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How Mopping Floors With a 4 Year Old Changed my Life


Holly Elissa small“A little boy…around 4, 5 or 6 years old will make a big impact on you. He comes home with you. Are you planning on adopting an older child?”  Theresa asked. I said “no” that I was only planning on adopting an infant. An older child would have been too complicated.  I would have to be prepared for school enrollment and such with an unpredictable and unforgiving filming schedule so no, totally impossible.  She continued on, “well I don’t know what this is but this little boy comes home with you. He becomes your legacy.”

I had visited Theresa a few times before (and have many times since). She’s what some would call a psychic. Really, she’s a healer and a really profound one at that. She was spot on about so many things but there was no way I was bringing an African boy home. I wasn’t even planning on going there anytime soon.

I was planning on adopting, though. I was in the midst of a roller-coaster of a home-study as a single parent applicant.  I had chosen Ethiopia only because it was one of the few places I could adopt as a single woman under the age of 30 that had a decent track record of not exploiting local families and children.  I was advised not to pursue adoption within my own country for many very legitimate reasons including I was a single 27 year old woman (working in the film industry). I would be hard pressed to have a mother choose me as the adoptive parent. I didn’t fit the typical image of ‘stable happy 2-parent (man and woman) household.’ In fact the social worker doing my home-study ignorantly asked in our first meeting, “You’re young, beautiful and have this glamorous successful lifestyle …why would you want to adopt.”  There are far too many negatives to dissect in that statement that I won’t even bother.

Being only half-way through my home-study, there was no way I was going to Africa and randomly bringing a boy home.  In fact that would have been illegal. I had no desire to kidnap foreign children.  I went home, forgot about it, and wouldn’t think about it again until well over a year down the road.

Five months later, in August of 2007, I was on a plane to Kenya. I was obsessed with finding a way to Northern Uganda however didn’t think I would be heading to Africa anytime soon.  While I was planning this adoption, I was actually in my 2nd year of researching projects and programs to start in Uganda.  I had this inexplicable goal of starting an NGO. I can’t say it was a desire or a dream. If only it could have been that poetic and romantic. No, it was a task I had to complete. Not as in a bucket list sort of task, rather something that woke up inside me one day but felt like it was always there. Like it was pre-programmed and just a natural thing I was supposed to do in this lifetime. I recognized it as being very familiar and always there. I had no idea as to how I was supposed to start an NGO. I’m an actor. I went to school and learned how to juggle, do scene analysis, work on camera, sing and dance, perfect a spinal roll and say ‘red leather yellow leather’ really fast.  Not to degrade my education because I love and respect what I do. But I wasn’t exactly equipped with more industry-related tools and skills to take on founding an NGO in a developing country. I was educated to be an artist.

But this wouldn’t be the first time one of these out-of-nowhere-everyone-thinks-I’m-bat-shit-crazy ‘ideas’ popped up in my head that I had to follow. So I trusted it and went with it.  How I fathomed it would all work out – with an adoption process on top of it – I wasn’t too sure.

I found an organization that places prospective volunteers with various local NGOs all around the globe.  I couldn’t get a placement in Uganda so went next door to Kenya instead.  There was no logic to the decision; it just seemed like a good idea at the time.

Three weeks after deciding to go, I was landing in Nairobi for the first time.   My placement was at Happy Life Children’s Home, an orphanage in the rural town of Roysambu outside of Nairobi.


Every day started with feeding and changing the infants, making beds, changing sheets occasionally dripping with surprise puddles of vomit or diarrhoea, and lots of mopping.

photo2Once all of that was done, I would spend the rest of the morning with the older children. School was on break so we would “play class” and learn numbers, read books, play make-believe and so on.  (As a side note because many of us unintentionally romanticize working in orphanages: kids are kids everywhere in the world. They have the same temper tantrums, the same giggles, the same potty issues, the same dripping noses, the same tears, the same hugs, the same cuteness, and the same mischief).  My day as a volunteer was done after the children went down for their post-lunch nap. The local women that worked there morning, noon and night watching over those children are the true heroes.

photo3One little 4 year old boy started following me around. His name was Caleb. He would help me mop the floors. He found a little rag doll with yarn hair. He would gently dip the doll’s hair in the bucket and mop the walls while I did the floors.  The walls didn’t need to be cleaned but I liked his company and he liked mine so we kept on that way every morning.  He was eager to “play class” which I suspect was his motivation for helping me with the mopping. The sooner that was done, the sooner we could play. Caleb made sure our time alone, though, was still “class”. He would point to something and I would tell him the English word. “And dis? And dis? And DIS?”  His brain was a tireless sponge.  We had our own little bubble. He was my little buddy. I loved Caleb and he, at the least, thought I was an okay grown up.

I got Malaria towards the end of my placement. Caleb apparently asked for me every morning.  I only got to see him once briefly before I left. I went to the orphanage for a quick visit before I had to go back to Nairobi to catch my flight. He asked me “Mama gonjwa?”  I said I was but now I was okay.  I didn’t know what to do.  This little kid felt like family.

All kids are special and every child in that orphanage is special, but there was something about Caleb that I latched on to.  My attachment had nothing to do with him being an orphan or any kind of Western guilt; it was straight up love. I loved Caleb. I felt like I was ditching my little buddy.  With that being said, I was definitely hyper-aware at the weirdness of the situation: how are you supposed to say good-bye to a kid in an orphanage on the other side of the world? The whole placement suddenly felt like a joke.

I got to have this wonderful “feel good” experience and sure these kids had some fun with some foreigners every time there’s a new set of volunteers. But then we leave and they’re left there. We go home, post photos on Facebook and people tell us how great we are for “going to Africa and doing that” like we’re some kind of saviours or heroes.  We’re not and anyone who touts themselves with that kind of self-importance is a fraud.  Although I believe there is huge merit to these programs, a lot of times it’s more about how it makes us feel (the Westerners) than how much of a genuine impact we have had on those we go to help. However, do I believe the experiences Westerners can have by participating in these placements is very important – yes absolutely.  For these experiences offer an opportunity to be present, to learn the meaning of humility and genuine compassion. They’re an opportunity to feel connected to a world bigger than the self-centric fast-paced ‘me vs. everyone’ lifestyle common in the west.Not everyone embraces these experiences in that way, but for those that do, it’s an empowering life-changer.   I felt totally humbled by Happy Life Children’s Home, by Roysambu and Nairobi, but most of all by Caleb.  I was punched in the heart and had no idea how to recover.

Coming back to Vancouver, I was a mess. I hated everything: my stuff, my unnecessarily expensive bedding and copious frilly pillows, my f–king hybrid. I hated actors, auditions, casting directors, producers, and the insipid industry gossip. I hated grocery stores, shopping malls, people obsessed with iPhones. I hated everything. They say the culture shock happens when you come home. They – whoever ‘they’ are – are right. We have so much stuff. I felt smothered. And as an actor I felt totally ridiculous.  But most of all I was sad, alone and very lost. I know many of the volunteers that I met in Nairobi felt the same way as well once they got home.

Over the years it has gotten better but there’s still a massive sense of alienation with the culture I currently live in here in North America.  But I’ve learned that you truly are the dictator of your thoughts and therefore your surroundings and experiences. If I want to see alienation and separation, then that’s what I’ll get. If I want to see interconnectedness, compassion and abundance for myself and others, then that’s what I will see and experience.

photo4Child in IDP Camp flashes a peace sign. Atiak, Uganda

September 2007, a month after I returned from Kenya, I found out from another volunteer at Happy Life that Caleb was adopted by a local family.  I was surprised by my reaction: happy obviously, but I was genuinely jealous and sad. I wanted to adopt Caleb. I wanted to be his ‘forever family’ as they say in the adoption world. There’s no way that would have been possible to do and I knew that my life was not best suited for a child Caleb’s age. I was not meant to be his parent but that was my honest reaction nonetheless.

I thought, “Well I can piss about my time feeling all whingey and self-loathing or I could get the f–k on with it and do something.  I chose to get the f–k on with it.  By the time I returned to East Africa in February of 2008 – and this time to Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda – Caleb’s Hope was officially founded.

photo5It was only in December of 2008, when I was back in Uganda to meet the beneficiaries of our first program, that I finally saw the full picture. See, Theresa was right. I would meet a boy and I would bring him home with me. Just not in the way she or I would have thought.  He didn’t come home in my arms; he came home in my heart.

Everything Caleb taught me has become the cornerstones of my odd clumsy heartfelt legacy.  He has given me a massive responsibility to be a better person and to always have hope; to be responsible for myself as an artist, as an activist, as a woman, as a human; to remember what is important and discard what isn’t. But most of all, he taught me – as all children do – that the innocence, purity, delight, abundant love, imagination and curiosity in every child is what is real and the cynicism, the arrogance and the separation we, as adults, have come to accept as ‘reality’ are actually false.

Some days I’m wonderful at embracing all of Caleb’s lessons. I see the world with crystal clarity. There’s perfect balance in my career as an actor and running an NGO.  I feel blessed and awesome. And some days I suck. I stumble my way through like a bull in a china shop. I fall on my face, I mess things up, I get outrageously angry at indifference and ignorance, I want to quit, I judge others and myself.  But hey, what would the mountains be without the valleys?

I never saw Caleb again. He will be turning 11 this September.  I would like to meet him again someday to thank him.



About Elissa

Elissa is an ecofeminist interdisciplinary artist and activist. To learn more about her work visit