Orphan ministry reaches into hearts around globe, in Troy

Published 10:59 pm Friday, July 22, 2011

Sometimes all children need in order to grow and to thrive is to be given a chance to love and to be loved. Bridges of Faith is a Christian organization that seeks to do just that, by transitioning children in adverse living conditions abroad to loving homes in the United States.

Tom Benz is president and founder of Bridges of Faith (BOF), a “transdenominational” church with outreaches in Eastern Europe, Africa, Mexico, Haiti and Appalachia.

Benz said the legacy of BOF began in 1995 where he served as a regional director for the International Bible Society (IBS).

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“In that position, I traveled around the world to see International Bible Society programs and I represented the Bible society throughout the Southeast,” Benz said. “It was a great position. I traveled around the world, met the finest people in North America and it was just incredible. One spring, they invited me to observe a Bible Camp in an orphanage in Eastern Europe — in Ukraine, on the Black Sea.”

Having been pastor for 20 years, Benz said he had never really been around orphans, much less felt led to minister to them — or, so he thought.

“I went, but honestly it sounded like more fun than work. I took my oldest son, who at the time was 15 years old, and, like any good corporate guy, I had planned to visit the program and go to preach every day,” Benz said. “For both my son and I, within 24 hours, all those kids crawled right inside both of our hearts and changed our lives to this day. So, I bent my job around to keep going back to be with those kids.”

Benz said to a large degree, most of the kids in the orphanages are abandoned or live in an extremely neglectful environment.

“Most of them are not orphans because their parents are both dead. Most of them are orphans because they were abandoned at birth, as babies, toddlers or school-aged children either actively or passively,” Benz said. “In other words, life is much better on the streets than it is in their house so they decide to live on the streets.”

Since 1995, Benz has dedicated himself to a ministry devoted to orphans.

“Since that time I have been working with those kids,” Benz said. “I have a home in Ukraine, my wife and I go back and forth and we spent four to six months a year there and my wife still does.”

Benz, with his wife by his side and a supportive faith community, built a 140-acre retreat center called BridgeStone just north of Montgomery to serve as a special retreat center for the children.

“We bring these kids for a lot of reasons,” Benz said. “Of course we want them to have a great camp experience, but more than that we want them to have a great Christian experience. We want them to come to know the Lord.”

Benz said his biggest concern is not finding homes for the many children displaced by neglect, abject poverty or other negative influential factors.

“If these kids are not adopted, if they stay in the orphanage until they graduate, statistically, five years after graduation 10 percent of these kids commit suicide and more than 10 percent are in prison,” Benz said. “Only 10 percent of these kids make what any of us would consider to be a reasonable life.”

Benz said the other kids usually find themselves involved with drugs, alcohol, prostitution and the mafia.

“Seventy percent of the boys become involved in crime and 60 percent of the girls become prostitutes,” Benz said. “Those are what become of the beautiful little kids we work with in Ukraine in they don’t find good homes. That’s a big part of what drives me. If we don’t do something, if God doesn’t do something, then 60 percent of those girls are going to end up becoming involved in prostitution.”

Although Benz said they have a transitional program in place for the children after graduating from the orphanage, he believes the ultimate solution is adoption.

“When a child is adopted, all the negative statistics that suggest they would not live a good life become meaningless for them,” Benz said. “We have seen kids here who have been adopted and have seen the fabulous people they have turned into.”

Benz said he remembers one particular “fabulous person” — Natasha Langner – who, at 13 years of age, was adopted, knowing “very little to no English at all.”

“Her dream was to go back to Ukraine and reach out to kids who had been in the same situation she had been in,” Benz said. “She’s over there now and, before she left, she graduated salutatorian of her high school class. She has since attended the University of Montevallo and, in the first year, made straight ‘As’.”

Benz said when he meets married couples that have felt led to adopt from the Ukraine he considers it a “dream come true.”

For couples like Tommy and Robin Lowery, it is also a dream come true for them.

“We have been in Troy for 12 years and we’ve made closer friends — more intimate friendships have been created —in the last six months of our lives than in the previous 12 years here because of this whole program,” Tommy Lowery, owner of Village Coffee in Troy, said. “We’re all going through the same thing, we’re all feeling the same emotions and we all have the same dreams and desires, which is to get these kids and bring them into our homes. We just believe it’s God’s Will for their lives to get out of Ukraine.”

Lowery said he and his wife look forward to their adoption process and receiving their new daughters into their hearts and homes.