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"God knows when they need us - and when we need them." (Amy Norton)
by Julie Cramer
Posted on Tuesday, November 14, 2017
Orphan Outreach is celebrating a decade of care for orphans and vulnerable children, and we're inviting our US-based staff to share their thoughts about the ministry and its mission - and we're giving a sneak peek into their lives and loves. What a powerful way to close out the year than with Amy Norton, our director of programs for Eastern Europe, Africa, and India. Amy's story is our "why." Her heart reflects our mission and vision. We pray you are inspired and challenged to serve orphans well after reading her words. 

Amy Norton is as comfortable eating borsht as she is Texas barbeque. For this attorney and child advocate, both dishes taste of home. After years of providing adoptive couples legal services and speaking up for children in Dallas courts as their guardian ad litem, Amy felt God calling her to something new, but was unclear as to what. She had been helping a Dallas nonprofit to finalize adoptions when she met Mike Douris, who invited her to serve on a strategic planning committee for adoption and maternity. After one of their committee meetings, Mike asked Amy if she would want to do what she had been sharing about in the committee meeting on a full time basis. Amy told him she was actually headed back to her law firm to resign that day —and just like that, she knew she was right in the middle of God's plan.

On her first official day on the job, a woman asked for help finding families for children in orphanages in Russia—even though the nonprofit had been strictly domestic. It was 1995 and many children were in orphanages in Eastern Europe. She had the opportunity to fly to Russia a few months later, taking her husband with her, to investigate what the agency could do to help.

“My husband and I saw these kids … boys 7, 8, 9 years old … not like the little babies. They needed families for them and for sibling groups. We were so moved,” she says. “One boy kept coming up to us and asking us to be his mom and dad. It was pretty heart-wrenching.”

They returned to the States and began the adoption process for that little boy, who later joined their family in 1996.

amy kids

“I basically learned the international adoption process with our own adoption of Johnathan, who was 9 at the time. Now he’s 30. Our first adoption interest meeting, 300 to 400 people attended—and some families stepped forward to say they would adopt an older children or sibling groups from the Russian orphanages. It was such a blessing.”

Johnathan had been abandoned at birth and lived in Orphanage 2 in St. Petersburg. At 9 he didn’t know how to read or write or even the Russian alphabet due to learning difficulties. “He was such a sweet boy,” Amy says. “He was starting over from square one. Russia holds a very special place in my heart. We learned Russian the best we could as he was learning English. We had Russian vocabulary words posted all around the house.”

Now, years later, Orphan Outreach serves orphan graduates from Orphanage 2—the same home in which her son spent the first years of life.

“It’s amazing to me that we’re taking care of the kids that we knew when they were little, and we’re still walking side by side with them as they transition into adulthood. Being a part of that continuum of care for these kids is really special.”

Like so many of her colleagues who felt compelled to launch Orphan Outreach, Amy felt the tug to go beyond buildings.

“Children take value from the physical environment they see around them, so those things are important,” Amy says. “But, it was a vicious cycle. The children were getting out of the orphanage, and they’d have children who became orphans. They couldn’t get a job or even continue their education. We wanted to focus on education and on the children coming out of the orphanages. We wanted to be that safety net for them.”

Ten years ago, locals didn’t volunteer as part of their culture. “Things have really advanced in these countries,” Amy says. “We’re working with governments on how they care for children in orphanages. I think we have this opportunity because we’ve been doing work for the rights of children for so long. We’re offering an example of how it can be done.”

Children across the globe

“I’ve got my kids here at home—Johnathan, and two biological children, Madeleine, 19, and David Allen, 17—and I’ve got kids who are like my own in every country we serve.”

amy and katya

Katya is one such child. Amy met her when she was 9 years old. She entered an orphanage and the little girl walked up to her and held her hand. She was a gifted dancer and loved horses and books—the same objects of affection Amy had as a child. She and her brother had been abandoned, and as Amy returned again and again to the country, she developed a tight bond with Katya. So much so, that when Katya’s father lay dying, she had posted a picture of herself with Amy nearby for encouragement. Shortly after his death, Katya entered a dark time, and was living on the streets. She wouldn’t meet Amy’s eyes when she arrived that year, and Amy and Mike feared for her life. Amazingly enough, she reached out to a staff member in St. Petersburg for help a year later—all because she trusted Amy.

“She’s been a hard worker, and just graduated from college,” Amy says. “She wrote me the sweetest note recently.”

Hello my dear friend! I wanted to thank you very much for always believing in me. Thanks to your trust and help I managed to graduate from the university and have higher education. You are always close. I know and feel it. When we met for the first time, I understood right away that you are my world. I love you very much and miss you. I would like to have you near me to give you a hug, to talk to you.

I am doing well and still work at the same place.
My mother, sister and brother still don't talk to me. Sometimes I still feel hurt, but it is all right as I have you and people around me who care for me. I love everyone very much. Your love and kindness keep me warm. --Katya

Such notes make all the sacrifices worth it, Amy says. As a young mother, she grieved the time she spent away from her own babies. Amy would call office manager, Paula Hayes, and share with her, feeling as if she wasn’t doing enough as a mother. Hayes would always reassure her, and Amy would press on.

She pressed on to meet Vanya, an orphan with hydrocephaly. “We came to his bed and he was very alert, looking around,” Amy says. “He was two at the time. I asked the orphanage director what could be done for him, and he said most of the children in that room wouldn't be there when I got back. That they wouldn't make it. He said Vanya couldn't have surgery.  Even after she took over a neurosurgeon with shunts who was prepared to do surgery, they still would't allow it for Vanya. Sadly, the attitude is that the children don’t have families so they aren’t prioritized for surgery. It was the saddest thing.”

Two years later, Amy went back to the orphanage and was shocked to see Vanya, now 4.

“I couldn’t believe it. His head was still very big, but he was like a normal boy. At 4, he was supposed to be transitioning to another orphanage, so I Ieft again not knowing if I’d ever see him again.”

Another two years passed, and Amy was visiting Orphanage 40 … and there was Vanya.

“I was so excited,” Amy says. “I spent time with him, and gave him shoes, candy, stickers. The director of the orphanage let us arrange surgery for him. Donors paid for all the aftercare. He had a long recovery. When I went back again, he was gone. A woman who cared for special needs children had taken him in. I was thrilled he had a forever family. After that, I lost touch with him,” Amy says. “It was a beautiful story that I thought had ended there.”

Enter social media.

“It was March of 2013 and I’m sitting up in bed, working on my computer, and I get an email that says, ‘Are you the Amy Norton that came to visit me?’ with a picture of Vanya and me that I had given him at the bottom of the email. I just started crying. It was amazing. That was a huge God moment because it was a miracle that he found me.”

Vanya had never forgotten her. He’d even gone to the US Embassy, the hospital where he had his surgery and been on a TV show about finding lost friends and loved ones. A girl who saw the show sent him a Facebook message saying she would help him. Together, they located “the Amy Norton that visited” him.

“God made it real to me. All the time I was telling others about the impact you can make on the children when you do missions, and struggling being away from my own children,” she says. “There’s a Vanya in everyone’s life who goes on a mission trip. Not everyone knows the impact he or she has until heaven. This is no kudos to me; God cared about him and put me in his life at the time he needed it. He became baptized and is now part of our graduate group and going to university. Life hasn’t been easy for him. He’s still got special needs, which is why he was abandoned at birth. It’s a blessing to be a part of his story.”

Building trust with children whose parents and then foster parents abandon them is “a long journey,” Amy says. “Our in-country NGO staffs are amazing to me because they are still doing the same thing, plugged into these kids’ lives—they’re the ones making the impact day in and day out. I’m so happy to be in a role as director of programs to support all these amazing staff being the arms and feet of Jesus and being a parent to these kids. I’m thankful to be a part of it, and to be a part of people here who step out in faith to go—often out of their comfort zone—and to give. It’s not always easy circumstances for them to serve in. They are the true heroes to me.”

Back at home

When Amy is not mothering children abroad, she is mothering her children at home, building in them an ethic of service and sacrificial love. Together, they serve meals at The Stew Pot and at animal shelters every couple of weeks.

“Giving back here is just as important as giving over there,” Amy says.

Both of her younger children are involved in theater, and throughout their school years, she helped sew costumes, sell concessions, and build sets. Her DIY skills extend to making their home a cozy one for all three children and extended family. A typical weekend could include a Stranger Things “watch-a-thon,” with the children and their friends piling in for the showing.

amy norton family

“It’s crazy how time has flown by,” Amy says. “Vanya was just writing me this morning that it has been five years since he found me. Johnathan went back with me to Russia to see everyone who had been in his life at the orphanage.” While things have changed quite a bit, the children still reside in government-run orphanages. “You walk into the bathroom and there are 20 little cups, 20 little toothbrushes, and 20 little pairs of shoes on the floor.”

For Amy, this is the essence of Orphan Outreach—understanding the full scope of international orphan care. From the rows of shoes to the one pair tucked under a bed in an adoptive home. “It is a blessing to be a part of their stories. God knows when they need us—and when we need them. It’s just amazing.”

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