GRAPHIC BY KATIE WILLIAMSON
GRAPHIC BY KATIE WILLIAMSON

A Family Affair: The Freemans return from Ecuador

Published 10:00am Sunday, August 10, 2014

Two years is a long time to be away. Combine that with a long distance away – South America – and you’ve got the recipe for some serious homesickness, says recently-returned missionary couple Jeff and Stephanie Freeman.

This photo of the Freeman family was taken just before the completion of their two-year missionary assignment at the Casa de Fe Orphanage in Shell, Ecuador.
This photo of the Freeman family was taken just before the completion of their two-year missionary assignment at the Casa de Fe Orphanage in Shell, Ecuador.

For their four children, all Brookhaven born, it was a particularly long time to be away from food favorites like Chick-Fil-A. Which explains why, just hours after landing back in the States, Jeff found himself in line waiting for six biscuits and a pile of grape jelly. This time, though, ordering was a little different.

“The customer in front of me happened to be speaking in Spanish,” he recalls. “When my turn came, I just naturally did, too. It made me realize how much I’d changed.”

That was four weeks ago, and this afternoon Jeff and Stephanie are seated around a kitchen table in Southway’s pastorium, their temporary residence. Their children, all dark-haired and dark-eyed, move through the area at intervals, declining a permanent chair.

Stephanie is describing the family’s transition back to life above the equator and similar surprises to that at Chick-Fil-A. She tells of an incident involving the couples’ five-year-old, Ainsleigh: “We had eaten with some friends and I told her, ‘Vamos a la casa’ (let’s go home). She looked up at me and answered ‘Ecuador?’ It hit me for the first time that for her, Ecuador was home.”

And why not, since Ainsleigh spent her third birthday aboard a flight to that country? She has little memory of anything before her family went to Casa de Fe, an orphanage in the foothills of the Andes Mountains. As the only “gringita” in her preschool class, Ainsleigh was completely submerged in the Spanish language and culture. Her siblings – Jesse, 17, Abi, 10, and Ana Claire, 7 – also picked up the language easily in classes of their own. For the clan’s mom and dad, however, language acquisition would prove to be one of the tougher challenges.

Stephanie Freeman (left) and her daughter Abi (right) hold Baby Naomi, one of the Casa de Fe children. Naomi came to the orphanage with a colostomy bag and later had surgery to repair her intestines. She was fostered by the Freemans during her six-month recovery period.
Stephanie Freeman (left) and her daughter Abi (right) hold Baby Naomi, one of the Casa de Fe children. Naomi came to the orphanage with a colostomy bag and later had surgery to repair her intestines. She was fostered by the Freemans during her six-month recovery period.

For four long months a Spanish tutor worked with the couple at least 20 hours a week. Jeff admits the study time wasn’t easy for an active guy like himself, whose resume includes military service, running his own plumbing business and youth ministry. Homeschool mom Stephanie found it uncomfortable to be on the other side of the grade book, too. The Freemans were motivated, though. They wanted to make a difference in the lives of orphans.

And they aren’t the only ones. Many in the Brookhaven area have strong ties to the Casa de Fe ministry, begun in 2001 by Patti Sue Arnold, a former member of Brookhaven’s First Baptist Church. The orphanage currently cares for 78 children ranging in age from four months to 16 years, and if that isn’t demanding enough, special-needs residents account for a third of the facility’s population

“There are lots of abandoned children, abused children. Some parents simply can’t care for them because of poverty. Jungle communities don’t have resources to care for special needs,” explains Stephanie.

During their two-year commitment, the Freemans took on a slate of responsibilities at Casa de Fe. Jeff became the construction and maintenance director. Stephanie coordinated donations. Jesse used his computer abilities to help get a sponsorship program off the ground. The girls helped with baby therapy. All worked together to make volunteer teams from across the United States feel welcome and useful during their stays.

As with any cross-cultural experience, the Freemans had more to learn than just a language – like how fast shoes wear out due to the terrain, that there’s not always an anti-venom available for pit viper bites, some monkeys steal sunglasses. Other differences they learned to appreciate – year-round spring weather – and they can’t say enough about Ecuador’s grapefruit-sized lemons, fresh produce and five-dollar steaks. “They grill almost everything,” Stephanie notes. “What’s not to love about that?”

Jeff Freeman carries Casa de Fe resident Martin to school. The nine-year-old has braces on his legs, and rainy weather makes it difficult for him to cross the rough Ecuadorian terrain.
Jeff Freeman carries Casa de Fe resident Martin to school. The nine-year-old has braces on his legs, and rainy weather makes it difficult for him to cross the rough Ecuadorian terrain.

The issue of food, particularly the high price of it here, comes up again as the Freemans discuss their return to Brookhaven. That, and how they longed for catfish (Jeff) and crawfish (Stephanie) while gone.

“One thing that’s also different here is the later sunset,” Stephanie says, contrasting it with Ecuador’s predictable 6 a.m. sunrise and 6 p.m. sunset each day. “Our kids don’t want to stop for supper and bedtime now because it’s still light.”

It’s at this point in the interview that Abi enters the kitchen again. She opens a drawer and pulls out a piece of what appears to be foreign chocolate candy. It’s labeled “Bianchi”, and the implication is hard to miss: with their feet planted in two different worlds, what’s next for the Freemans?

“We’ll be traveling this fall to raise support and awareness of Casa de Fe,” explains Jeff. “It’s important because the budget requirements there are $41,000 a month.” He emphasizes the family is available for speaking engagements locally as well.

Meanwhile, Jesse is looking forward to his senior year, and the whole family hopes to find a native speaker with whom to trade Spanish conversations. “We need to keep our skills up,” says Stephanie. She adds that “we’re exploring what our future in orphan care will look like. Our tentative plans are to return to Ecuador next summer, but we’re open to whatever God has for us.”

The third annual Casa de Fe 5K walk/fun run is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 20 at 8 a.m. and will begin at the Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce. For more information, contact Michelle Case at 601-757-6409. To learn more about Casa de Fe, visit www.lacasadefe.org.