WYLIE, Texas – One of the pictures strewn across Debbie Wooding's (search) dining room table shows six boys, all with bare feet.
The boy at the end, the one with the crooked legs? That's Prasad. He's in the fourth grade, Wooding says, gazing at him lovingly. Then there is another shot of a group of girls, their hair brushed neatly into pigtails, their pretty dresses borrowed.
"They are so beautiful," Wooding gushes.
Most of the children in the photos — three dozen in all — lost everything, including mothers and fathers, in the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Asia. Wooding, 37, has never met 9-year-old Sarella, 10-year-old Dukkupati or any of the others.
But she can't help but feel a personal connection. They are, after all, the newest residents of Debbie's Children's Home in India (search) — the orphanage named after her, this ordinary Texas woman who lives thousands of miles (kilometers) away.
And that's a story in itself.
'I Felt Called to Orphans'
Debbie's affection for children had already made her a popular baby-sitter by age 12.
The girl growing up in Dallas made between 50 cents and $1 (38 euro cents and 75 euro cents) an hour, and had plenty of work to keep her busy. So much so that she was able to send between $20 (euro15) and $30 (euro23) a month — she can't remember exactly how much — to help sponsor Julia, a poor Bolivian girl about her age.
Years later, she is a mother of four, but she still cherishes a wallet-size photo of Julia.
"I felt called to orphans," Wooding said. "The Bible says that the purest form of religion is to visit and care for orphans and widows."
In 2001, Wooding worked with orphans during a mission trip to Ukraine. That same year, she and her husband, Gregg, welcomed a 12-year-old Russian orphan, Ruslan, into their home in Wylie, north of Dallas. They considered adopting him until Wooding realized she was pregnant with her fourth child; another family adopted Ruslan, instead.
Then last year, Wooding joined a mission team on a tour of children's homes in India. Before the trip, she had communicated by e-mail with the Rev. George Papaf, who cared for about 25 children in the village of Ambajipeta in the East India state of Andhra Pradesh. The January 2004 tour did not include a visit to Papaf's orphanage, but he drove two hours to meet her.
She was impressed by this small man. He seemed kind and honest; he told the Woodings how he had missed meals to feed the orphans in the home's early days. Wooding admired his fervor for preaching Christianity, even if it meant he was sometimes beaten and stoned by Hindus.
She gave him $25 (euro19) worth of Indian rupees and small toys for the children. She promised him she would do whatever she could to help his orphanage.
With the money that Wooding gave them, the Papafs bought school textbooks. In their view, the part-time American schoolteacher was a godsend.
"They said their years of prayers had been answered," Wooding said.
Community Comes Together for Children
After Wooding returned home, Papaf mailed her information on each child. She showed the children's pictures to friends and asked them to support Papaf's Christian Prayer House (search), which includes ministries for widows and lepers.
"I would send him whatever I could," Wooding said — $20 (euro15), sometimes $40 (euro30) or $60 (euro45).
When Kirk and Kendra Massey, her friends and neighbors, gave her a check for $800 (euro604), she called Papaf and exclaimed, "You won't believe it! Praise the Lord!"
By then, Papaf already had told Wooding he wanted to rename the orphanage after her.
"What a humbling honor, and what a wonderful opportunity to help," she wrote in her journal.
Even as the number of boys and girls grew to 36, she mailed birthday presents — tablets, colored pencils, hair bows — to each one.
When she learned the children slept on wooden benches or the floor, she launched a blanket drive. People from her church, Reunion Church in Dallas, provided money for a new water well for the entire village, Christians and Hindus alike. And she helped raise money to buy school uniforms for each child; they were the only children without uniforms, and were being teased.
In September, Papaf invited Wooding to visit. But with a three-day-a-week job teaching English as a second language and with her responsibilities at home, the timing was not right.
So a friend, Nevehya LaTurno, volunteered to go on Wooding's behalf. And after two connecting flights in India, a 12-hour train ride and a two-hour drive by car, LaTurno arrived at Debbie's Children's Home in a remote village lush with banana trees and rice fields.
She spent two weeks at the orphanage, a basic cement structure with two bedrooms, a small kitchen and a meeting area. Laundry hangs on the flat roof, where LaTurno was warned to watch out for falling coconuts on a windy day.
The orphanage staff includes the Papafs, a tutor, two cooks and two wardens. The home has a monthly budget of 45,360 rupees, or about $1,080 (euro815), according to Papaf.
"When I got over there, I realized that they were so into honoring and respecting me, in a way that no person deserves other than Jesus Christ," LaTurno said. "I really believe that he named it Debbie's Children's Home because he was so touched by her caring and he wanted to honor her the best way he possibly could."
The toys and trinkets that Wooding sent for Christmas did not arrive on time.
By the time they did, the residents of Debbie's Children's Home — about 12 miles (19 kilometers) from the sea — had felt the earthquake. Although the orphanage itself escaped damage, the tsunami devastated nearby villages. Just as Wooding's package arrived, the number of children doubled overnight.
"The disaster was terrible and there are no words to express its intensity," Papaf wrote to Wooding. "Thousands of people washed away, hundreds of children became parentless, they have no home, nobody to look after them, they had to swim in the waters, no food and starved for three to four days."
Wooding's church wired $3,000 (euro2,265) to Papaf to help with relief efforts.
At Brentfield Elementary School, where Wooding teaches, the Beta Club honor society decided to conduct a fund-raising drive to help tsunami victims. Twelve-year-old Marissa Shrell called her fellow officers and told them to bring shoe boxes and poster board to her house.
But who would they help?
Somebody suggested Debbie's Children Home, and the club invited Wooding to make a presentation.
"She showed us actual pictures," Marissa said. "It just made us think, 'Oh, wow, we could be helping so many kids.'"
Club members hoped to raise $600 (euro453).
But after all the daily skits and classroom pitches, the dimes, quarters and crumpled-up dollar bills from children's piggy banks and extra chores added up to $1,200 (euro906).
With the influx of orphans since the tsunami, Papaf has rented a house temporarily to care for them all. His goal, he said, is to raise enough money — about $12,000 (euro9,000) — to add another floor to the orphanage, buy beds and furniture, and build a gated wall to protect the children from those who might kidnap and exploit them.
For her part, Wooding longs to visit the home — her home — and kiss and hug the children. Perhaps this summer.
"I feel like I know them," said Wooding. "With the new children coming, I wanted to be there so bad, just to welcome them in and make them feel at home."
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