Camas’ Heather Radu’s orphanage gives kids home, opportunities

By Adam Littman, Columbian Staff Writer

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CAMAS — It didn’t take long for Nallely Lux to get used to life as an American teenager.

Lux, 19, arrived in the United States on Aug. 10 after growing up in Guatemala. Within a few months, she was sneaking out with friends for a secret trip to the beach and spending time texting and FaceTiming. For Lux, who was put in the Dorie’s Promise orphanage in Guatemala City, Guatemala, when she was 6, coming to the U.S. wasn’t something she thought was possible.

“The plan was not to come here,” she said. “I was going to finish school there. It was my dream (to come here). I prayed for it, but I didn’t think it would happen.”

Lux lives in Vancouver with a host family. She attended King’s Way Christian School for three months, but she performed well enough that administrators didn’t think she needed to continue with high school. She started at Clark College in January, where she is working her way toward an associate degree. After that, she plans on pursuing her bachelor’s degree at another school, preferably one in Arizona or California.

“I don’t like the rain,” she said.

Nallely doesn’t remember her childhood before going to the orphanage, including any of her family members. But ask her about her mother, and there’s a good chance you’ll hear about Heather Radu of Camas. Seventeen years ago, Radu opened Dorie’s Promise. She is still the executive director.

“I love her like a mom,” Lux said. “She’s been there for me since I was 6. I want to have the same opportunity to do what she’s doing for me and help orphans. She’s amazing. There are words to describe her I don’t know. I’m so happy God put her in my life.”

Radu, 45, has worked with children around the world for decades. She dropped out of high school at 17 and got her GED. She went over to Romania and worked in an orphanage there. She then started working in international adoption, which eventually brought her to Guatemala.

She opened her orphanage in 2000 with a few goals.

“We’re going to run an orphanage exactly how we want it to run if it was located in Camas,” Radu said. “We want to be forever changing the lives of the children in our care.”

For Radu and the rest of the Dorie’s team — there are administrators in Camas and a staff in Guatemala — that means giving kids the highest level of care of possible. The children all attend private school, and the orphanage has a psychologist and doctor. The kids receive dental care and are enrolled in extracurricular programs, such as karate or music. One of the older kids at the orphanage was never the best student, but is learning to play guitar and cook. Dorie’s also has its own chef, who prepares a mix of Guatemalan and American food for the kids, which Lux said made her transition to American life a bit easier.

Radu said she’s seen how other orphanages operate, and it’s not unusual to see kids of all ages mixed together, which she tries not to do since it can difficult for all when teens are mixed in with younger kids. She also doesn’t want to take on more kids than she can handle. Dorie’s tops out around 40 kids, although at the moment the orphanage has a few extra kids.

On March 8, a fire at a government-run orphanage in San Jos? Pinula, Guatemala, killed at least 40 girls — 19 at the scene and more than 20 who died later from their injuries. It started when some of the residents lit a match to protest overcrowding, according to the Associated Press. The 500-capacity orphanage was housing more than 700 girls, according to various reports.

Radu said she’d like to increase the size of her orphanage so she can take in more kids. She used to adopt out about half of the kids who came through, but that slowed down in the last decade. The Guatemalan government outlawed international adoptions in 2007, so Radu and her administrators had to find a new revenue stream to keep the orphanage afloat.

Radu started bringing over religious groups for mission trips, and charged them to stay in one of the four buildings she rents as part of the orphanage. There’s one building for boys, one for girls, one for people visiting on a trip and one with administrative offices and room for overflow.

She opened it up to people who want to come over on service trips but aren’t affiliated with any religious group. Now, she brings in more than 400 people a year from around the country on trips to the orphanage. The trips cost $1,100 to cover food and lodging; $325 of that goes directly to caring for the kids. Radu also offers a $35 monthly sponsorship service, which funds up about 60 percent of the orphanage’s roughly $480,000 yearly operating budget, she said. The money from monthly sponsorships is broken down, with 22 percent going to education, 22 percent to staffing, 21 percent to health care, 18 percent to housing and 17 percent to food and clothing.

Radu estimated the other 40 percent of the money comes from a pretty even split between the visiting trippers and general donations.

It was through those visitors on trips that Lux learned to speak English, although she didn’t always enjoy the conversations.

“I was annoyed sometimes,” she said. “People would say things like, ‘Oh, this poor girl, she doesn’t have a family.’ ”

Lux does have a family, though. Not only does she think of Radu as a mother, but the kids she grew up with in the orphanage are like siblings to her. They’re the people she FaceTimes with from Camas, and the people she’s excited to see when she takes her first trip back to Guatemala this weekend while she’s on spring break.

At 19, Lux was the oldest orphan at Dorie’s, and the first one to get a visa and come over to the United States. Radu said a family over here contacted an attorney about what they’d need to do to help Lux get the visa and come to the U.S., and they paid for everything to get her over here.

Radu said it’s not something she thinks all the kids at Dorie’s could handle, or would even want. She was sure Lux was the perfect person to try it with, though.

“She has shown such amazing leadership qualities and self confidence,” Radu said. “She’s someone who has persevered so much. You can give a lot of kids opportunities and not all will take advantage of them. She will take an opportunity and make the most of it.”

Lux said she wants to study to be a diplomatic interpreter, and one day she’d like to open her own orphanage to pay forward the opportunities Radu gave her. She’s already planning on leading some service trips back to Guatemala.

“I love my country and love helping people,” she said. “I want to help kids to give back to everyone who helped me.”