Sometimes what seem to be rather insignificant decisions end up impacting lives in unexpected ways. For Wellon Bridgers, her self-described “random decision” to take French at Mountain Brook High School years ago led her down a path she never envisioned – one that resulted in the artist working to reunite families and place orphans for adoption in French-speaking Congo.
For Wellon and her husband, Stephen, adoption was always a part of their plan to grow their family. When their biological twins were 15 months old, the time seemed right. They became part of a pilot program with four other families to adopt children from the Republic of Congo. Soon thereafter, they were matched with twin boys and began the process of securing visas, completing other legal documents, and sending monthly financial support for the children they anticipated bringing into their family.
Then things took a strange turn. “Piece by very confusing piece, it became apparent that the story we had been told about the boys’ situation was a lie,” Wellon recalls. “The parents were married and the boys had older teenaged sisters.” The Bridgers had stumbled upon the dirty little secret of international adoption: parents in desperate straits forced to give up kids they cannot afford to support.
Wellon and Stephen were horrified. “We stepped away,” she says. “We told the agency we were working with, ‘This is not right.’” It was a realization that changed everything for them. “Our eyes were opened. We couldn’t turn away,” Wellon says. “So we went into research mode. Is this just a problem in Congo or is it throughout the international adoption landscape?”
Not as it Seems
What the Bridgers discovered was a grim world completely at odds with the idealized vision most Westerners have about international adoption—one where families in general and mothers in particular are coerced into giving up their children for adoption. Orphanages in “survival mode” countries pop up seemingly overnight when officials see Westerners with money willing to spend it freely in the hopes of adopting a child. Corruption occurs at every level. As a result, Wellon says that “children are identified for adoption that never should be classified as orphans.”
She tells a chilling example of the corruption they found. Because of her background in French, she found herself translating relinquishment documents that included testimony from the child’s parents. “Every single document used the exact same language from the parents as to why they were relinquishing custody. That just doesn’t happen.”
The Bridgers were haunted by the situation they almost fell into. “We were asking really hard questions,” Wellon says. “We are not naïve people.” It occurred to them that if adopting children removed from their parents against their wishes could happen to them, it was certainly happening to folks who weren’t as skeptical as they were.
Disillusioned by their experience, Wellon and Stephen continued to search for an organization that was committed to ethical practices and would only place orphans who truly needed homes. “Who, if anyone, does this well?’” they asked. Their newfound knowledge led them to a Canadian-based organization called Mwana Villages. Founded by Cheryl and Lambert Laki-Laka (she is Canadian and he is Congolese), Mwana Villages, based in the Republic of Congo, knows and understands the cultural norms of the country and is committed to prioritizing family unification when possible. “Mwana” is the local Congolese word for “child,” and their dedication to preserving the Congolese family first resonated with the Bridgers. “It’s a beautiful model,” Wellon says. “All throughout the organization you have this blending and collaboration of Western and Congolese cultures that is absolutely necessary. Cultural differences are almost insurmountable unless you have the processes in place” to facilitate communication and understanding.
It was a mutually beneficial relationship. Wellon and Stephen were able to share what they had learned in their research with the founders and the board of Mwana Villages about the vast problems that plagued the world of international adoption. After months of closely studying how the agency made decisions, they were fully confident that the organization was sincere in their efforts to work with women in crisis to keep their children first. Feeling as though they had indeed found an agency that “did it well,” they decided to proceed with an adoption of their own.
This Crazy, Wonderful Life
Enter Leila and Daniel. Wellon’s face glows when she talks about bringing her two youngest children home from Congo in October of 2015. “I couldn’t wait to become their mama, and get to know every little part of (them) and their wonderful personalities,” Wellon says. The day was gray and rainy when the Bridgers arrived at Mwana Villages to welcome the two toddlers into their family, but the only tears shed were tears of joy. It was the culmination of a long, emotionally wrenching journey for Wellon and Stephen but also the beginning of a wonderful new chapter in their lives.
Older siblings Fitz and Chloe are three and a half years older, and while Leila and Daniel aren’t technically twins or even biologically related, the closeness of their age almost makes it seem as if they are. Life at the Bridgers’ is one of constant activity and fun, which isn’t surprising in a house with four children under the age of eight. “I never get bored,“ she says with a laugh.
Behind the chaos of children in her home, you’ll also find Wellon’s art, whose paintings hang in homes and galleries around the country too. Her artwork, especially the abstract landscapes, reflects her belief in light and hope that is always present through even the darkest of circumstances. It’s a belief confirmed through the Bridgers’ adoption journey, and one she has drawn from to create artwork that has been used to help raise funds for Mwana Villages.
After their adoption, the Bridgers continued to volunteer with the organization, and the friends who had walked alongside them through the process became involved in supporting Mwana Villages as well. Soon Wellon’s involvement would increase, too. She recalls talking with a consultant who specialized in helping those who work with nonprofits. “The advice to us was: ‘Right now, you have a backyard garden. You have dreams to become a fully operational farm but you cannot get from point A to point B without someone coming on board to really run this thing.’”
The pieces started falling into place when Stephen, a lawyer, told Wellon, “You know, let’s just file the paperwork and make this a U.S. nonprofit as well, so that our giving, our friends’ giving, our church’s giving can be tax deductible.”
Once again, their friends came through. “To file the paperwork, you have to have three unrelated board members,” Wellon says. “My best friend’s husband is an accountant, my other best friend is a pediatrician, and I knew they weren’t going to say no.” Mwana Villages was soon registered as a U.S. nonprofit with Wellon as executive director and a fully staffed board of directors. “We really didn’t envision it going beyond our circle of friends and supporters,” she says. But according to the latest financial statement published for Mwana Villages, some 63 percent of global donations come from donors across the United States.
Not Your Typical Orphanage
If you search #notyourtypicalorphanage, Mwana Villages is the first thing comes up. Courtney Baxley, pediatrician and medical director U.S., got to see this for herself recently. She’s one of Wellon’s oldest friends – since their days at Mountain Brook Gymnastics in third grade – and on a trip to the Republic of Congo with Wellon she came away completely humbled by what she saw. “This organization does amazing things for the vulnerable women and children of Congo,” she says. “We saw the love and care provided to each child at the home – three meals a day and warm milk at night, the ‘mamas’ at the home singing and dancing with the children and saying prayers each evening.” While there, Courtney says they were also able to meet with local physicians and hospitals to advance relationships that can provide for medical needs as they arise.
Wellon is passionate in her belief that all children deserve a loving family, preferably their own, which is why she and Stephen are so committed to Mwana Villages’ model of family reunification first.
She is hopeful that as the corruption all too common in international adoption is exposed, policies that seek to preserve families will become the norm, rather than the exception.
“I think it’s starting to change, which energizes me to keep working,” she says. “Pro-adoption folks and the church tend to regard adoption as ‘the solution’ for orphans in crisis. But when you only look at the child, you’re ignoring all these reasons why the children are abandoned or adoptable in the first place, and you’re forgetting or ignoring the women behind them.“ Supporting these women, she believes, creates a way for these mothers to escape exploitation and the feelings of helplessness many face in dire economic circumstances.
That French class at Mountain Brook High School was small – only a handful of students. But for Wellon Bridgers, that small decision opened up a much wider world of possibility and an opportunity to help shine light and spread hope in a dark place halfway across the world.
How to Help Mwana
Efforts to help Mwana Villages are ongoing. Here are some ways to support the orphanage and its programs to support vulnerable families and children. To learn more about either, visit mwanavillages.org.
- Sponsorship– You can make a monthly donation to help support a child at the Mwana Refuge. Sponsors are matched with a child or family and will receive regular updates and photos.
- Capital Contributions– Mwana Refuge is currently renting space, and there is a campaign to raise funds to construct a new facility of their own. Plans include a school that would be open to full-tuition paying Congolese families and French ex-pat families alongside the children in care at Mwana. The goal is a revenue generating model that doesn’t rely solely on donations.