My Heroes – Profiles in Courage – Special Hope Network

May 27, 2014

In the video trailer for my new novel, The Garden of Burning Sand, I ask a question that all of us have to wrestle with: Can one person really make a difference when there is so much wrong in so many places? War, famine, poverty, violence, slavery, rape, child abuse, human trafficking, the list goes on and on. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by it and decide there really isn’t anything we can do.

But that would be a mistake. As I’ve traveled around the world researching my novels, I’ve had the privilege to meet some extraordinary people who have found creative ways to combat injustice by channeling their passions into productive action. Over the next few weeks, I’d like to highlight a few of these people and the organizations they serve.

Special Hope Network

I met Eric and Holly Nelson almost a decade ago. The first thing I noticed about them was their unconventional family. They have three adopted children from Brazil, all of whom have Down syndrome. Over the years, I watched their children blossom in a loving environment uniquely tailored to their special needs. I was hugely impressed by the Nelsons’ wisdom and grace—watching them with their kids was like watching a gardener tend her roses—but I didn’t quite understand how deep their passion went, not until they told me in 2009 that they planned to transplant their family to Zambia to serve children with special needs.

You’re going to do what? I thought. Zambia? Really? Indeed, they were serious. In the process of adopting their three children, they had seen firsthand how terribly kids with intellectual disabilities are treated in the developing world. They wanted to help change that, but their options for direct engagement were limited in the United States. If they wanted to improve the lives of more children like their own, they knew they had to go to the communities in which the children live. So they built relationships with the humanitarian community in Southern Africa, raised seed money from people of goodwill, sold their house in suburban Virginia, and moved to Lusaka to found Special Hope Network.

When they arrived, the problems were immense. In many African cultures, intellectual disabilities such as Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and autism are considered a curse. As a result, children with special needs are chronically malnourished, undermedicated, and often shuttered in back rooms to keep the neighbors from seeing them. The mortality rate among these children is heartbreaking. Eighty percent die before the age of five.

In September, 2011, I had the chance to visit the Nelsons in Lusaka while I was researching The Garden of Burning Sand. (In fact, their work was one of the inspirations for the novel.) I went with them into Lusaka’s poorest neighborhoods and met the beautiful children they support. The poverty in which many of these children live is heartbreaking, but like children everywhere in developing countries, they are oblivious to it. In the eyes of a child, hope springs eternal.

Four years later, the challenges faced by the Nelsons and Special Hope are still vast. But they are making progress. They are providing life-saving food and medicine to kids in distress. They are educating parents and community members to see the beauty and unique gifts in the children they once ostracized. With hard work and persistence, they are slowly breaking down the stigma that keeps Zambian children with intellectual disabilities hidden away in darkness.

Can one person really make a difference? The Nelsons are living proof that the answer is yes. Special Hope Network is changing lives and communities, one child at a time.