Raining Season helps Orphans in Africa, Partners with Catholic Charities (Tennessee Register)
Thirteen years ago, Jason Rust and Erica Stone of Brentwood were considering an international adoption. While on a website seeking adoptive families for orphaned children, they found a photo of a young girl, and immediately felt a connection to her. Through more research they discovered she was living in an orphanage in Sierra Leone, Africa.
"We found Jayda on the Internet in 2001, and thought we'd get her home in six months," said Jason Rust. "Through a lot of pain, a lot of joy, a lot of traveling, we finally got our daughter home in 2005."
Following the emotionally demanding three-year adoption process, hampered by the challenges of working with local authorities, Rust and Stone had no plans to go back to Africa. But a few years passed and they began to feel differently.
"We always wanted her to have a link to her people, to her family," said Rust. "We wanted to learn about and embrace her culture, and make sure Jayda always knew about Sierra Leone."
In 2007, Rust and Stone decided to help Jayda's birth family rebuild their home, burned down during a devastating civil war. At the same time, Rust and Stone were raising money to support the education of children in Sierra Leone. They raised enough money to pay for 40 school sponsorships, and established a program called The Raining Season, with the primary goal of supporting education efforts in Jayda's homeland.
The next year Rust and Stone returned to Africa, accompanied by five other Americans. They visited Jayda's birth family's new home, and had a wonderful reunion with her extended family members.
During that visit, Rust and Stone also visited a local orphanage and learned firsthand of the disturbing conditions in which some children were living. "It was eerie, like a ghost town," recalled Rust. "There were 90 children and very few adults, slowly coming out of their rooms to meet us. We knew something wasn't right."
Erica asked one of the girls if she needed anything, and learned that none of the children had had water or food for several days. The Americans arranged to bring in 20 bags of rice and 1,500 individual bags of water, as emergency sustenance.
Assuming that the adults running the orphanage, known as The Network, were basically good people without adequate resources, Rust and Stone wanted to partner with them.
Uncovering the truth
Rust and Stone hoped to move The Network to a new location that was safer and more accessible. They raised $60,000, intending to rent a building and hire staff.
In October 2009, nine women, including Erica, and Jason's mother, went to Africa to get the initiative under way. A red flag arose when the adults at The Network resisted moving the center.
Then one day one of the children left the orphanage and traveled alone across town, found the delegation of American women, and, "told them the story of the abuse, the neglect and the lies," said Rust. "He said he was there with his sister and his brother and he wanted to get out."
The Americans contacted the police and met with the town's mayor, and, working with local authorities, were able to get three children out who had been especially mistreated and required serious medical care. They also began finding a safe place for the remaining children.
The Raining Season still had the $60,000 and had already rented a building. They elected to open the new center and hire staff, launching The Covering with eight children in residence and 20 adults on staff.
Working within the system
After a halting start, Rust and Stone figured out that in order to make things work, they needed to operate within the local system. "It was very difficult working in Sierra Leone, and it's still difficult to this day," Rust said. "But we decided from day one to have everything on the up and up, respect their laws, respect their customs and try to partner with them."
They registered with Sierra Leone's Social Welfare department and all the other pertinent local agencies whose support they needed to run The Covering. The Raining Season continues to coordinate with Social Welfare for any child that's placed at its center, and in some cases, Social Welfare refers children to them.
"There's just so much that happens in the world with orphans, and with people taking advantage of the poor, that we wanted to be above reproach," said Rust. "We've really tried to build relationships with the right people."
Now, The Covering serves 100 children with 70 staff, and is a 24/7 orphan care facility. Rust and Stone travel back to Sierra Leone frequently, and The Raining Season also sends hundreds of volunteers there annually.
"It's been a roller coaster, but when you go over there, and you walk into the center, and you see the children, and you see how healthy and happy they are, you realize why it's worth the fight, the sleepless nights and the stressful days," Rust said. "It's worth it when you see those children thrive."
Partnering with Catholic Charities
An important goal of The Raining Season, now a 501(c)3 charitable organization with a board of directors, is helping the orphans at The Covering find permanent homes. Adoptions from Sierra Leone were closed for years, and when they were reopened, they had to be handled independently. That meant an adopting couple had to figure out the international paperwork, hire an attorney and take the adoption case to court themselves.
More recently laws have changed for the better. Now adoptions from the region must be conducted through a Hague Accredited international adoption agency, such as Catholic Charities of Tennessee.
"As some of the children in their center were eligible for adoption, some of the families that had traveled to Sierra Leone and were sponsoring children there began the process of adopting the children," said Donna Thomas, department director of Catholic Charities' Caring Choices program. "The Raining Season felt that they were called to care for children and wanted someone to take over the adoption aspect of the program. They approached us about helping."
Earlier this year, Catholic Charities' Adoption Services entered into an agreement with The Raining Season to be the primary provider for adoptions of eligible orphans residing at The Covering. This includes assisting with all the necessary steps to complete an international adoption in both countries.
"When the parent or family member indicates that they want the child to be adopted and have the possibility for education in another country, then we, with staff in Sierra Leone, start the process through the legal channels in Sierra Leone and then through the United States Immigration Services," explained Thomas.
Thanks to Catholic Charities and a more streamlined adoption process in Sierra Leone, the Rust family has grown. After successfully working with Catholic Charities to bring Jayda home in 2005, Jason and Erica used the agency to adopt three more orphans 18 months ago. Jayda, now 14, helped welcome Nash, 14, Maddox, 13, and Capri, 11. Leading the Rust pack is 15-year-old Jordan, the couple's only biological child.
The family has learned a lot through their experience, about international adoptions, the sometimes horrific treatment of children, women and the poor, and the fact that ordinary people can make a difference. One of the most important lessons they've learned is to always keep eyes, ears and hearts open.
"We just want people, regardless if its Sierra Leone, or Ethiopia, or Haiti or Tennessee, to be aware of what's going on in the world, and that there are great people, there are hurting people, there are people that just need a little bit of a helping hand," said Rust. "So we pay attention. When we start to pay attention, that's when change happens."
To volunteer, make a donation or to get more information on The Raining Season, visit www.therainingseason.org, or contact board president Timothy McLaughlin at email@example.com.
For more information about Catholic Charities' international and domestic adoption services, contact Julie Bolles at (615) 760-1022 or firstname.lastname@example.org.