All children grow up

But he's forever J.J. to us.
Mitch Albom

Mitch Albom

February 2, 2022

He arrived with his father. That was unusual. It was 2011, and to that point, every child we admitted to our orphanage was brought in by a woman, sometimes a single mother, sometimes an aunt, a relative, a friend.

So a man arriving with a child took me by surprise. He told a sad story. His wife had died giving birth to the boy. He had no work. He had six other children and no way to feed them. Since the 2010 earthquake devastated their tiny home, he had been walking the streets looking for food. One day he passed the gates of our orphanage. He knocked on the door.

Now here he was, with his young son, a week before the boy’s 7th birthday.

As he finished his story, the man looked at his child and wiped away tears. I had to hold back my own.

“What’s his name?” I asked.

“Jonathan Jean.”

A few days later, Jonathan became part of our family.

He didn’t stay Jonathan for long. We admitted another Jonathan, last name Ulysee, and so, in order to keep them straight, one became J.U. and the other J.J.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about J.J. recently. He’ll turn 18 in a couple months. Legally a man. He was one of four students from our orphanage awarded a scholarship last week to attend Hope College in Michigan this fall.

His life is on the cusp of changing so dramatically.

But then, he should be used to that.

What I didn’t know until recently was how hard life had been for J.J. before he got here. Only recently, when writing an essay for his college application, did he reveal that he remembered the horrible poverty he endured in his early years.

“All I could recollect was crying for food and milk,” he wrote. “I had to wear the same torn clothes every day. Instead of regular sandals, I used water bottles and tied them with string under my feet. I could feel the pain underneath my feet, but there was nothing I could do about it.”

We didn’t know any of this when he arrived. J.J. was quiet at first, as most new arrivals are. But then, in the years that followed, he often became angry. He would fight more than most of our kids. He talked back to the nannies. He had a short fuse if other kids teased him.

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By the time he was 10 or 11, I was worried that he would be a real handful as a teenager. After an incident in our school where he got into it with a teacher, we did something we rarely do.

We called his father. And we suggested he take J.J. back for a little while.

It was never going to be long. We both agreed that a visit to his former life might make him appreciate the opportunities he was getting at the Have Faith Haiti Mission. In the end, he was gone less than two weeks.

But it made a difference. He came back humbled, more grateful. He began to change. To mellow. The surliness turned to humor. The teasing by other boys turned into good natured teasing back.

Then he discovered my iPad.

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I bring it down each month to show the kids movies. They are mostly animated films, but it’s still a big deal when we show them, all the kids sitting on the living room floor, marveling as the screen comes to life.

J.J. started asking if he could help me set it up. He was a quick study. He figured out how to plug in an HDMI cord, and how to connect the sound cord to the speakers. He soon learned how to scroll through the movies, make the selection, get it to play.

It’s a small thing, I know. But you could see how it made him feel special. Every Friday night, after devotion, before anyone else could ask, he would run up to me and say “Can I help you get the movie set up?”

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That led to other offers of help. He took on other chores. He volunteered for things. He learned to play the bass and the drums and the keyboards. I gather he liked the way the other kids looked up to him and I know he preferred to have the adults happy with him rather than scolding him.

Today, J.J. is one of our most mature kids, with a kind heart and a quick offer to help, be it carrying your bag or running to get something you forgot. When the four college hopefuls had to take their English proficiency tests, it was J.J. who helped figure out how to work the computers and get the scores to post.

I look at the pictures of him when he arrived to our doorstep, a high forehead, a slow smile, and I see him now, a strong, powerfully framed young man, with thick cheeks that push up into his eyes when he laughs, and I am flush with that feeling you get when you are almost done reading a good novel, down to the final pages, and you realize how much you have enjoyed the story and how much you don’t want it to end.

He arrived with his father, a little boy lost. But he is fully on the cusp of manhood now, having endured, having thrived. I wonder, when he gets to college, if he’ll go back to being Jonathan, since there will be no confusion with the other one. I hope not. He’s J.J. forever to us.

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