Community Stories

The Meaning of Family Sets The Stage For A Tiny Concert with a Big Heart

Memories of my childhood neighborhood have a kind of sepia-toned, coming-of-age movie feel to them. Cars politely swerved to leave chalked hopscotch lines intact and the man-hole cover served as home base for impromptu kickball games. On summer nights, all the kids—and there were a lot of us—met under the street light awaiting the first lightening bug sighting. We were a little band of friends brought together by a zip code—bonded thicker than thieves and close as family.

In the traditional sense, family is defined as parents and their biological children. But, family has come to mean many things to me over the years, especially when my husband and I initially were told we couldn’t have a child of our own. We found ourselves with a big, empty backyard at our Madison home and a desire to channel our love for kids.

That led to our first trip to Costa Rica to work with missionaries Ray and Lidia Zirkel.

It was in the spring of 1998. We lay block for a church in a rain forest and fitted children with beautiful brown eyes for eyeglasses.

Hearts Forever Bound to Costa Rica

Two things happened that forever bound our hearts to the Zirkels’ mission and the children of Costa Rica. The couple began to move forward with Lidia’s vision to build an orphanage for children who were abandoned, neglected or abused, many of whom were living on the streets of San Jose. The Zirkels’ desire to offer a family environment, where these kids could experience love and acceptance and receive a Christian education, mirrored our values. And we knew we would go on many mission trips.

Then, in June 1999, we were surprised by the incredible blessing of having a child. There’s no question, our son is a miracle. My husband, Mark, has returned to Costa Rica almost every year since his birth, serving on mission teams.

Through our ongoing support and work with the Hogar Metodista orphanage, our little family has fallen in love with the children in Costa Rica who don’t have traditional families. We shared in the excitement when Ray and Lidia officially began construction on a scenic hillside property overlooking a stream in Coronado, just outside San Jose. Mark worked to lay block and tile for the very first house where tias [aunts] would care for orphaned children. It touches my heart that our now teen-aged son joined us on mission, helping build playground equipment and sharing love with these kids. All three of us helped with construction on a multi-purpose building, where the kids can play indoors during Costa Rica’s long rainy season. And we’ve formed lifelong bonds with others who’ve served there with us over the years.

Love Doesn’t Need Words

Every mission trip is special, but one memory stands out for us. Mark and his team had a chance to visit with the children after a long day of construction work. The boys were rambunctious bundles of energy wanting endless horseback rides and soccer games.

But, the girls were shy and more withdrawn. Undaunted, Mark and another team member climbed inside a pink, plastic playhouse on the porch of the girls’ house. My 6’2” husband and his tall, blonde cohort must’ve looked silly crouched inside a tiny house suitable for toddlers and tea parties. One curious little girl rode her bike past and high-fived Mark when he stuck his hand out of a miniature window.

Giggling, the girls piled into the playhouse, and fast friendships formed. During our most recent visit this year, the high-five girl, grown a bit taller and still waiting for a forever family, immediately recognized Mark and reached up for a hug. Love doesn’t need words, knows no language barriers, and family isn’t always defined by blood.

A Tiny Concert with A Big Heart

That broader definition of family gave me the idea to host a benefit concert at our home in Madison to raise support for the orphanage. Though our family is small, our circle of friends and loved ones has expanded and many times our backyard has been a gathering place—for children’s birthday parties, barbecues, church socials, and it’s even served as a wedding venue for two sets of close friends. So, why not use that space to help out the orphanage and bring our community—our larger family—together in a fun way?

On the third weekend of October, our backyard certainly wasn’t empty. Instead it was filled with live bluegrass music performed by Ricky j Taylor & the Live Roots Ensemble and punctuated by children’s laughter, as they showed off fingers sticky from toasting marshmallows. The scent of Costa Rican coffee wafted through the crisp autumn air, old friends and new struck up conversations, and hundreds of lights twinkled in the trees, reminding me of a thousand childhood lightning bug chases.

An Orphan’s Prayer

Martha, Paula and Jacqueline Davidson were among our special guests. Martha gave the initial seed money for Hogar Metodista as a gesture of gratitude after adopting her all three of her children from Costa Rica, 16 years ago.

Paula, now 21, shared a bit about their journey between the band’s music sets, which was especially meaningful for those of us who have only seen the children on the front-end of their journey at Hogar Metodista. She spoke eloquently of her mother’s love and what family means, saying, “My earliest memories are of being a little girl in Costa Rica and praying for a family. But, I didn’t know what family meant. I had this idea that it meant children living with a mom and dad, but throughout my life that concept has changed,” Paula said.

“I used to think wow, a family would be the greatest. What I’ve learned is family is great, and it’s frustrating and it’s fun and it’s awkward and it’s not at all what I expected,” she laughed. “But I remember what I wanted when I prayed. And that was love. It was acceptance. And that is what my mom has given me and my sister Jacqueline and our brother Joseph every single day. I think that’s what family is—whether you’re related or not—it’s a selflessness,” Paula said.

Family on the Hill

As I looked around our backyard, listening to Paula’s words, I realized just how innate and universal is our need for love and acceptance. A sense of security and belonging—that’s what brings people together in community. I thought about how our backyard was empty and void of children’s laughter when we first married. I thought about our next-door neighbors who dubbed the residents of our little dead-end street “family on the hill.” I looked at the banner that hung near our little make-shift bandstand.

It read, “Ricky j Taylor & the Live Roots Ensemble Presents: A Tiny Concert with a Big Heart – All for the Love of Orphans.” And it listed individuals and organizations who gave their time and talents to make the unique event possible, starting with Ricky Taylor and his incredibly talented band who performed free of charge. But there were others, an artist friend who designed the banner, a photographer and long-time family friend, captured photos of the band, friends brought artwork and cakes, and local businesses offered merchandise and services for raffle prizes and a silent auction. Friends jumped in to help brew the coffee and wrap the raffle gifts. Our son and friend’s children helped sell raffle tickets.

As people trailed across the yard, drawn by the music or scent of coffee or promise of s’mores, it all became something so much more. If my childhood memories are sepia-toned, the various images I hold in my heart from this Tiny Concert with a Big Heart are locked away in full-blown Kodachrome. They are pictures of a warm gathering of eclectic people who bonded thicker than thieves and close as family in their desire to make a difference for a child in Costa Rica who is praying for exactly that.

You Can Make a Difference

Hogar Metodista is built on a foundation of charitable giving to help with annual operating expenses. Your gift will make a significant difference in the lives of these children by putting love into action.

Online contributions may be made through a secure PayPal link.

Checks may be made out to the Hands of God Foundation with your gift designated for Hogar Metodista of Costa Rica and mailed to P.O. Box 888 Fairhope, AL 36533.

Hands of God is a non-denominational, 501(c)(3) charitable organization.

About the author


Melissa Ford Thornton

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