Dandara Richards has been envisioning a long dirt road leading up to a Brazilian orphanage for as long as she can remember.
She was left on the orphanage steps as a baby, when she was just a few days old. It was the last time she had any contact with a birth parent. But unlike others in similar situations, Dandara ended up in the United States; by the time she was a month old she'd been adopted by B.J. Richards. She and her mother have been living in Oak Park for the last 10 years.
Last month, Dandara and B.J. stood on that long dirt road, which turned out to be exactly the way Dandara, now 18, had pictured it. It's in the little town of Joao Pessoa, on the northeastern tip of Brazil. "We've dreamed of going since she was a little girl," B.J. said.
But with that dream came risks, B.J. knew. "It could have made her very sad. I was prepared for anything."
Dandara's journey turned out to be far from depressing. The Oak Park and River Forest High School senior returned from Brazil newly inspired, and she's ready to go back for four weeks next summer. She also plans to live in her native country for a chunk of time, and perhaps adopt a child someday from the orphanage.
The visit affected B.J. differentlyâ€"she caught a bit of dĂ©jĂ vu, since the last time she saw the orphanage was 18 years earlier, when she'd gathered up Dandara and brought her home. B.J. had worked as a childcare provider for years, but found herself missing the kids when they "graduated" to kindergarten and wishing she could see a child grow up. She'd chosen to adopt from Brazil because it was one of the only countries that placed children with single mothers, and in her home state of New York, there was a six-month probationary period when the birth mother could change her mind. B.J. knew she wouldn't have been able to deal with that.
The first six days of the Richards' two-week trip to Brazil were the best, according to both, because that's when they went to the Joao Pessoa. "I couldn't wait to see the orphanage; that's where my life started," Dandara said.
"Flooding love'" is how she describes her feelings as she walked through the light pink orphanage gate. The women in charge must have felt the same. They dropped everything when they found out who Dandara and B.J. were and why they'd come.
The Richards got the complete tour, with accents on the washing machine, which was a gift from a German family and the first one the orphanage had ever had, and the playroom, which was filled with 40 plastic chairs and nothing else.
"This was far beyond what I had expected," B.J. said.
Everything was spic and span, but it was clear money was scarce. "Not a toy in sight, not a book, not a real ball," she noted.
The 50 kids currently staying at the orphanage were gathered together and lined up so Dandara and B.J. could meet them and take pictures. The first few pictures show wary, shy faces, but as time passed, smiles appeared and deepened. Eventually the kids let loose; some began to show off and others mobbed Dandara. They loved seeing themselves on the digital screen on the back of the camera, since many had never seen pictures of themselves before.
"I loved it," Dandara recalled. "I felt like I belonged."
B.J. felt tears forming as she saw Dandara playing with kids who looked like her. "She was glowing the entire time," B.J. remembered. "All the women had goosebumps. They were touched" to see Dandara all grown up and still passionate about her heritage.
For the kids, Dandara represented someone who'd gotten out of the orphanage and been successful, according to B.J. "They looked in awe at her as a sign of hope," she said. They began to call her Tia, or auntie.
One sweet little 9-year-old girl named Mayaira took that awe a step further and stuck by Dandara's side the entire time they were there. Mayaira made it difficult for them to leave the orphanageâ€"every time they went away, they saw Mayaira staring after them, gripping the bars of the gate and waving.
"It broke our hearts every time," B.J. said.
Before they set off for the 14-hour plane flight to Brazil, B.J. and Dandara knew they wanted to bring something for the kids at the orphanage. At first, they'd planned to collect toiletries like shampoo and soap, but when they talked to people at the orphanage, they found that their needs are ever-changing. So the Richards collected about $600 from family and friends, figuring they'd know how to spend it after they arrived.
It was a good thing they brought cash, B.J. said, because when they got there, they saw how the smallest children were sleeping. There were only three or four old, stained mats for beds. Most of the toddlers slept on the floor.
The women running the orphanage said they would be grateful for more sleeping mats, even one or two. "We just looked at each other and we knew we were going to buy 60 mats," enough for all of the kids, B.J. said.
So they began their second visit to the orphanage loaded down with things for the kids, the 60 blue mats among them. Bubbles, balls and candy were also part of the booty. The kids had a blast with the bubbles and sucked the candy as long as they could.
When B.J. and Dandara visited, only about 50 of the 108 kids who live there were present. Many of the children who stay at the orphanage actually have families, but their families are unable to care for them or feed them properly. These kids go back home if the orphanage state relief check is delayed, as it was when the Richards visited. Then, the orphanage can only feed the children who have absolutely nowhere else to go.
Another hard fact of life in Brazil is that orphanages must put kids out on the streets when they turn 14, since the government stops paying for their food at that point. B.J. and Dandara noticed many kids on the street asking for money, often by juggling or displaying other skills.
"I'm sure that it's a vicious circle," B.J. noted, since the kids often stop their schooling when they turn 14.
But Dandara noticed that people in Brazil have a high level of respect for children in general, even those living on the street. "They didn't do what Americans do, turn their heads and look away," she said. The Richards gave one little boy two reis, about the equivalent of 50 cents, and his mouth dropped open. It was more money than he'd seen in a long time.
Although Joao Pessoa has tourist destinations, B.J. and Dandara's decision to spend their time at the orphanage and on the streets was a conscious one. Dandara wanted to do ordinary things in Brazil, like buying things and talking to people. She actually learned how to speak quite a bit of Portuguese during her stay. The Richards got used to seeing houses without windows or doors and donkeys or chickens running through the streets.
"It's such a simple way of life," B.J. said. "Material things just aren't important."
Dandara did most of the talking throughout their visit, and she found the way to the orphanage and helped buy the mats. "After seeing her in action I know how well she can handle herself," B.J. remarked. "She's ready for the larger world."
The search continues
Placing flowers on the steps of the orphanage was one of the most memorable things Dandara did during her stay. She's still searching for the birth parents who left her on those steps 18 years ago, and the flowers were a symbol of her search.
"Ever since I can remember I was told that I came from another woman's belly," Dandara said. "I would love to find my birth mother." B.J. supports Dandara's search, and understands her need to connect with her roots.
B.J. and Dandara talked to as many people as they could, spreading the word that Dandara was looking for her birth mother. They drove through the streets of Bayeux, the small, poor town where they believe Dandara was born, and they saw children playing there.
Bayeux is a place where "everyone knows everyone and everyone knows everyone's business," B.J. said. They're hoping that someone they talked to will spread word of their visit to Dandara's birth mother.
Dandara wants to see where she got her face, her chin and her eyes, and above all, she wants to know why she was left on an orphanage doorstep, she explained. But there's no blame attached to the questions.
"I never was angry with her. I grew up knowing she probably couldn't take care of me," Dandara remarked.
But she still wants to meet her. Even if her birth mother slams the door in her face, "I'd put up a fight," Dandara said. She also wants to find out if she has any siblings.
They actually spent a small percentage of their timeâ€"only six daysâ€"in Joao Pessoa. But the visit resonated through the trip, since the whole time they were in South America, they were mourning for the kids at the orphanage, B.J. confessed. Dandara knows she'll be back in Brazil again, to continue looking for her birth mother and to volunteer at the orphanage.
They won't forget the kids there anytime soon. As B.J. observed, "when you know about something, it's harder to turn away and pretend it's not there."