For most of the year we have a very BIG family. We have three children of our own (aged 11, 13 and 15) and we are also in loco parentis for many more. One of our jobs at Hebron School, apart from normal teaching responsibilities, has been to dorm parent groups of girls at Hebron. Hebron is an international boarding school, which primarily exists to cater for the children of Christian workers in Asia. Hebron School is set in a mountainous area of South India called the Nilgiris, in a town called Ooty. Over the years we have looked after different age groups of girls, but currently the eighteen girls in our care are 13 – 14 years old. It won’t surprise anyone to hear that this job can be an emotional roller-coaster! In fact, the daily ups and downs take us from exhilaration to exhaustion, joy to sorrow, care-free abandon to deepest concern, laughter to tears—and back again! Again and again—sometimes many of these on the same day!
One thing that we are constantly amazed by is the way God faithfully gives us a genuine love for our dorm girls. We are very mindful of the reality that we are NOT their parents. They have their own parents (often far away) and, for many of these parents, sending their children away to boarding school is a great sacrifice and sadness. We must always respect these parents, uphold their wishes and nurture their precious children to the best of our ability, in God’s strength. God does, however, give us ‘parental feelings’ toward ‘our girls’. We have an overwhelming desire to protect them, encourage them, guide them, pray for them, love them, make life fun for them, teach them. How many times have we cheered on ‘our’ dorm girls from the side of a sports field? Or sat proudly in the front row while they have performed on stage? Watching the girls’ triumphs and successes fills us with joy.
The next challenge is letting go of our dorm girls emotionally at the end of each academic year. We must release them to form bonds with their next set of dorm parents, trusting God to help us develop emotional ties with our new group of dorm girls.
It is not only children constantly coming into and out of our lives which presents an emotional challenge. The rapid turnover of staff can cause us to become emotionally detached at times. With new short term volunteers arriving every January and August and only staying for five months, there is a constant stream of hellos and goodbyes that takes place. Add to this staff who have been working for a longer period of time at Hebron who then move on, and you can see how difficult this can be emotionally. At the beginning, when you are new yourself, it is easy to throw yourself into forming new relationships, but as time goes on, it is easy to hold back from becoming too emotionally involved in other people’s lives. The benefit of this is that it is less painful when it comes time for goodbyes. The downside is that we can easily miss out on the blessings and benefits from being involved in other peoples’ lives. Another aspect for us is that we are so heavily involved emotionally with caring for the girls in our care, that there doesn’t seem to be a lot left in our emotional tanks for giving out to others. This is an area where it can be difficult to find the right balance, and we need God’s wisdom and grace to get this right.
Hebron constantly struggles to retain staff long-term. Being short-staffed—not knowing if you will have enough staff to put in front of classes in the next term—is a constant cause for concern. When there are sicknesses going around, it can be very hard to cover lessons. It’s not as though you can call a supply teaching agency to get someone to come in at short notice! Often it means that staff who are already carrying very heavy loads have to take on an extra burden. Having to teach subjects that you are unfamiliar with can often be a cause of stress.
A few weeks into last term the school was left in the difficult situation of having only one part-time teacher left in the Geography Department after three families left at relatively short notice, all for different reasons. This has left a huge gap that is yet to be filled. We are grateful to God for sending some short term volunteers for a few weeks. As I type this, I’m not sure if there will be any new teachers joining this department next semester. Bethany’s brass teacher left at the end of last academic year and there have been no teachers coming who are qualified to teach brass since then. This means that she and others have had no lessons since August, and they are having to prepare themselves for their music exams later this year. The Modern Language Department is also very short-staffed. Next year many teachers in Junior School are leaving. Please pray that God will prompt the right people to come and fill these gaps.
Dealing with administration as foreigners can be challenging. Our new friends who joined the school in August last year still didn’t have working mobile phones when the term finished in December. Setting up bank accounts or making changes to your internet account can take months and seemingly endless paperwork and visits from one office to another. Systems that make it almost impossible to ask for anything outside the ordinary can be very frustrating. An example of this from the last year was when Aimee’s residency paperwork was due to expire, and an extension had been applied for, but not yet granted. It was due to expire the day after we had to admit Aimee for her heart operation in CMC Vellore. In order to gain admission to the hospital we had to fill in forms at different offices for the majority of the morning. When they noticed that Aimee’s resident’s permit was expiring, they told us we had to leave the country the following day and they couldn’t do the operation. We were then sent to the police, who we were told would make sure we left the country in time. We had the paperwork to show that the extension had been applied for, but because it wasn’t stamped with the official stamp it wasn’t acceptable. Imagine the emotions we were facing at this time, as our youngest daughter was about to have heart surgery the next day!
Dealing with health issues can also be emotionally draining—particularly when you are away from your normal support networks. Many friends and colleagues have left Hebron because of ill health, going back to their home countries for treatment, investigations, surgeries and recuperation from persistent sickness. We are so grateful to God for the good health that we have enjoyed so much of the time since joining Hebron in 2009!
Burnout! Numerous staff who have worked at Hebron have left exhausted and discouraged and facing many symptoms of burnout. There are so many demands on staff to run activities outside of school time, which include sports, music, drama, Christian activities, clubs and dorm activities. These are on top of normal duties associated with working in a boarding school, such as meals, homework supervision, shower duties (only three 3-minutes showers are allowed per week), and bus duties. Learning to balance all of these with family life and caring for the dorm is extremely difficult. There is always ‘more to do’. We desperately need God’s wisdom to get this balance right, as the consequences for getting it wrong can be very costly. Please pray for us in this area!
Not knowing if our visa will be renewed each time we need to apply for a new one also has an emotional impact on our lives—particularly when we have seen some friends have their visas refused and being told that they must leave the country immediately. This means that there is constant uncertainty about whether we can continue our ministry at Hebron School. Almost every visit back to the UK or Australia in the last few years has involved applying for at least one visa—and praying it will come through before we fly back to India again. This wait can be even more anxious if we have to apply for new passports in which to get the new visas!
However, our peace comes from knowing that if God wants us to be at Hebron School doing what we are currently doing, then it is His job to arrange our visas and extensions. This is our constant ‘fleece’ that we put out each time we need to apply for another employment visa for Alex or myself, or student visas for Bethany, Jacob and Aimee. We were astonished when two of our children received five-year student visas when we applied for them last July. This is almost unheard of and seemed to us to be confirmation that we are in the place where God currently wants us to be. God is not restricted in what He can do! Despite the emotional roller-coaster that we find ourselves on so often, we know that God is all-sufficient and able to meet all our needs! It is truly a privilege to serve Him in the roles to which He has called us at Hebron School.