'Full-circle': An adopted baby leads Jacksonville mom on a healing mission they now share (2024)

'Full-circle': An adopted baby leads Jacksonville mom on a healing mission they now share (1)

Anna Eldridge was adopted from a China orphanage in 2000 at 6 months old. As a child, she soon wanted details.

"She started asking really deep questions about her beginnings," said her adoptive mother, Amy Eldridge of Jacksonville. "She would ask things like, 'Do you think my birth parents loved me?'or'Do you know anything about the nannies who took care of me in the orphanage?'I didn't have any of those answers since I hadn't been allowed to visit her orphanage on my adoption trip."

So she returned to China to see the place where her daughter spent her first months.

"As her mom, I had to try and get her the answers she deserved," she said. "That trip changed my life. I walked into a cold orphanage with no heat, past row after row of metal baby cribs with babies who were eerily silent since they had learned no one was coming to care for them and felt my heart break in two."

That visit ultimately spurred Eldridge to found an international charity, Love Without Boundaries, that has since helped 150,000 orphaned and impoverished children worldwide. Her work would inspire her daughter's career choice: Anna Eldridge, now 25, is a pediatric emergency room nurse at Wolfson Children’s Hospital in Jacksonville.

The mother and daughter team recently returned from the nonprofit's mission trip to Guatemala, part of a volunteer team that provided cleft surgeries for 52 children and a 52-year-old man. Also on the trip was another daughter, nurse practitionerLaura Eldridge of Oklahoma City.

Anna Eldridge said it’s strange to think that her curiosity as a toddler started an international charity, "but it’s a good strange. It’s not something I really grasped until I was an adult about how impactful my questions truly were. But I think what it also shows is that having child-like wonder and curiosity can lead to very incredible things."

Conditions at China orphanage were 'sobering'

'Full-circle': An adopted baby leads Jacksonville mom on a healing mission they now share (2)

Now 59, Amy Eldridge grew up wanting to pursue a career in obstetrics and gynecology. She wanted to deliver babies. Marriage and motherhood — she has five biological children and two adopted children — interrupted the plan.

But on that trip to the China orphanage, children again changed the course of her life. She found no information about her daughter's birth parents but could not stop thinking about a particular baby boy there name Kang.

He had a complex heart defect, but the orphanage did not have the money for the needed surgery. He so touched Eldridge that when she returned home, she launched a fundraising campaign seeking help from family and friends who passed her plea across the world via the internet.

The campaign raised enough money for four children at the orphanage to receive heart surgery and led to Love Without Boundaries, now 20 years old.

"Our initial goal was to help orphaned children in China, as at that time there were over a million orphaned children in China and most ofthe orphanages were sobering. No heat, not enough formula, not enough caregivers," Eldridge said.

The charity ultimately helped about 150 orphanages, setting up schools,fostercare and medical programs.In 2016, China passed new regulations for such foreign non-governmental organizations, "making it harder to do projects," she said. "So we decided it was time to 'live out our name' and take our successful programs outside the boundaries of China.

"I was honestly scared to death to take that leap, but I knew that for too many children around the world, access to the most basic human rights, such as health care, education and food to eat, is simply beyond their reach," she said.

Since then, the nonprofit has provided medical care, education, nutrition and foster care for children from 16 different countries, including Cambodia, India, Uganda and Guatemala.While Eldridge is based in Jacksonville, the nonprofit has staff and volunteers worldwide connected online.

"We don't have formal offices, which is one of the reasons we are able to keep our overhead so low," she said. "… We believe the best solutions for children are created in each local community, so all of our programs overseas are run by team members who grew up in their countries. It isn't us as Americans coming in to say, 'Oh we have all the answers.' Instead, we listen to the local villagers and community leaders."

'Life-changing' results follow mounds of logistics for Guatemala team

'Full-circle': An adopted baby leads Jacksonville mom on a healing mission they now share (3)

International mission trips are not taken on a whim ― the logistics of the nonprofit's latest trip to Guatemala took almost a year to arrange. Scheduling 29 surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurse anesthetists, operating room technicians, nursing staff and translators to take the same week of vacation was a "feat" in itself, Eldridge said. Other challenges include customs forms for medical equipment, international medical licenses for each team member, advance medical information on the children to get surgery and making sure the "long list of supplies needed" is fulfilled, she said.

The team also brought toys and blankets for the children.

"For lots of the kids, it's the first toy they've ever received," Eldridge said. "Many of the hospitals where we send mission teams have only the bare necessities, so we have to think of every possible item we might need."

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The cleft lip and cleft palate surgeries the teams performed on children were "life-changing," improving not only their physical appearance but their self-esteem, she said. Both are birth defects: openings or splits in the upper lip or in the roof of the mouth or palate, or both, according to the Mayo Clinic. They stem from facial structures that don't close completely during fetal development.

"In so many countries around the world, being born with a cleft is sadly seen asa child being cursed," Eldridge said. "Many babies born with this condition … are shunned and even hid away and kept inside."

Many of the team's patients were from remote Mayan villages. "I can'ttell you how many mothers … began crying when they saw their child's new smile for the first time, telling us they couldn't wait for the people in their village to view their child in a new light when they returned," she said.

'Full-circle': An adopted baby leads Jacksonville mom on a healing mission they now share (4)

Children born with cleft palates are also unable to speak clearly, so the surgery "gives them the best chance possible of developing normal speech," she said.

Eldridge performed administrative functions on the trip, compiling the daily surgical schedule, readying all needed supplies and ensuring the children met surgery qualifications. Among the other team members was her daughter Anna, one of three post-anesthesia care unit nurses.

'Full-circle': Like mother, like daughter

'Full-circle': An adopted baby leads Jacksonville mom on a healing mission they now share (5)

Anna Eldridge was on her first mission trip with the charity, although as a teen she visited China orphanages with her mother. Those visits were eye-opening experiences, she said.

"They all left the impression on me that having a family structure is so crucial and important for development in children," she said. "It’s hard to see true hunger in a child, both for food and for love. Babies aren’t supposed to lie on their backs in cribs all day long. Every child deserves to be cared for and nurtured."

Eldridge knew she wanted a career helping people, but her mother's work narrowed the field. "Children are so resilient and strong, but they also need to be advocated for and given a hand to hold when things are scary," she said. "Working in pediatrics just made the most sense for me."

The Guatemala trip was "emotional," she said.

"I had heard about these trips for my whole life and how wonderful they can be," she said. "But for me to go with my mom and go as a nurse felt like a full-circle moment and it just made me so happy to be part of something so incredible."

'Full-circle': An adopted baby leads Jacksonville mom on a healing mission they now share (6)

Eldridge was particularly touched by a baby girl who had a bilateral cleft lip, or two clefts in the upper lip. Maintaining her oxygen after surgery was difficult, but "amazing" teamwork kept her stable overnight, she said. She also remembered the "transformation" of the 52-year-old man who joined the children in having cleft lip repair.

"Now he can live everyday life without having to think about the discrimination he has faced for years," Eldridge said. "For all of the patients it … would truly change their lives, and I just felt grateful to be part of that."

Meanwhile, Amy Eldridge had witnessed another transformation — that of her daughter. Immediately after her 1999 birth, Anna was abandoned in a wicker basket and taken to an orphanage that lacked adequate food, medical care, heat or safe cribs. As a result, she became developmentally delayed, but after her adoption herhealth and development quickly improved.

"To see my daughter go from being a very delayed infant in a crowded Chinese orphanage to now a strong and capable medical professional was quite emotional to me," she said.

Support needed for future Love Without Boundaries missions

The details for Love Without Boundaries' 2025 cleft surgeries are already arranged. Mother and daughter Eldridge plan to participate.

"There is still so much to be done," Anna Eldridge said. "Every child counts and every little action can make thebiggest of differences."

Public support is key to those "little actions" taking place, her mother said. None of this would have happened without a whole community of people helping along the way, she said.

"What I have learned, as I've sat and talked to moms and dads from countries all over the world, many of whom live in the most intense poverty … is that we all want the same things for our kids. We want them to have food, a chance to go to schooland to be able to dream about their future," she said. "When you take all the politics out of it, and just sit down mom to mom or person to person, we all just wish everybaby born could have a safe and healthy childhood."

bcravey@jacksonville.com, (904) 359-4109

HOW TO HELP

To donate, volunteer for mission trips or behind-the scenes work or get more information, go to lovewithoutboundaries.com.

'Full-circle': An adopted baby leads Jacksonville mom on a healing mission they now share (2024)

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