Three generations of one Weyburn family - Barry and Freda Lautner, their daughter Tristyn, their son-in-law and daughter, Chris and Andrea Tessier and their four boys Orrin, Rowan, Gavin and Brycen Tessier - spent their Christmas holiday in Belize, a small country in South America.
Theirs was not, however, a usual family holiday. It was a life-changing, service-oriented, volunteer journey to a city called Belmopan, where they all helped with the ongoing work at the King's Children's Home.
With children coming to the home having been orphaned, abandoned, abused and neglected or having escaped other dangerous situations, the KCH is not a typical third world orphanage. The commitment of KCH is to assist children in becoming healthy, upright and productive citizens.
Founded in 1985 by Leonie Herrera (now Mrs. Herrera-Gillham), a 'dedicated lady with a dream', the home has physically expanded over the years, with more than 600 children passing through its doors. The facility, in which the 80-plus children are currently living, is very small. Therefore, a new structure is being built on donated land outside of the city.
Leonie herself comes from a background of extreme abuse. She left home at 14, running for the lives of her and her baby.
"As soon as she had a job and her own place, she started taking in kids," said Andrea, noting that Leonie's first job was with the United Nations.
Chris and Andrea have been getting to know Leonie since they took their first trip to Belmopan during the Christmas holiday in 2010. The couple, along with their four young sons, sacrificed gifts, tree and turkey dinner in order to make that voyage.
Andrea said that she had already purchased the boys' Christmas gifts, but they knew a group was going to Belize. They gave their boys the option of having Christmas at home, where they'd receive everything on their list, or returning the gifts and going to Belize. All four boys - at the time being only ages two, four, eight and ten - chose to go to Belize, even before their dad was sold on the idea.
The land for the new home had not even been broken yet when the Tessiers took their first trip. During their second trip in June of 2011, Chris helped by hauling bricks, while Andrea and the boys continued cultivating relationships with the Home's children. Chris also went alone to volunteer in February of 2012, taking a co-worker with him.
Volunteer numbers do increase every year, but the project has been slow going.
"There have been periods of six months where no building could take place, because the funding was not there," said Andrea. "She has built this entire project by faith."
The Tessiers keep going back to continue helping, because, as Andrea said, 'Your heart stays there'.
Freda noted that it is first, second and third priority to get those children into the new facility as soon as possible. The conditions of the current home are not only cramped, but they are within a city that poses additional risks to the children.
"There is no income from this home," said Barry. "It's all charity."
With minimal funding from the government of Belize, Leonie relies heavily on donations. All of the donations, unless specifically designated to the Building Fund, are used for regular operations and maintenance. For each child that comes through its doors, KCH provides secure housing, a nutritious and well-balanced diet, clothing, any and all medical attention, complete education, a loving environment where they learn discipline and respect for themselves and others, as well as the opportunity to grow spiritually.
At the end of the day, the home is providing a greater destiny for each child.
"They're all concerned about their future," said Andrea. "If you sit with these kids and you talk with them, they all know where they're going. 'I'm going to be an engineer', 'I'm going to be a teacher.' They know where they are headed and it has a lot to do with how they are being raised up - they have a direction and they go for it."
With a corrupt government and a low population of 350,000, the new structure that is being built for these children is actually better - bigger and nicer - than the government buildings. As a result, Leonie is regularly audited.
"Belize is a third world country," said Andrea. "When you drive around and look at the houses, you see it - the fact that some of these kids have actually been removed is saying a lot. They come from horrifying places and horrifying things have happened to them."
Leonie's vision is a contrast for these children. She offers them a royal upbringing, as 'children of the King'. Their physical conditions may not be palatial, but through her ministry, which includes not turning away any new children ever, she upholds her values system as 'the Mamma' of each child in her care.
"This is almost a Mother Theresa, grass roots organization," said Barry.
Volunteers can visit the home at any time during the year. In addition to helping to build the new structure, volunteers assist with everything from relieving the older children and staff members, taking care of the younger children, to helping with household chores, schoolwork and just about anything imaginable that needs to be done to run a home.
"She runs it just like a big family," said Freda, noting that the older children are given household chores and everybody pitches in to help run the house. "They do 20 loads of laundry every day."
At Christmas time, a soap-free laundry system was installed by volunteers, which will save them $300 per month in soap expenses.
Tristyn noted that she has had difficulty describing the KCH conditions to her peers in high school.
"Their house would maybe be the size of two classrooms at the Comp," she explained. "I couldn't even picture it before I went. You can't imagine how these people are living. I don't know how they are doing it, but it's working, which is amazing."
Tristyn wants to become an Optometrist and to someday volunteer in that capacity in Belize.
"I think it changes your life forever," said Freda. "I'll never be the same."
To make a donation to the King's Children's Home, or to visit as a volunteer, go to kingschildrenshome.org. Volunteer housing is available, as are a number of other options for accommodations.