a staff caring for children and adults with lots of needs: First, there's the Angel House, where staff and volunteers care for babies and toddlers while their mothers serve time in prison. Then there's the Blessing House, where workers care for mostly teenagers and adults-some of whom have lived here for decades-with disabilities like cerebral palsy, brain damage, Down syndrome, and spina bifida. (Some of these residents have been abandoned or brought by parents unable to care for them.)
Another dorm serves a few residents who have disabilities but can function on their own. (These residents have often come from developing countries and needed advanced medical care, like Samad.)
The ministry has served as many as 90 residents at one time, but that number has declined as residents have grown older and as the process for bringing children from other countries has grown more difficult since 9/11. Still, the ministry is serving nearly 50 residents now.
Part of the ministry includes a Christian school that serves 66 students, including some from surrounding areas. The operation also includes a carpentry shop, where workers build all the furniture and other needed items for the ministry's campus. Workers in the "bus barn" maintain the ministry vehicles that transport residents to doctor appointments, activities in town, and church on Sunday mornings.
It's an expansive operation that employs 112 workers, including those who work at the ministry's thrift store in nearby Liberty and at The Bread of Life Café, a popular restaurant owned by the ministry and run by the Tuckers' two biological daughters, Becky and Jessica. (Both daughters are active in helping with operations at the home as well.)
But the heart of the ministry is its residents: At the Angel House, that includes 15 babies and toddlers born to mothers serving prison sentences. On a quiet afternoon in clean, bright rooms, a handful of infants nap, including the youngest-a 2-week-old girl wrapped in a soft, pink blanket.
Her mother followed a familiar pattern for pregnant inmates: When an inmate goes into labor, prison officials transport the mother to a hospital to deliver. Two days later, the mother goes back to jail. If she's asked GCH to care for the child until she's released, a ministry staffer brings the baby back to the Angel House. Once a week, staff members pack up the babies and take them to Louisville to visit their mothers in prison, allowing the moms to stay connected to their children during their incarceration.
At least five staffers or volunteers work each shift, and supervisor Linda Lee is in charge of managing the babies' medical care. A grinning 5-month-old baby boy on a changing table shows how serious some health problems can be: Stitches on his tiny chest reveal evidence of a recent heart procedure. (His twin sister-also living here-has had no health problems, and doctors say the boy will be fine.)
Lee has worked in the Angel House for five years: She glows with enthusiasm when talking about her job. After enduring a difficult upbringing herself-her mother died when Lee was 10 and her father was an alcoholic-she says she has a special empathy for these babies: "I know what it's like to feel like you don't have anybody."
The hardest part of the job, she says, is letting the babies go when their moms finish their prison time: "When you get attached to one of those little ones, you just have to trust the Lord to take care of them." She says she continues to pray for the children after they leave: "I really do feel like I have a ministry here. Sometimes I feel guilty for getting paid."
Not everyone is paid, though attracting full-time volunteers can be difficult in a rural area. Kyla Hochsteler came here to volunteer after graduating from Crown College, a Christian school in Minnesota. "I wanted to do something in the volunteer sector before I started a career," she says.
On an early Tuesday morning, Hochsteler and another volunteer prepare breakfast in the small kitchen of The Blessing House, where more than a dozen disabled residents live. The young women spoon oatmeal and applesauce onto plastic plates, noting that many residents can't chew solid food. Other workers make rounds, waking up residents and helping them with dressing and personal hygiene. It's hard work, but the staffers and volunteers are affectionate to residents who have difficulty responding from wheelchairs or hospital beds.
The workers encourage the more able-bodied residents to help: Medina is blind and walks with a cane but manages to take out the trash. Others sweep the floors. At dinnertime, some help feed their fellow residents.
George-a 39-year-old man who has been here nearly 25 years-is particularly helpful: He cheerfully wakes up residents and helps lift some to their wheelchairs. He guides new visitors to the right place and remembers names. Though mentally disabled, he absorbs Christian teaching. When a minister at the school chapel service asks why we should go to church, George is the first to respond: "So we can have Jesus in our heart."
Samad from Afghanistan still lives here too. Now 33 years old, he remembers when he first arrived in America with a medical visa after a series of surgeries on his face and arms in Pakistan and Egypt.
An American sponsor brought him to GCH, where he met another Afghan boy who could translate for him. Samad couldn't speak English, but he surprised himself by becoming good at basketball, even without hands. He decided to try other new things, and at age 17 he entered first grade at the Christian school.
Within a few years he graduated from high school, then from a community college. Today, Samad efficiently buses tables at The Bread of Life Café, while waiting to apply for U.S. citizenship and trying to help his family in Afghanistan come here. (He reconnected with his mother and siblings in 2001.)
Samad says he's grateful for the Tuckers' ministry: "Mom and Dad have given their lives for us." And he's grateful for finding a home when he was alone and wounded: "The home is a place where people without hope find hope."
Even as Mr. Tucker grows older, he's confident the home will continue to provide hope through the gospel. His daughters and other long-time staff members are committed to continuing the ministry, and Mr. Tucker, 69, isn't planning to retire anytime soon: "Retiring is for old people," he says with a grin.
In the meantime, Mr. Tucker says he relies on God for strength and continues to pray for patience, knowing how that sometimes comes: "Every time we've prayed for patience, God's given us another kid." For more information on this year's Hope Award for Effective Compassion and to read profiles of other nominated organizations from this year and previous years, click here.
Galilean Children's Home
• More than 800 children and adults served since 1986
• Workers maintain a farm with some 100 chickens supplying eggs for nearly 50 residents
• Recipient of President George H.W. Bush's Point of Light Award in 1992
2007 total revenue: $2,455,076
2007 total expenses: $2,606,916 (Deficit reflects expenses on credit the ministry was in the process of paying off at end of year)
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