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‘An impossible project’: Raleigh residents open first special needs orphanage in Panamá

April 26, 2019

His legs crossed, his collared shirt damp with sweat, Rev. David Cotton sits in a cushy chair in the lobby of Casa Providencia, Panama’s first ever special needs orphanage.

Cotton and other missionaries from his New Jersey parish had been working under the blistering Panamanian sun all morning, chopping wood and power-washing the building’s exterior. They’re taking a break.

“I can remember standing in this hallway, scraping old paint off the wall, thinking, ‘This is never going to happen,’” Cotton says. “I really did. I confess that.”

A woman chimes in: “I kind of doubted it would ever get on its feet because there was just so much work to be done.”

The building looked different then — before the orphanage in Colón had opened its operations. There was an elevator shaft, but the pulley system didn’t work. Vines sprouted between the floor tiles. The roof leaked. The walls, chipped and untidy, needed to be repainted.

That was just to make the building presentable. To get the building up to code, more work would be done. Doors needed to be widened. The building’s plumbing and air conditioning needed maintenance.

And then — after all of that — Matt and Misty Hedspeth, the founders of Casa Providencia, would have their toughest work ahead of them: They had to successfully run their nonprofit, finding permanent, loving homes for the special needs orphans they looked after.

“I think there was always that reality of ‘this is an impossible project that the Lord laid on Matt and Misty’s heart,’” said Ari Herrera, the Director of Operations at Casa Providencia. “But I think in our hearts, we always knew that it was what needed to happen.

“And that (God) would help us every step of the way.”

Today, with its walls covered with the orphans’ artwork, Casa Providencia is the largest component of Heart’s Cry Children’s Ministry, an adoption agency set on enabling local Panamanians to adopt the nation’s parentless children. The orphanage has a physical therapy center, with bathtubs used for water therapy; an interactive education space, where caretakers teach the young children their letters and numbers; and several indoor play-places.

Casa Providencia, in effect, stands as the Hedspeth’s most imposing proof of their impact and life story — one that rings true the doctrine: faith can birth hope.

“When we came last year, we couldn’t believe how beautiful it was,” Cotton said. “And they had the children. That’s the real beauty of the place.”

Across the hall from the missionaries, some of the 13 special needs orphans who live in Casa Providencia are being fed. Most of the children don’t have the motor skills to handle utensils, or speak. Some can’t lift their heads.

Matt Hedspeth is in the dining area, too, with the kids. He’s busy tuning a piano that was donated to Casa Providencia.

He can’t hear the stories and impressions of disbelief from the missionary group in the other room. But he’d heard stories like it before.

At some points, somewhere between the orphanage’s conception and construction, he doubted the project, himself.

“Different things happened, to the point where I was like, ‘Well, you know, there’s just something against us here,’” he said. “It seemed like we were getting attacked in every corner to resist us doing this project.”

But the Hedspeths pushed on — even though they knew Casa Providencia would be the hardest undertaking they’d have in Panama; that they’d have to battle for years to come.

They simply refused to narrow their vision.

And that’s because, to them, their life’s work would feel incomplete without it.

In June 2011, Matt Hedspeth got up from his seat and greeted Ilan Shatz with a handshake.

Hedspeth and Shatz were collaborating on a project to digitize orphan files and organize them in a large database. They wanted to change an adoption system based on paper records — where a file misplaced literally meant hope lost for a child trying to find his or her adoptive family.

Shatz owned the successful software company the government was trying to partner with to achieve this goal. Hedspeth, on the other hand, wasn’t nearly as qualified as his partner: He was a former real-estate developer from Raleigh, N.C., who — after trying to adopt a child of his own in Panama — had recently devoted his life to the Panamanian adoption system.

Years ago, he and his wife had booked a one-week trip to Panama, where they were to submit their international adoption dossier one day, and spend the rest of their time on the Panamanian shore. “But we never made it to the beaches,” Hedspeth said. “Never made it fishing or surfing.”

Shatz and Hedspeth got to know each other, and Hedspeth told him the efforts he and Misty had already put in, in their three years in Panama: By the meeting, the Hedspeths had written an adoption bill for the federal legislature, a version of which would eventually be passed into law. They’d partnered with organizations to meet the deficiencies in the other orphanages in Panama. They were providing pre- and post-adoption services to adoptive families through their nonprofit, Heart’s Cry.

And they were doing it all for free.

“I was talking with his technicians, doing the software for the government,” Hedspeth said. “And (Shatz) walked in and said, ‘Matt, how are you getting paid for this project?’”

Hedspeth turned and laughed: “Man, I’m not getting paid. I’m trying to find money to pay you!”

Hedspeth said he and his wife wanted to squelch the idea that adoption was a business. After all, to them, it wasn’t. Each orphan had a past worth hearing and a present worth caring for — no matter the circumstances. No matter if they were coming from abuse, had cerebral palsy, were born with a birth defect, anything.

Shatz was shocked hearing that their funding was all from donations.

“I told him all about what we do, and he was just blown away,” Hedspeth said. “And he said, right then and there, ‘I have a building that somehow I need to get to you guys, and you need to start an orphanage there. It’s a perfect building for that.’”

Shatz said it was in Colón, Panama, about an hour outside of Panama City. “And I kind of rolled my eyes, and said, ‘OK,’” Hedspeth said.

As time went on, though — the more the Hedspeths learned about life in orphanages — the more enticing Shatz’s off-the-cuff offer seemed.

Through all their accomplishments, the Hedspeths felt like something was missing.

“As we were doing all of these other things, we started realizing, ’Well, OK, let’s say a miracle happens, and the law changes,” Misty said. “Let’s say, we’re able to start an adoption agency, and kids start getting adopted through the system. Let’s say we start fostering, and the kids start getting out of orphanages and, during the waiting time, they’re in homes that are taking care of them in a good way.

“Well, even still, there is going to be this population of kids that are going to be super hard to place because of their medical special needs. And that’s when Matt, really, just felt led to open this special needs orphanage.”

Two years after that particular meeting, for what they’d call “an incredible price,” the Hedspeths bought the building from Shatz.

Flash forward through four more years of cutting through the building’s dead vine and red tape; holding fundraisers to build a staff of caretakers; defying the expectations of everyone, including the Panamanian government — and Casa Providencia became a reality, opening its doors on March 16, 2018.

“(Casa Providencia) gives a home for these forgotten of forgotten human beings here in Panama,” Matt said. “And treats them like the kings and queens that they are — that God made them to be.”

Hedspeth gets up from the piano, consigned to the fact that it’s going to take more than 15 minutes to properly tune it, and he turns to the group of missionaries, who have migrated from the lobby to the dining area.

He leads a prayer before they eat lunch, and then dips into a conference room to make some calls in advance of Casa Providencia’s one-year anniversary fundraiser. There’s always more planning to do, Hedspeth says: “The population is growing, really weekly, and fairly soon, we’ll be up to 55 kids, which is our full capacity.”

These kids have had their lives changed by the Hedspeths, sure; but, as the Hedspeths have learned, the kids have changed them, too. “A lot of people say, when you adopt, ‘Oh, you’re doing such a great thing. And you’re helping your child out.’” Hedspeth said. “And that’s just a bunch of junk. I mean, we’re the ones that need help.”

By now, as Hedspeth sees, the children are well into their daily routines. When he steps into a play-place, his face lights up.

“At first, it’s a lot about sharing with the kids and greeting them with a kiss and a hug,” said Paola Casis, an early childhood development specialist at Casa Providencia. “After that, we go to therapies, we sing, we jump, we play, we dance. A lot of the times, we do therapy with Play-Dough and paint.”

Casis said her favorite part of her workplace is that the staff is large enough to tend to the children’s needs adequately — a virtue unique to Casa Providencia.

“Here, I can interact with the kids personally, one to one, give them therapy with speech, early stimulation,” Casis said. “It’s beautiful having the ability to share that with them. This is my home.”

Hedspeth’s day at the orphanage ends on the steps in front of Casa Providencia, a glass of coconut water in his hand. He’s not tired — because playing with the kids energizes him. But he’s ready to go back to his own family. Hedspeth, before heading to his car to make the hour-commute back to Panama City, is telling a story to a group of people about when he used to play in a musical band.

An older missionary worker, who’d just been painting the fence around the property, walks up the steps and listens to the end of Hedspeth’s story. Through conversation with the other missionaries earlier that day, the missionary had learned about Matt and Misty’s past: how they got to Panama, why they stayed, how and why they did something never done before.

Afterward, he introduces himself and tells him how impressed he is after learning about the vision that went into the making of this place.

Hedspeth smiles and extends his hand out to introduce himself. He acts as if he hears this sort of compliment all the time — as if, not even five years earlier, there weren’t times when he was convinced opening Casa Providencia would be impossible.

Hedspeth, later, laughs as he recalls the odds he and his wife and his organization overcame: “Over the last year, the government and all of these other institutions of Panama are kind of realizing, ‘Wow, they actually did it.’”

And yet, for Matt and Misty, it still feels like there’s much more to do.

Alex, a senior from Raleigh, North Carolina, is a double major in political science and reporting. He is also minoring in philosophy, politics and economics. Alex is currently a senior writer for the Daily Tar Heel and spent a summer interning for the Washington Times. After graduation, Alex is pursuing a career in either print or online reporting.