The Orphanless Orphanage
When the Nations team first visited Rancho de Sus Niños, an orphanage near Tecate, Mexico, we had no idea what to expect. Orphanages can conjure unsettling connotations, after all. What we discovered was not a typical orphanage, but instead a home to a larger family.
Rancho de Sus Niños is a place where expectations are turned on their heads and replaced by God’s extravagant faithfulness. This faithfulness is everywhere you look, and it’s especially evident in the orphan homes where the meaning of “family” is restored. Everywhere we turned we saw kids being loved and told that they’re meant for so much more than where they’ve come from. Where circumstance says there should be insufficiency and indifference, RDSN creates a place of abundance and joy.
When we met the Horner family at Rancho de Sus Niños we immediately noticed something different about their operation. There was no sense of urgency, no worry, and no apparent exhaustion in staff and volunteers. Despite the hundreds of kids they care for and the enormity of daily tasks, they exude joy, rest, and calm. “Everyone is significant. We really hold true to that,” says Genea Horner, co-director of RDSN. “It doesn’t matter if you’re the dishwasher in the kitchen or one of our munchkins… everyone has a voice. Everyone needs to be heard.”
As our relationship with the Horners grew along with our understanding of the values they live by, the unique atmosphere began to make sense. Rancho de Sus Niños values family. This value is the driving force behind the genuine love offered to every broken child who steps foot on the property. Participating in this family provides fulfillment and energy to the staff and volunteers who work long, hard hours. At Rancho de Sus Niños, everyone is seen and heard and known and loved.
Most importantly, this value of family erases the word orphan. RDSN’s commitment to offering hope, provision, and protection stems from a belief that the children are God’s family and He will look after them and give them futures.
Here, we talk to Leo Lopez, worship pastor and senior leader at Rancho de Sus Niños. Leo was one of the first “orphans” at RDSN and whom we soon discovered was never really an orphan at all.
Where does your story begin?
My story begins in Tijuana, Mexico. I remember as a kid there was a lot of violence in my home, a lot of alcohol. My dad was a violent man. My mom left us when we were six years old. One day, we were at home, and she was making dinner. She said, “I’m going to go to the store, I’ll be back.” She left some beans on the stove and went to the store. An hour went by, two hours, three hours. My dad got home from work and asked, “Where’s Mom?” and I said, “She went to the store.” “How long ago was that?” he asked. “It was a long time ago,” I said. So my dad went out looking for my mom and came back late that night. My mom didn’t come back with him. It was then we knew that she left us. My dad went into a deep depression. We lost everything—his job, the house we were living in. We started living on the streets.
What was it like living on the streets?
I don’t want to use the word hell, but it was…hell. There’s no hope in the streets. We didn’t have anything. I remember when it rained, we’d look under bridges and pipes to find shelter. We’d go to restaurants and we would eat their leftovers. If the owner was in a good mood, she would feed us, but other times she would let us eat from the leftovers in the trash.
We did about a year of that. Eventually we got picked up by social services, and they brought me to Rancho de Sus Niños. They became my family.
When did everything change for you?
Everything changed when I came to this place. At 12 years old, I remember accepting Christ as my personal savior, and from then, my eyes were opened. I was experiencing this new love of community and family. Little by little my heart and thoughts were changing to God’s thoughts for me.
When I was 14 my dad passed away, and Steve and Cathy [founders of Rancho de Sus Niños] gave me the invitation. It was that moment when they took me out of the orphan houses and said, “We want you to come and be a part of our family.”
I was so grateful to be called a son and a part of a family. Seeing the love that this place—this home—was giving me and showing me, it changed everything for me.
“It was really hard for me to define that word, family, because I was abandoned by my real family. I didn’t believe in that word.”
How did you define “family” then and how has your definition changed over time?
It was really hard for me to define that word, family, because I was abandoned by my real family. I didn’t believe in that word. When I got here, Rancho de Sus Niños was loving me in such a way that I thought, “This is not normal, why are they loving me like this?” My dad and mom didn’t tell me that they loved me. So I went through a long process of refining and trying to understand the word family.
Rancho redefined family for me, first just by being an expression of love: lots of hugs, lots of I love you’s. Knowing that I was a part of something, part of a family, meant I had a chance of becoming someone, of doing something with my life.
How do you define the concept of home?
In a home there is love, there is community, there is joy, there is peace, there is understanding, there is forgiveness.
How do you define an “orphan?”
An orphan is a fatherless son or daughter with no hope. For us at Rancho, there’s no such thing as an orphan. As soon as you come onto this property, you become one of us. You’re welcomed with open arms and you’re loved just the way you are.
Rancho carries a big spirit of adoption to every kid that comes to this place. They automatically become His kids and our family. With Rancho physically giving them that family and that spirit of adoption, it’s a total picture of God adopting us.
How has Rancho shaped how you father your own children?
I know that I carry the heart of a father, because He has given me that in order to love His kids, to love kids like me. Just by giving them a simple hug—it’s everything. I know that I was born to leave a mark here on earth, to love people. I was born to be a father to many.
What would you say is the message of Rancho de Sus Niños?
The message of Rancho to the world is that there’s hope. In any situation, there’s hope. Rancho de Sus Niños is here to restore lives and broken kids and to be a family for those kids that don’t have a family. It’s here to change Mexico. It’s here to change the word “family.”
Photos by Gregory Woodman
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Brianna is a Pacific Northwest-based writer and editor who seeks stories that breathe hope and inspire action. Her favorite kinds of people are peacemakers, bridge-builders, storytellers, and dreamers. She is the Senior Writer at Nations Media.