Hope for the Hurting in Latvia
By Natalie Meeks, BBI Guest Writer
GREENVILLE, South Carolina – Relationship. Connection. Belonging. Movement of God. Latvia. If you were to ask Bridge Builders International missionary Jaycee Jensen to describe her passion, those are the words you would hear.
As Director of BBI program New Hope Latvia, Jaycee wears many hats. She is an American missionary and a mother, having adopted three Latvian orphans. She is a former correctional officer and orphan care advocate. She is camp coordinator and correspondent for orphan hosting programs and their families. And she is passionate about watching God work good for the hurting children in Latvia.
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
When Jaycee arrived in Latvia in 2009, her experience with teens from hard places proved to serve her well. She had already developed an important understanding of the intricacies of successful connection with traumatized children. But Latvia is not the USA; while all displaced and hurt children suffer similarly, Latvian orphans bear a particular burden. Since regaining her independence in 1991, this newly free land has fought hard to shake the reigns of Soviet oppression. But, as in all compartments of societal memory, stigmas weigh heavy and hard.
The particular prejudice against orphaned children is a residual imprint of the Soviet/Eastern mentality and culture. A perceived identity of “differentness” has long permeated public opinion of the social orphan. Somehow, they must be ‘less than.’ They must surely have done something to warrant their place, their lot. This is the Soviet social structure, so devastating to the family unit. It is believed (or felt) that those who suffer today are experiencing their just consequences of earlier evil or wrongdoing. Therefore their current situations are justifiably part of the natural order and cannot be changed.
This ‘can’t be changed’ mindset is also known as fatalism. One of the most common expressions in Latvia (and Russia) is “What to do?” accompanied by a shrug or a helpless glance. We have heard it said that actions speak louder than words. It may also be observed that our actions demonstrate our subconscious beliefs.
“Act, act in the living Present! Heart within, and God o’erhead!”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
But change comes and winds blow, and with them, fresh air and new perspective. In the last decade, Latvians have begun to take a closer look at their displaced children. They are partnering with the vision of BBI and New Hope to reach their children. To see them with fresh eyes. This shift is deeply encouraging to Jaycee. Nevertheless, she explains that a long road awaits, pointing out that, “Latvia must continue to work to erase the prejudice of what it means to be an orphan.”
Latvia laments thousands of orphaned children, most of whom are social orphans – children who have living parents, but are wards of the state, generally as a result of substance abuse, neglect, poverty and unemployment. These children are victims of abuse and addiction, a vicious cycle that steals from families and repays with more brokenness in return. Lacking intervention, the cycle cannot be contained. It grows in turbulence, rapidly like a cyclone, luring the hurting and hungry into its angry core.
What then is the answer? Is there a solution? What has changed and how to continue the forward progression? To these questions, Jaycee’s answer is at once simple and complex.
“Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.”
Corrie ten Boom
“Relationship is the key to opening doors, breaking down walls and bringing new hope to those who have lost hope.”
Jaycee’s time with children from hard places highlights the missing element that we so easily take for granted. The importance of a trustworthy Parent-Child relationship cannot be overstated. When this is lacking, a child has no option but to resort to survival skills. These survival skills may translate as behavior issues to us, but the river runs darker and more deeply. Statistically, the cycle will continue; and without loving care from an early age, orphaned children may develop physical, mental and emotional delays. Their hopes of a bright future are blighted and stained. Furthermore, we must ask: How easily can a child who has been betrayed or abandoned by his earthly father run eagerly into the arms of his Heavenly Father?
Jaycee’s task, she explains, is to continually respond to the following question: “What can I do to help facilitate relationships with these kids?” The answer, though it might manifest in different ways, is always the same in principle:
“Anything to make them feel SEEN, HEARD and KNOWN; not because of what they do but because of who they are.”
This is relationship. It undergirds and enables souls to love and to grow. This is the key to overcoming their suffering. Jaycee has seen time and again that if she can connect hurting children with relationships, “they will have a fighting chance.” Over the years, she has witnessed growth and success in many of the teen girls she has mentored. Now adults, they live on their own. They have jobs. Some have thriving relationships with the Lord. And all of them know that there is someone who cares about them. This knowledge – this resting place in relationship – is the key that has opened doors to their futures.
Throughout her years in Latvia, Jaycee has forged deep and profitable relationships with various orphanages nationwide. She has traveled the country, met with orphanage directors, allowing her the unique ability to learn the true needs of the children under their watch. These relationships have paved the way for her participation in the Latvian-led Christian Alliance for Orphans. The Alliance, partnering with New Hope, is now laying the groundwork and lighting a fire, facilitating a connection between the orphanages, the local Latvian churches and the people.
Jaycee’s eyes alight as she shares, “the Spirit of God is effecting change in Latvia and orphan care; a movement of God is happening here that is bigger even than the Christian community.”
This is true hope for the future, for if any change is to truly take root and continue it must be desired by Latvia. If the people of this beautiful nation become passionate, the work of Jaycee and New Hope will continue. And the heartfelt desires of God’s people will echo His:
Relationship. Connection. Belonging. Movement of God. Latvia.
Natalie Meeks is a freelance writer from Greenville, South Carolina. She and her husband are in the process of adopting a wonderful Latvian boy. Since her first adoption trip to Riga, she began writing a series of guest articles for Bridge Builders International. Throughout the process, she developed a meaningful new friendship with Jaycee