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Fifteen Orphans This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This work has won the Teen Ink contest in its category.


“In five years, at least 12 of the 15 children standing before you will most likely be dead.”

As I watched the orphans playing on the solitary tire swing that functioned as their playground, the words the ­orphanage's director had spoken to me years before reverberated in my mind. I pictured my parents playing on a similar playground decades earlier. How had they beaten the odds? What were my parents thinking when they agreed to let me come here by myself? On a family trip a few years before, we had visited this Jirapa orphanage. Distraught by the plight of the orphans, I promised myself I would do something – anything – to help these children beat that grim statistic. Four years later, I found myself flying, unaccompanied, halfway across the world to fulfill that promise.

On paper, my idea seemed simple: improve the lives of 15 orphans. I expected, albeit naïvely, to arrive in Ghana as the cavalry; with the $18,647 in donations I had collecting during the last few years, I would be their salvation. The conditions when I arrived, however, were worse than I remembered. The children, donned in tissue-thin clothes, were walking corpses; their toothpick thighs knocking together under their protruding bellies, swollen from malnutrition. I shuddered to think that this was how my parents must have once looked. How long would the food I brought last? How soon before the clothes I brought become the decaying rags they wore now?

Alone, I traveled across the world, and alone I watched as the buckets of mortar I brought to clog the dam against poverty turned into pathetic lumps of clay. A gentle tugging at my shirt interrupted my thoughts, and I glanced down to see a little bald girl smiling up at me through missing front teeth. “Minla! Minla!” she giggled, pointing to the kids laughing on the tire swing and urging me to come and play with them. I looked at these children, wondering if they were aware of the gravity of their situation. Did they realize their lives were hourglasses, quickly draining toward death? Did they know that I had come with hopes to save them? Did they understand, as I was being forced to, that I would most likely fail?

The child's bright eyes and continuous laughter answered my depressing questions and I let her eagerly pull me across the field to introduce me to her friends.

“This is Minla,” she told them cheerfully. Not fluent in her dialect, I had no way of telling her that my name was not Minla, choosing instead to embrace the child's happy innocence.

That night, I asked the orphanage director what the girl meant when she called me Minla. “Minla,” she paused, an understanding smile spreading across her face, “means ‘We are smiling and so you too shall smile.'”

The purity of this statement stunned me. How difficult a thing to bear a smile in even the grimmest of situations. I had spent these days fighting an internal battle, frustrated with the realization that I wasn't going to have the impact I had hoped. Yet the children welcomed me with joy and affection. I had come to Jirapa unaware that the something I brought these children would be more than physical goods. It would be the friendship and love that kept smiles on their faces, the personal connection that gave them, as it had given my parents, a reason to hope.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

This work has won the Teen Ink contest in its category. This piece won the June 2014 Teen Ink Community Service Contest.




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