It is the end of a long workday, and the sun is quietly slipping away, but Marcella Moslow enters the dimly lit coffee shop with a bright smile on her face, eager to talk about FANA (the Spanish acronym for the Foundation for the Assistance of Abandoned Children), located in Bogotá, Colombia.
This is a long way away from where we sit face to face in Buffalo, NY—an adoptee and an adoptive mom. I first met Marcella in 2006 when my husband and I were looking into a local, nearly 30-year-old adoption support group known as Families of FANA, WNY (founded by Jerri Gernold, an adoptive mom of three and the force behind the group’s continued connection to FANA Bogotá so many years ago). Just a teen then, Marcella was already a proactive presence within the group of more than 400 adoptive families who share a forever bond that stretches some 2,600 miles from Buffalo to Bogotá.
Born in 1992, Marcella was adopted from FANA when she was just six weeks old by her parents, David and Robin Moslow. Now 26, Marcella, a licensed master social worker, works as a bilingual mental health counselor with Child & Family Services in Buffalo. She also serves as Vice President of Families of FANA, WNY, as well as co-chair of the group’s education and support committee.
I explain to Marcella that I’d originally been assigned to write an article titled Want to Know What an Orphanage Is Like? Here’s Our Story; however, I’d barely begun typing before realizing it wasn’t my story to tell—but rather my girls’ when they are ready. Still, not wanting to lose the chance to shed some light on our experience with an orphanage, the first person who came to mind was Marcella.
Marcella has returned to FANA several times over the years, including when she was just 2 and a half years old with her parents to adopt her younger brother, Kyle. She visited again in the fourth grade, explaining the trip as the one that solidified that she wanted to be an active part of the support group in Buffalo. She recalls that on yet another visit over Easter break during eighth grade, what stood out the most was spending one-on-one time with the kids at FANA and planning activities for them. Her parents promised Marcella she could visit again, this time by herself, in high school, a trip that she describes as “incredible.”
Still with the smile, Marcella politely sets me straight on something right off the bat, shattering the original article title while explaining FANA is a foundation, not an orphanage.
“When I went to Colombia to volunteer at age 16, I’d told people I would be going to help at an orphanage. My use of the term changed from that trip on when I realized no one at FANA used that word, instead referring to FANA as a foundation. That made a lot of sense to me since the word foundation is used in the Spanish acronym and also because foundation means a basis upon which something stands or is supported.”
Yes, the interior of FANA may appear visually sterile in many ways, such as a lack of carpeting, for obvious basic health and hygiene reasons similar to hospitals and daycares. The staff wears uniforms or smocks. Masks are worn by staff dealing with infants. And yes, there are strict schedules and daily routines due to the number of children and their individual needs vs. staff. Still, she emphasizes after a moment to think things through, “FANA is—FANA. FANA is home that has existed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for the past 43 years to all of the children who live there—FANA does not close; there are no days off.”
“I don’t think I could come up with another word that more completely encompasses what FANA does,” she continues. “FANA provides a foundation for every child that comes through the doors, for every family that is created or helped. FANA is their starting point, providing a foundation of hope, respect, and love. The word orphanage, to me, is more institutional and cold and does not represent what Mercedes de Martinez, the founder of FANA who passed away in 2012, so passionately worked to create for the children who still depend on the foundation today, more than 40 years later.”
In 2014, Marcella returned to FANA again—this time for a year. She shares an interaction with a 9-year-old boy who allowed her to read a journal entry he’d written for school that said, “I know my turn will come one day. My turn to have a family and a home. But until then, FANA is my home. I know I am loved here, and there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.”
I get the impression that to Marcella, FANA is much more than a building or institution or to those who don’t know better (like me)—an orphanage. No matter the label, her description seems less a place and more so a feeling. When pressed to paint a picture, she takes just a moment before describing in a soft tone, “When I think about it and envision it and see myself walking through the doors at FANA, I am home. It’s peace and love and just—it’s hard to put into words. It’s like being surrounded by family. How can you not feel the love seeing all the little human beings? It’s fuel for your soul, and that feeling never goes away. Best feeling in the world.”
According to the Families of FANA website, Mercedes de Martinez, along with her husband Arturo and other family and friends, began taking abandoned children into their family homes in Bogotá. On February 4, 1972, the Colombian Family Welfare Institute and the Ministry of Justice approved the legal recognition of FANA as a nonprofit institution. With its mission of finding homes for abandoned children, FANA took the role of helping protect the children and the family. Marcella explains Mercedes’ vision, “Let’s help build up the supports and the foundation of the family.”
The first real home was rented at the corner of Avenue 7A and 65th Street of Santa Fe de Bogotá. However, the location proved to be too small. Through great effort by Mercedes, who led countless campaigns on national and international levels, FANA was able to rent a house at #5-67 71A Street. Mercedes later purchased an adjoining house as well, and FANA remained at this address for over 17 years. Today, the brick and mortar FANA is located in Suba, an area that is of low socioeconomic status, in the northwest section of Bogotá. Built in 1995, the large building allows FANA to welcome up to 150 children and is well adapted to FANA’s evolving mission of increasing its assistance to underprivileged families in the area.
Once the entrance gate is opened, visitors arrive at FANA’s front steps, which lead to a large open foyer where they check-in at a desk. There are more steps heading upstairs to the offices, nurseries, and dormitories. One of the focal points of the front of the facility is a beautiful stained glass window, known to those in the FANA circle as The Tree of Life window. Walking into the heart of the building, there are separate quarters for infants, toddlers, and older children as well as a cafeteria, play areas, auditorium, classrooms, and specialized offices for occupational therapy, speech therapy, administration, and social workers/psychologists. The grounds of FANA are park-like and offer green space for the children to play.
In 2017, FANA broke ground for a brand new, state-of-the-art nursery school with the capacity to serve 120 children, which was completed and opened to the children this past August.
Marcella says that FANA has been a leader in Latin America with Mercedes’s youngest daughter, Elena Martinez, pushing for the continuation of the FANA mission to protect the rights of children. “It doesn’t have to be through adoption, she says. “At this point in time, the restoration of rights program is larger than the adoption program. Adoptions have subsided over the past 10 years.” Marcella estimates that 80 percent of the children at FANA are part of that program of working with biological families so the kids can return home.
When a child is taken from family due to abuse or neglect, ICBF is the ruling entity and has options of where to send a child. FANA is one of those options. Marcella explains, “Bienestar calls Elena and asks if there is space available at FANA for a child or sibling group. If Elena says yes, they come to FANA. Every child is matched with a defender of minors who is part of the process to determine if that child(ren) can be declared eligible for adoption or will return to their biological family.” She says that biological families do have access to the children while at FANA during the investigation process. FANA and Elena have played a significant role in working to guarantee the rights of children and ensure that children are not spending extended periods of time in an institution. Previously, a child could be put into the custody of a 6th blood relation. That has now changed and helps to keep the process from being extremely drawn out, ensuring the child is placed in a family as soon as possible. Additionally, last year Law 1878 was approved by the Colombian Government. This legislation that Elena had a hand in passing announced that children/adolescents must be reintegrated with biological relatives or declared eligible for adoption within 18 months so as not to prolong a child’s stay in an institution.
Marcella admits that when she was adopted, there was not as big a push by the government to keep biological families together. “There weren’t those resources available, and the system was a lot different. Times were different; there was a great deal of stigma surrounding the issue of young or single mothers. Now FANA works really hard with kids and parents in Suba to provide parenting support, workshops, and resources. A major focus is figuring out how to get the families the resources they need so that the children are not removed and families can stay together. FANA’s goal is for the parents to become guarantors or their children’s rights. FANA teaches them how to do this, and the impact this has had on families and the community is amazing.”
I was curious to hear Marcella’s thoughts about the treatment of the children who are declared eligible for adoption and/or removed from their families and who do live at FANA—be it waiting on adoption or for the reasons described above—having done some research into other international orphanages and having read stories of grown adoptees who did not have as good an experience as Marcella. Some of these depicted a cold and lonely existence where the children were made to feel more like a number than a person.
“If you walk the halls, all of the staff members know the children by name,” she says with pride. FANA works hard to instill strong, loving connections as early as possible. According to Marcella, every single child has a staff member who is considered a “godmother or godfather.” They do special activities together throughout the year for holidays and birthdays. Each person who works at FANA, from Elena, to Mercedes’s oldest daughter, Maria Lucia Martinez, who runs mother’s home El Hogar, to Antonio, the groundskeeper, to Esperanza one of the cleaning staff, to Fany who is in charge of the massive amounts of laundry—all adore the children and treat them as their own.
Marcella stresses the importance this plays in the children’s development. “Something so seemingly little as being called by their name provides an identity and attachments.”
What’s a typical day at FANA like for the children? She says they are woken up each morning with hugs and kisses and the familiar faces of the nurses they adore. They are cuddled; they are held, and they are given attention. The children are provided with their own bed, their own clothes, their own school supplies, their own toys. They are given home-cooked meals, clean clothes, and medical care. When walking through the building, it is normal to be greeted with hugs, kisses, and smiles.
FANA is filled with the pure joy and happiness of children and their infectious laughter that echoes through the hallways. Marcella explains, “At FANA, the children are able to just be children with a childhood free of worry or danger or fear. When the older children come back from their day at school, they are helped with their homework and receive aid until each of their assignments are completed. They talk about their hopes, they share with us their dreams.”
She goes on to explain that FANA is full of learning, not just lesson plans, but life lessons. “The children learn to crawl, to walk, to read, to ride a bike. They learn what it means to be loved unconditionally, to be protected, and to be safe.”
And when the sun goes down and the lights go out at night? This can be a time that can be scary for any child anywhere. “At bedtime, they are tucked in each night; they are given more hugs and kisses. They are told they are loved,” she says.
So, is FANA the exception to the rule? Because it certainly sounds like an incredibly inspiring and happy place of hope, not at all like the dark and dingy orphanages and institutions typically portrayed in the media. Marcella smiles and admits that she may be a bit biased, but she does feel over the years that Colombian-run agencies have gotten a lot better (and possibly better than other countries). “FANA is fortunate to be a global entity. It receives aid and donations from many places, and as a result, is able to offer education, physical therapy, and art programs.” FANA even takes the kids on social and academic field trips, similar to any regular school. She emphasizes, “A lot of places don’t have those resources.”
Marcella explains that all of her experiences with FANA, plus her career and clinical work, have personally helped her to put the pieces of her own adoption identity together. “Being connected with FANA both here and in Colombia, receiving my social history (she received this during her return trip in the fourth grade), talking to the expecting mothers, research on adoption, all helped me put some of the pieces of my story together and made me feel more secure with my identity. It can be hard for adoptees not having the full picture. It’s a lifelong journey.” She continues, “As I’ve gotten older, I have gone through ebbs and flows regarding my adoption, that’s the best way I can describe it, but despite the questions I may have, I feel confident in knowing that my adoption was a choice made out of love, respect, and hope for a better future.”
And it’s also the reason she’s here after a long day of work on this dark, winter night. She explains that her involvement at FANA allows her to share with Colombian adoptees in Buffalo insight into what their first home was like. During the support group’s annual Colombian Culture Week (aka Spanish Camp), she has been able to give the kids an idea of what the kids there do. They talk about the food and culture. “Staying close and connected is important. It gives them a little bit of the piece of the puzzle.” She adds of her fellow FANA adoptees in Buffalo that continue to grow into young adulthood, “Moving forward, it’ll be the adoptees who will be in a place to take over (Families of FANA, WNY) and ensure this group doesn’t fall by the wayside.” She says, “We need to inspire a fire in our kids to be dedicated and to be proud.”
She says that during a year-long stay at FANA in 2014, she got close to all of the kids, and it was heart-wrenching to say goodbye—both to the staff whom she got to know so well, as well as the kids. Seeing the impact that she had is her motivation to stay involved with the children both at FANA in Bogotá as well as the FANA kids in Buffalo. She views being part of the education and support committee as another opportunity to provide both her personal and professional insight to assist adoptees and their families, and she hopes the group embraces the need for continuing to discuss adoption at all stages.
And just as she entered the coffee shop, defying the darkness with her bright and contagious enthusiasm, we ended things with a shared smile, having touched upon so many memories and discussions and ideas on how to further support, sustain, and secure a vision of hope for so many children that came to be before either one of us was alive.
FANA is my children’s first home—a place my family hopes to visit soon so that my girls can see it firsthand and begin to fill in some of the missing pieces of their past, the same as Marcella began to do as a child herself. To the children who rely on FANA today, it is a place of safety, nurturing, and kind faces where they are encouraged to thrive until they are able to return to their families or find new forever families through adoption. To adoptees like Marcella who are at a point in their lives to see beyond their own adoption stories and are inspired to stay connected and serve as a voice for the children who continue to call it home, it is a living mission. Not an orphanage at all, but a foundation full of family, love, hope, identity, and dignity from which to grow.
For more information about FANA, please visit their website.