KOKOMO, Ind. — Karla Winburn vividly remembers waiting for an outing with missionaries, who promised to take her swimming, when she was a young girl in a Guatemalan orphanage.
“I was so excited, I slept the night before in my swimsuit,” she said, laughing. “We didn’t often get those kinds of opportunities. It’s a feeling you just can’t explain. I’m excited to give that to other children.”
In July, the Indiana University Kokomo freshman and her sister Lesly, a junior, returned to the orphanage that was their home for seven years, this time as missionaries. They led a group from Kokomo’s Taylor High School to build a house for the children, and to take them bowling. Their younger brother Allan also was part of the group.
“It feels great to be able to do something to make their lives happier, because we’ve been in that position,” Karla, 20, said. “It makes us grateful for the opportunities we have here. The kids in the orphanage don’t have the resources to say, ‘I’m going to be a doctor,’ or ‘I’m going to be a nurse.’ Not everybody gets a second opportunity like we have. It makes us appreciate it even more.”
Lesly, now 22, wasn’t interested in school while living in the orphanage, but decided to take advantage of the educational opportunities available because of her adoption. IU Kokomo gave her the chance to fulfill her college dreams, while staying home with her new family.
“I knew I had been given a second chance, so I wanted to make the most of it,” she said. “I’ve only been here six years, and I’m not ready to move out on my own yet. I don’t think I would have people as willing to work with me as I have found here. I can tell my professors that English is not my first language, and they are willing to help me. I’m not sure I would get that somewhere else.”
Kokomo residents Bill and Kathy Winburn, who had been missionaries in Guatemala, adopted the sisters and their brother, who is now a high school freshman, six years ago. They spoke little English when they arrived in Kokomo, but worked hard in high school so they could go on to college.
Karla plans to earn a degree in nursing, and then become a medical missionary. Lesly studies psychology, and wants to go to graduate school to become a medical social worker.
They lived in the orphanage for seven years, after their mother died of cancer, when
Lesly was 9, Karla was 7, and Allan was 3. Their father was unable to care for them or their older brother, Armando, who was 14.
Lesly said the orphanage was like a home, with children living in houses with other children and house parents they called “Mom” and “Dad.” They could choose to be available for adoption or not, and could approve prospective parents. At age 18, they could go to work for the orphanage, or live in a transitional home and work elsewhere.
“It’s not like you would picture,” Lesly said. “They provided everything for you, your clothes and food, and you went to school. It’s like living at home, but away from home.”
Lesly, Karla, and Allan chose adoption, and turned down a prior opportunity before finding the Winburns. They were among the last children to be adopted before Guatemala closed adoptions by foreigners.
Their older brother, Armando, was grown up before they were adopted. They’ve been back three times as missionaries, and see their brother and father every time they return. They also call them weekly, to maintain their relationship.
“Our father realized he couldn’t care for us, and that we could have better chances if we were adopted,” said Karla. “He is thankful for the opportunities we have. We have a good relationship with him, and he has a good relationship with our parents. We don’t have to choose who we love, we can love all of our parents.”
They plan to return again in 2015, to spend a month helping at the orphanage.
“We can be more help, because we know what it is like to live there,” said Lesly. “For me, it’s a way to say thank you to the people who took care of us when we were there. Some of the kids we lived with work there now, and they think it’s cool when we come back. We have lots of memories there.”
Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.