Those LDS Mozambique Orphans: The Real Story

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Neither family had been planning to adopt a child when they traveled separately to Mozambique, but it was the spirit of two young boys, best friends, that led to the surprising circumstances that brought the two families together.

It was on her first trip to Mozambique in 2003 that LaCinda Lewis met 5-year-old Kelvin in a cramped Mozambican adoption facility.

At four years old, little Kelvin had spent his days in search of food and his nights in search of a safe place to call home. He was found wandering the streets of Mozambique by Annie Packard (Lewis) — LaCinda’s future daughter-in-law.

Kelvin receives piggy back ride from John Lewis
Kelvin receives piggy back ride from his adoptive father, John Lewis.

Annie Packard (Lewis) and her mother, Cindy Packard, first came upon Kelvin in the summer of 2002. It was through the Packards that LaCinda Lewis got word of Kelvin’s situation and initiated the adoption process.

As founders of “Care for Life,” a non-governmental organization (NGO) operating in Mozambique, the Packards first contacted Kelvin’s aunt to see if she’d be willing to take care of him. However, her family — like most in Mozambique — suffered under extreme poverty. When it’s nearly impossible to provide for your own family, taking in an extra mouth to feed is not an option.

At the beach
Kelvin (left) and Afonso play in the surf at a Mozambican beach.

One orange, one apple, and a change of clothes were all Kelvin had when his aunt dropped him off at a building full of strangers. Strangers, that was, save for one familiar face: Kelvin’s childhood friend Afonso. The two grew up together. Inseparable, they had played as infants under the watchful eye of their mothers in the remote village of Marromeu in central Mozambique. When Afonso’s parents fell victim to AIDS, he was sent to live at an orphanage in Beira — the same orphanage where Kelvin ended up after the death of his own mother. Together once again, the boys held on to each other in a place where it was hard to hold on to anything.

“When Kelvin shares his feelings about his mom’s passing and then being left at the orphanage, it still makes him very sad. The pain is very real in his life,” wrote LaCinda Lewis.

A Happy Accident Amid Unfortunate Circumstances

Thirty-seven million people worldwide are living with HIV. Of those, 25.8 million reside in sub-Saharan Africa. Those who face the brunt of the AIDS impact, though, are the victims’ children. They watch their parents, aunts, uncles, and siblings dwindle away, afflicted with mouth ulcers, fatigue, diarrhea and memory loss, as the immune system is slowly dismantled and eventually destroyed. Once AIDS has swept its impartial sickle through the child’s family, they are sent to live in orphanages — overrun with disease and overcrowded by children just like them. They live together in conditions that we of the first world would consider inhumane.

The orphanage Kelvin and Afonso lived in was a prime example of this. A building meant to house 100 “housed” 120. The children ran rampant outside, unsupervised, many of them bearing the raised, red rash of scabies on their skin. Any material possession was liable to be stolen. “Even the scriptures we gave them were stolen in the orphanage,” said Sharon Slater, Afonso’s adoptive mom.

“They were best friends from their earliest memories,” notes Sharon Slater, who (unbeknownst to the Lewis family) began the adoption process for Afonso and his two siblings (Luis and Amelia) with her husband Greg in 2002. The Slater’s met Afonso and his siblings on an AIDS prevention trip to Mozambique, organized through Arizona based “Care for Life.” Upon meeting the sibling trio, Sharon Slater felt “in every fiber” of their being that Afonso, Luis, and Amelia were meant to be part of their family.

Neither the Slater nor Lewis family knew of the other’s intentions to adopt — or knew each other, for that matter. Despite the families being almost neighbors, members of the LDS Church, and their children attending the same schools, it wasn’t until a few months into their separate adoption processes that the Gilbert, Arizona, residents were introduced to each other. The families met up, compared notes, and began working together on the adoptions.

This realization meant two things:

  1. Afonso and Kelvin’s friendship could transcend international barriers.
  2. The Slater and Lewis families would not be alone during the arduous journey ahead of them.

“Mothers Do Not Give up on Their Children”

The Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption is intended to make intercountry adoptions easier on and safer for the children being adopted. Unfortunately, Mozambique is not party to the Hague Convention.

Under Mozambique adoption laws, parents adopting from outside the country are subject to the same laws pertaining to the Mozambican residents, including the requirement that the children must be monitored by the court until 21 years of age. This can pose a problem for families adopting from the US, especially if the court determines the child cannot be suitably monitored outside of Mozambique.

Mozambican orphans reunited take bath
Kelvin (left) and Afonso (right) cleaning off.

Due to the high volume of human trafficking that takes place within Mozambique, and the child prostitution that is so prevalent in Beira — the city housing the orphanage that Afonso and his siblings were coming from — the first judge the Slater’s encountered was more than wary of foreigners. Accusing the family of human trafficking with the intent to sell the children’s body parts, the judge denied the Slater family’s request for adoption. She then publicly prided herself on successfully thwarting an international child-trafficking ring. The story was run in local Mozambique newspapers and broadcast BBC; this was only the first trial of a process that would span the next seven years.

Sharon Slater and LaCinda Lewis never stopped looking out for their children during the seemingly endless bureaucratic battle they faced. Two of their five trips to Mozambique were made together. In expressing her fierce, motherly persistence, LaCinda wrote:

“Sharon and I traveled many times to Mozambique because mothers do not give up on their children who are counting on them. [Kelvin and Afonso’s] story is the story [of] Africa — a majestic continent, rich in resources and filled with beautiful people, but decimated by disease, ravaged by wars, and governed, in many cases, by corrupt leaders.”

Kelvin and Afonso mozambican orphans on the 4th of July
Afonso (left) and Kelvin (right) celebrate the Fourth of July.

In March 2006, Mozambique officials attended a 2-day orphan adoption seminar sponsored by Care for Life in Arizona. Both Lewis and Slater played an important role in the preparation of this seminar. The officials presented their views on orphan issues and adoption policies, listened to presentations on international adoption given by experts from Family Watch International, and had the opportunity to visit the homes of adopted Mozambican children to experience and observe the quality of life they were afforded. The officials left the seminar enthusiastic about international adoption, even drafting an international adoption law. However, the draft was shot down by the same judge who thwarted the Slaters’ first adoption request, and no law was put in place.

The Slaters once again refiled to have the adoption decision appealed in Mozambique court, and were denied once more. After such a blow, the Slaters ceased their active efforts to adopt Afonso and his two siblings. Things didn’t seem to be looking up for the families.

Then, Sharon Slater was named 2007 Arizona Mother of the Year; she chose “Families for Orphans” as her platform. Afonso and his siblings were invited to do a 2-week tour in the United States, speaking to groups to raise awareness for the plight of orphans. Brigham Young University also invited the three children to speak at an “Orphan Awareness” seminar on campus.

Kelvin an d Afonso mozambican orphans play soccer
Kelvin (left) and Afonso (right) walk together after soccer.

During this time, intense rainfall caused severe flooding in Mozambique, devastating many of its communities. Up to one million people were stricken with displacement, lack of accessibility to roads, as well as increasing levels of water-borne illness. Due to the extreme nature of the flooding affecting the area where the three children lived, they were unable to travel back to Mozambique. An Arizona court ruled it unsafe for the children to journey back to Mozambique, entrusting them in the care of the Slater family as foster children.

Less than a year later, it was recommended by Arizona Child Protective Services that Afonso, Amelia, and Luis be permanently adopted into the Slater home. The Slater family was ecstatic; after a 7-year uphill battle, the family would finally become officially whole. In December 2009, the adoption decree was issued by the Arizona court.

About six months later, after his pleas for a family finally landed on the ears of a sympathetic Mozambique judge, Kelvin arrived in Gilbert, to his new home with the Lewis family, and once again to the familiar arms of his best friend.

The boys had not fully understood what the adoption meant; that they would be placed in the same elementary school classes, play on the same football, basketball, and soccer teams, or live only 1.7 miles away from each other despite being 10,000 miles away from their homeland.

“The boys love each other like brothers. They relate with one another on a level that most people will never understand. Our Heavenly Father has certainly had a hand in guiding their lives,” says LaCinda Lewis.

eagle court
Afonso (left) and Kelvin (right) attend their joint Eagle Court of Honor.

This year, both Afonso and Kelvin will be graduating from high school, and attending Brigham Young University (BYU) come fall. No longer are they two young orphans, kicking against the water in the shower and refusing to brush their teeth. Both boys look to the future with hopeful eyes and big plans. Kelvin intends to study medicine and return to Mozambique to practice as a doctor; Afonso has set his sights on international relations with the aim of “better[ing] the international adoption system.”

Moving Forward: A Better Life for Mozambican Orphans

The adoption experience was eye-opening to the Slater and Lewis families. Neither expected the long, drawn-out painful process that preceded the happiness of adoption. “We had no idea that Mozambique did not have an agreement with the US, or any country for that matter,” wrote LaCinda Lewis. “If you are in-country or an ex-pat, adoptions are not such a big problem. What we were trying to do was foreign to them.”

It took the Lewis family 6-years to adopt Kelvin. During that time, LaCinda visited Mozambique as much as she possibly could, but in the meantime, other arrangements were necessary to ensure Kelvin’s well-being. LaCinda located a native family to foster Kelvin until the adoption could be approved by the government. This way, Kelvin did not have to stay in the terrible conditions of the orphanage. In 2009, the Lewis’s founded the Acenda Project, a small non-profit that focuses on removing orphans from orphanages, and placing them with trusted foster families. Acenda provides the children with a stable home, and the foster families with financial help.

Acenda is now associated with the Families for Orphans project — a program which promotes a holistic, family-centered approach to orphan care across the world. Families for Orphans functions under Family Watch International, a nonprofit organization founded by Afonso’s adoptive mother, Sharon Slater. Funding for Families for Orphans comes primarily from donations. In an effort to promote donations and to help foster greater understanding for the plight of orphans,the organization has invited families and individuals across the world to participate in the “Seven Days of Nothing” challenge.

Kelvin and Afonso first day of school
Kelvin (right) hugs Afonso (left)

Participants are encouraged to live for a week on only the most basic necessities, in order to simulate the living conditions of orphans around the world. Some examples for implementing “Seven Days of Nothing” can be found on their site 7daysofnothing.org, and include living off basic food staples, hand washing clothes and dishes, and using only candles or lanterns for light. Participants are encouraged to calculate the amount they save by making these sacrifices and donate it to a Families for Orphans project.

If you or your family would like to participate in “Seven Days of Nothing” visit 7daysofnothing.org. To sponsor an orphan, visit acendachildre.blogspot.com.

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LDS.net is aware that the Lewis and Slater families’ stories have been published before by the press, but the story has never been told correctly or completely. This has been the families’ opportunity to “set the record straight” and avoid any embellishments.

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Gabriella is a psychology major, Westfalia-dweller, and expert bean-eater. Having spent the majority of her life living in the great Latin-American metropoles of Guatemala and Mexico, Gabriella continues to grapple with the eccentricities of suburban living.