Giving hope to the ‘least of these’

A DeSoto County couple’s passion for the plight of forgotten children, both at home and across the world, has led to their starting an effort to meet the needs of those youngsters.

Matthew 25 talks about Christ’s return and states how those who fed, clothed and cared for “the least of these” have also done the same for Christ.

Nathan and Whitney Russell have a special heart for children and long to provide a home for those who truly are the “least of these,” the forgotten young, the orphans.

Joining with others, both at home but also from other parts of the country, the Russells have formed what they call the “House of Hope Project.”

“We want to bridge the gap, not only locally but internationally, for kids that don’t have homes but also parents, like foster parents who are trying to do everything that they can but maybe can’t take a vacation,” Whitney Russell said of the fundraising project. “We want to step in to sponsor some of those things.”

The name “House of Hope” is simple, yet purposeful in meaning. The first project it is undertaking is to build a home for orphans in the African country of Lesotho, a small nation landlocked by the confines of South Africa.

Russell said in that country, children after age 5 are not adoptable and typically are faced with a life of working in sweatshops under new names and many times indoctrinated into a Buddist lifestyle.

“We want to build an eight-house village that will hold 120 kids,” Russell said. “The organization we are working with bought land there, but had no money to buy a house. They told us if you want to build a house, we’ll let you build on our land.”

The organization, Beautiful Dream Society based in Oklahoma City, Okla., exists to help orphans, but also fight human trafficking. The home will serve to address both issues, as women saved from human trafficking will then be trained to be home mothers for the orphans age five and older who will live there.

“They are also given a new purpose and a new lease on life by raising these orphans who have been told they are worthless,” Russell said. “We are going to, hopefully, communicate the Gospel to them inside the brick and mortar of these walls.”

At the same time, House of Hope has started to address the issue of the forgotten children of DeSoto County, starting with victims of child abuse. It has partnered with Healing Hearts Child Advocacy Center to help sponsor a school supply project. The Southaven-based center advocates and responds for victims of child abuse.

“They have the backpacks, we’re just going to stuff the backpacks with a message of hope for these kids,” Russell said. “Their situation may not look good, but we see them and we know they are there. We can’t have a religious agenda with them because Healing Hearts is federally funded so our challenge is how to express this. But we’re willing to fight this battle with them.”

Whitney and Nathan Russell’s heart for the young has depth at several levels. Whitney is a special education pre-school teacher at Pleasant Hill Elementary School in Olive Branch, working with special needs children ages 3-6. Nathan is Director of Student Ministries at Getwell Road United Methodist Church in Southaven and they are the parents of three young children.

But, the Russells first started to learn the plight of children in Africa when they looked into adopting another child from Lesotho. The journey took unexpected turns that resulted in their challenge to start the House of Hope Project.

“Lesotho as a country has slowed down on their adoptions, so we switched all of our paperwork to Uganda,” Whitney said. “We were in line to adopt a six-year-old girl named Hope, but I was pregnant at the time with our youngest child, the timing was just not right and we were heartbroken.”

Believing they had let Hope down, the Russells became inspired to start House of Hope “to never tell another kid they don’t have a home,” she said. The good news for them is that Hope was eventually adopted and now lives with her new family, a couple the Russells met during the adoption process from Selmer, Tenn.

It will be the generosity of people that fuels their mission.

“We are relying on people who believe in the Gospel and the words of Jesus that says, ‘It is our job to take care of the widows and orphans,’” she said. “I personally feel that everybody should be doing something. I just want to challenge believers and make a move for the Kingdom.”

That challenge may be considered a stiff one. They need to raise $400,000 over a 2-to-3 year period to cover the cost of a fence, underground work, plumbing and construction of the home.

The fence is an important start.

“In Lesotho, if you can fence off your land, then it’s your land,” Whitney said. “If it’s not fenced, then anybody can come in and do what they want.”

Plans for House of Hope are not to stop in Lesotho, but look at other areas, including India. Nathan said the organizational design is meant to use people already there.

“A lot of times we go on short-term mission trips, and they’re good, but it doesn’t do as good as those already established in the country,” Nathan said. “This allows people to give hope to kids they are never going to meet, but it allows them to get the things they actually need over there. We’re able to work with organizations that have ‘boots on the ground’ like Beautiful Dream Society that says, ‘This is exactly what we need.’”

Donations are now being accepted through a website, www.houseofhopeproject.com. It also has a social media presence on Facebook by searching “House of Hope Project” and more information is available by calling the non-profit organization at 662-542-2270.

Bob Bakken is Staff Writer and may be reached at 662-429-6397 ext. 240.