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20 Years of Hope: Hercules

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All this year, as we have celebrated 20 Years of Hope — LWB’s 20th anniversary — we have been sharing updates on some of the wonderful children this community has impacted over the last two decades. Today, we look back on a little boy from China who has become very close to our hearts over the years as our final “Story of Hope” of 2023.

In 2005, a tiny boy was born in Henan Province, China with the special needs of cleft lip and palate. He was already too tiny to survive being abandoned — yet somehow, he did. When the police found him and brought him to the orphanage in his town, he weighed less than four pounds.

Newborn baby with cleft lip lying on a red flowered blanket

His orphanage was a very poor one, and even though the nannies who were caring for him were kind-hearted, they were also extremely busy trying to make sure all the babies in their care got at least a few bottles each day. It was an overwhelming situation for them.

Row of babies lying in cribs in an orphanage

Hercules (as we came to call him) struggled to feed from the moment he entered orphanage care. When he tried to take a bottle, he would choke and gasp because of his cleft lip and wide-open palate. As the months went by, he didn’t seem to grow any bigger in size. In fact, by the time two adoptive families visiting his orphanage saw him for the first time, at five months old, he was alarmingly malnourished. The families frantically called their adoption agency in tears, who then called LWB to see if there was any way we could help.

Thankfully, our cleft mission in Henan province was going on that very week, so we called the orphanage director to see if they could possibly bring the baby to see our medical team. Although we were on the opposite side of the province, the director at that time was a truly kind man and was he was happy that someone might be able to help this failure-to-thrive baby. Hercules, accompanied by this director and a nanny, was in a car on his way to see us within 30 minutes of that first phone call.

LWB’s CEO Amy Eldridge recalls in her book, “The Heart of an Orphan”: Six hours later they arrived, and I will never forget them hurrying into the room to bring baby Hercules to us. They had him all bundled up in blankets, but immediately I could see that he was far too tiny for his age. Yet there was something so amazing about his eyes. They were the eyes of an “old soul,” looking far too wise in his wrinkled face. He stared at me intently, and I found myself holding a baby who was silently pleading for help with his gaze. Our whole team fell in love with this tiny little boy. Our volunteers gave him a warm bath, and wrapped him up in new clothes and a blanket. They desperately wanted this tiny boy to pull through.

Woman holding baby boy during a cleft surgery mission trip

Then they got out a soft, squeezable cleft bottle; an absolute essential to tiny babies with cleft who struggle to feed. Amy remembers: We filled up one of these special bottles with warm formula, and Hercules had the first full meal of his life. I don’t think any of us had a dry eye when he finished.

By the next day, Hercules was already looking better, but he was nowhere near heavy enough to have a cleft operation, weighing only seven pounds at five months of age. When we broke the news to the orphanage staff that we couldn’t yet do his surgery, they were visibly disappointed. They had been so hopeful that he could be healed.

Woman holding tiny baby with cleft lip during a cleft surgery mission

After a few days of staying with our team, we sent the director and nanny home with a bag full of cleft bottles and several huge cans of the best formula we could find. We assured them that as soon as this little boy hit ten pounds, we would make sure he had cleft repair surgery.

Amy wrote: All of us hated to see him go. We had loved holding him, and, I think since he was the size of a newborn, we had really enjoyed sitting on a cot rocking him and singing soft lullabies. Boy, did he have a tight grip!  He constantly reached for the hand of the person holding him, and he would grab onto their finger and refuse to let go. When we finally had to say goodbye, I admit that I started to cry, wondering if he could keep that fighting spirit inside of him. Every day after I got back home to Oklahoma, I would pray for baby Hercules.

In late December, a few months after returning from China, I got a feeling in my heart so strong that I had to go to his orphanage. It felt like a quick intake of breath, and I heard the words so clearly: “Go to Henan.” But that was crazy of course because I had just gotten back from China, and we didn’t have any ongoing programs in that province yet. I kept trying to rationally shake off the feeling that I had to return, but the message in my heart was firm and strong. I needed to get on a plane to China as quickly as arrangements could be made.

As I walked into Hercules’ rural orphanage for the first time in January, there was only one baby on my mind, and he was in the second crib over. There was little Hercules, sucking on his two fingers the same way he had on the cleft trip, and looking just as wise as ever. He was still incredibly tiny, and, as I held him, I knew in my heart that he was at the very end of his battle. He somehow seemed even smaller than when I had seen him a few months before, and his arms and legs had redundant skin that just hung from his bones.

Newborn baby with cleft lip and palate in an orphanage

His nannies told us how much they wanted him to gain weight after the cleft trip, but they kept saying there were simply not enough hands. “He needs one-on-one care,” they told me. Even as they said it, I knew exactly where he needed to be. This little boy needed to go to Beijing, to the Hope Foster Home (HFH), where he could have his own aunty who was trained to work with little fighters like him.

He began downing a full cleft bottle every three hours and charmed everyone with his wise little eyes. Dr. Hill at HFH shared with me that upon arrival to their home, he was in the beginning stages of organ failure. Without intervention, he would have lived just a few more days.

But Hercules did live. In fact, he thrived.

Baby boy with cleft lip in a walker

Ultimately, Hercules gained weight like gangbusters, and it wasn’t long before he had reached moose-like proportions and could safely have surgery. When the news reached our team of volunteers, there was an online flurry of cheers, as we had all become so invested in the life of this one little boy since that very first day when he showed up at our cleft mission in Henan.

Boy with cleft lip 20 Years of Hope

Although Hercules had a pretty sizeable cleft, surgeons did a beautiful job with his lip repair and we were all thrilled to see his gorgeous new smile!

Baby boy in red sitting in a stroller

After some additional post-op care at Hope Foster Home, Hercules was able to transfer to the LWB foster care program that we had recently started in his hometown. From experience with our other foster care programs in China, we knew this new program would be a huge blessing for the children there. “Not enough hands” in the orphanage would no longer be a problem for children placed into a family setting.

Little boy in a white jacket getting a drink from a woman wearing a gold jacket

Hercules continued to gain weight and strength with his foster family, and he learned something that would prove to be very important in the near future: He learned what it was like to be a part of a family.

Boy in a purple and white cap being held by his foster mother

The future, as of October of 2008, meant a permanent family through adoption. Since that time, Hercules’ parents have blessed us with regular updates on how this wonderful boy has been doing. These updates often come around the Christmas holidays…which is right around the time of year when we first met him. We loved all the festive photographs over the years!

Little boy wearing a Santa hat and laughing
Teenage boy in front of a Christmas tree
Teenage boy in a green hoodie wearing red antlers

Today, a very handsome Hercules is 18 years old and a high school graduate. He is working on a degree in illustration and is having a great time living in a dorm and engaging his creativity. We can’t wait to see what the future holds for him!

A family celebrating their son's high school graduation

Amy ended her 2016 story on Hercules this way: Several years ago, I was honored to see Hercules once again, this time with his adoptive family and looking the very picture of strength and health. As he shyly gave me a hug, I couldn’t help but wonder about the lasting footsteps he is leaving on this earth. Maybe he’ll grow up to be a doctor, or an incredible teacher [or an illustrator!], or maybe he will be a loving daddy someday.

That’s the exciting part about any of us having a future though, isn’t it? Realizing that so many unknown chapters have yet to be written. For Hercules, even though he is just a boy, his story is already a remarkable one. I am confident that the best is still to come.

Teenage boy in a bright yellow jacket standing outside

Just like Hercules, our supporters are leaving lasting footsteps on this earth. Thousands of children from Cambodia, China, Guatemala, India and Uganda have received their chance to shine and have a better future. We can’t thank you enough for helping us to change so many lives for the better!

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