Focus on the Family

Focus on the Family with Jim Daly

Unveiling the Heart of an Abandoned Child (Part 2 of 2)

Unveiling the Heart of an Abandoned Child (Part 2 of 2)

Rob Mitchell, author of Castaway Kid, discusses the childhood struggles he experienced as an orphan. (Part 2 of 2)
Original Air Date: November 19, 2010


John: Here’s our “Focus on the Family” broadcast guest, Rob Mitchell, talking last time about his experiences in an orphanage.


Rob: Kids are egocentric. You know, we think that whatever happens to us in life is our fault.

Jim: Uh-hm.

Rob: The kids in Beverly Hills, who live in mansions, think they were born to deserve that. But kids in orphanages, kids in the foster care system, we think we deserve that. And that’s not right, but it’s how we feel.

End of Recap

John: I hope that helps you understand just a little bit better what life was like for a boy who was abandoned. As I said, this is “Focus on the Family” with Focus president and author, Jim Daly. I’m John Fuller and Jim, there are so many children growing up in foster care, in group homes and in other parts of the world, in orphanages. And my heart goes out to them for the struggles that we heard Rob express and I know yours does, too.

Jim: Absolutely, John. This is a passion for me. I think it’s something that is so strongly on the Lord’s heart, as well. Forty-seven times He says, “Take care of the widow and the orphan–

John: Uh-hm.

Jim: –and when we’re down and we don’t know what to do, “Lord, what do You want me to do with my life?” There’s one thing He’s saying, “Take care of the orphan.”

John: A very clear call.

Jim: And that’s what drives our passion here for what we’re even doing, John. And I think each one of those children, certainly they have a name. They have a personality. But you know what? They have a soul and that’s what we need to remember. And Rob so wonderfully describes the struggles and the difficulty and the loneliness–

John: Uh-hm.

Jim: –of those children. I think there’s more than 100,000 kids in America that are in foster care and their parental rights have been terminated. They’re just waiting day after day like that puppy in the window of the orphanage like Rob talked about last time, thinking will anybody love me? Will anybody be my mom and my dad? And you know what? That breaks my heart and I hope today’s program provides a glimpse into the life of a lonely child.

John: And Jim, the numbers worldwide of those orphans, they’re just breathtaking with 145, 147 million orphans in the world.

Jim: Million.

John: That’s one of the reasons that I so appreciated the conversation we had with Rob last time and I’m glad he’s back today. Let me just tell you that Rob Mitchell is the author of the book, Castaway Kid: One Man’s Search for Hope and Home. And that forms the basis for our conversation today. it really is an inspiring, hopeful story.

Rob grew up as one of the last “lifers,” if you will, in an American orphanage and spent 14 years at the Children’s Covenant Home in Princeton, Illinois. Let’s go ahead and continue the discussion on today’s “Focus on the Family.”


Jim: Rob, when we left off last time, you were telling us about how as an angry teenager, you asked Jesus into your heart. And you mentioned how suspicious you were and you still had a lot of doubt at that moment. Yet, somehow you could say, God began to change my life. Let’s touch on the “began to change my life” aspect of the story, because I think a lot of people who come to Christ, especially in these circumstances, there’s a lot of baggage that they’ll bring. And it’s not necessarily, although perhaps it can be, instantaneous. There’s a sanctification process that one has to go through.

Rob: I think for me, the first thing that happened was, another punk tryin’ to get in my face and fight the very next day. And what I really wanted to do was smash his face in.

Jim: Hm.

Rob: And there’s this voice in me [that] said, “Somethin’ changed; walk away”–

Jim: Hm.

Rob: –which was not easy to do.

Jim: And that would’ve been perhaps the first time you would’ve walked away.

Rob: First time I walked away, that I have any memory of walkin’ away was the very next day. You know, I don’t share what I’m saying with any pride, but I’m sharing it with honesty. You know, I grew up on pornography. It was my favorite reading material. It took a while to realize that wasn’t healthy for me spiritually.

Jim: Uh-hm.

Rob: It took a while to realize that alcohol and marijuana weren’t healthy for me spiritually. It took a while and I’m talkin’ a couple of years, it was a process to realize that profanity are the words of a simple mind and I didn’t want to have a simple mind any more, that my anger was destructive. Jesus got frustrated ’cause people were being too hardheaded, stiff-necked and hardhearted–

John: Hm.

Rob: –to understand the love of this God. And eventually, I came to realize that maybe my anger issues were also me being hardhearted. It was process.

Jim: Hm.

Rob: The great thing about God is, He says, “As far as the East is from the West, I’m gonna forgive you.” It’s a journey; it’s not a destination.

Jim: Right and I think it’s important for people to hear that. Rob, one question that I get about bitterness–

Rob: Uh-hm.

Jim: — it’s a hard one to answer actually, because people will say, “Well, how come you weren’t bitter?” And I never remember any long-term feeling of bitterness. That was my experience. I didn’t hate my father because he didn’t love me in the right way or the way I wanted. Even as a young boy, I could understand that he was dealing with stuff. I don’t know how I understood it, but I knew it was his stuff, not my stuff and the same for my mom. So, when I get that question, “Jim, how did you not become bitter with everything that you went through?” how would you answer that question, Rob?

Rob: For people who’ve walked a long time in a close relationship with God, they’ve come to understand that sometimes God is terribly inconvenient. And I was a junior in college when God called me to forgive and I fought hard, ’cause they don’t deserve it and what difference does it make?

You know, my grandmother Mitchell was dead. My father’s a brain-dead vegetable in a mental hospital. My mother’s in and out of psychiatric wards. They’re not even gonna know they’re forgiven. What difference does it make? I’m not proud of this, but I have a long history of fighting God.

But eventually I surrendered and it was process and I share the process in my book. But what I came to realize at the end of the process of forgiving the three I thought wounded me the most, is forgiving did not free them; forgiving freed me. And I remember the day and I have not been angry, I have not been bitter since that day.

Jim: So, really God’s presence in your life is the way that you would explain that lack of bitterness in you–.

Rob: Right and forgiving–

Jim: –He has filled.

Rob: –forgiving people who don’t even know they’re forgiven.

Jim: Right.

Rob: It wasn’t about them knowing; it was about me releasing it, of casting my anxieties on Him, for He cares for us.

Jim: Rob, people are listening right now who are going through terrible things. You mentioned it earlier about, it’s not just simply being abandoned or being an orphan. It might be being trapped in a marriage–

Rob: Uh-hm.

Jim: –a bad marriage, where there’s no connection, no relationship with the spouse. Speak to that person right now.

Rob: I think the deepest need of every human is to belong. And when we don’t feel we belong, sometimes we make choices to belong. The great message of Jesus Christ was, God knows who you are. You are not invisible to God. As a kid who spent 14 years in an orphanage, I understand being invisible. This isn’t theory for me; this is personal.

And to that listener, I’m saying, “Yes, you are not invisible to God. In your pain, in your sorrow, in your struggle with psychological, emotional affliction, in your struggle with someone you love who’s got MS or CP or cancer.” Our son, Luke was diagnosed with leukemia. We understand that struggle, but never have I felt alone.

And God knows you and loves you and offers you a better way, but you gotta keep givin’ it up. You gotta keep givin’ it up.

Jim: Rob, when it comes to the brokenness that you experienced, do you have a sense that, that in some way is a precursor for the Lord to mold you and shape you? He loves working with the brokenhearted, doesn’t He?

Rob: When we let Him; when we let Him. You know, one of the struggles for me as a male is the male ego’s very real. Now let’s get real, the female ego is, too, but I’m not qualified to talk on that one. (Laughter) But this whole “master of my own ship” idea that “my way” mythology of contemporary Americanism is hogwash.

And it’s one of the real challenges as a Christian. You know, as a businessman, I push to succeed ethically. And yet, as a Christian, I push to surrender. And it’s a dichotomy that makes no sense. You know, the Bible says, “Be bold as a lion, gentle as a dove and wise as a serpent.” You cannot do that on your own.

Jim: Uh-hm.

Rob: You can only do that by the power of the Holy Spirit and working on it daily, sometimes hourly, to find that way of both releasing, but seeking God’s will to have the courage to follow as God calls you, but yet, the spiritual wisdom to say, “It’s not me doing this.” I’m doing this in the name of God, by God’s Spirit, for God’s glory.

Jim: Well and in that way, Rob, again, a lot of people are experiencing devastation right now. They may have lost their job. The economy’s hit them hard.

Rob: Uh-hm.

Jim: They may be struggling mightily, especially where is God in this minute?

Rob: Yes.

Jim: I don’t see Him; I don’t feel Him. They may have been faithful followers of Christ for decades and all of a sudden, He doesn’t seem to be there, much like what you must have felt at the orphanage.

Rob: Yes.

Jim: Where are You, God?

Rob: Yes.

Jim: Help me understand what to do with that?

Rob: Show me. Just show me. Give me a sense of Your presence. As John Wesley said, I love the phrase, “Strangely warm my heart.”

Jim: Hm.

Rob: Just make Yourself real. And yet, God has not forgotten us. You know, I speak so often to at-risk kids and I use appropriate language and all, but most at-risk girls have been sexually abused. And one of the things that I say to them so distinctly is, what has happened to you is not who you are. It’s just what’s happened to you, but it’s not who you are. Your childhood is not who you were; it’s what happened to you.

Jim: Right. It’s a good way to process those things and I think the children that do that successfully get a handle on that–

Rob: Uh-hm.

Jim: –and they understand that, it’s not me. I’m not causing these things, but it’s hard. And it often does take a role model or a person who you have confidence [in], especially for a child. I know for me, there were a number of particularly male role models–

Rob: Uh-hm.

Jim: –my football coach, teachers. Talk to us about that. How did they play a role in your life and did they help you?

Rob: Uh-hm.

Jim: And who were they?

Rob: Well and it’s one of the things I “cheerlead” a lot, is especially male mentors. I’m not discounting the women, but you know the statistics better than I do, but something like 34 percent of kids are growing up in fatherless homes.

Jim: It’s now 40 percent.

Rob: Forty percent, okay. For me, it was actually late in the orphanage, the home realized they were losin’ the boys big time, many of ’em dead or in prison by 21. And it wasn’t a formal mentoring program, but there were men who impacted me, ordinary men, not celebrities looking for photo opportunities.

Jim: Right.

Rob: A guy named Jim who taught me to lift weight[s] and ham radio, a guy named Bob, who taught me to hunt and tell time by the sun and stars and walk in the woods in the dark and not trip. A guy named Swanny, one of the goofiest lookin’ human beings in the planet and I have permission to say this. Imagine a bowling pin with thin red hair. (Laughter) Okay?

Jim: That’s a little different.

Rob: All right. He said, “Well, couldn’t you say I just have a mature waistline?” (Laughter) Okay, Swanny, if that helps you sleep at night. But he liked white water and wilderness and would take groups of us out. And because of him, I learned and saw I can do this. And I’ve backpacked much of the American wilderness, mountain ranges, white water, lived in the jungle of the Congo, drove a pickup truck 2,500 miles across Africa, backpacked the Swiss and German Alps, ’cause a goofy-lookin’ man showed me I could do it.

Jim: Hm. Gave you confidence.

Rob: Yes. and guy named Marve who taught me to drive a car with a push-button transmission. (Laughter)

Jim: What car was that?

Rob: See, he’s too young to remember that.

John: Yeah, I remember that.

Rob: But as old Chryslers and Plymouths.

Jim: All right.

Rob: But these weren’t celebrities lookin’ for photo opportunities. They were ordinary men, takin’ what they knew and spending time with an at-risk kid.

Jim: Hm.

Rob: And I’m absolutely persuaded that love is a four-letter word spelled T-I-M-E.

Jim: Hm.

Rob: Kids like us don’t care if you have a Master’s degree or a Ph.D. We just want to know you care. And the only way you’re gonna show an at-risk angry kid that you care is, you have to keep showing up. And if you keep showing up, then maybe we’ll listen.

Jim: And it doesn’t take a lot, does it, Rob?

Rob: No.

Jim: I can remember those days when you know, somebody just put an arm around me–

Rob: Yeah.

Jim: –and just encouraged me. Sports–

Rob: Uh-hm.

Jim: –tended to be my love language I guess–

Rob: Uh-hm.

Jim: –if we can call it that and so you know, when they took an interest in me and showed me how to throw the football with a little more accuracy or something like that, that meant the world to me.

Rob: Yeah.

Jim: I mean a little thing–

Rob: Little thing.

Jim: –meant the world to me, uh …

Rob: I remember one of my memories in high school was this little old lady, teaching me how to bake cookies. That doesn’t sound like much, but kids like us, nobody ever let us cook and it’s the little things. I mean, I know in Chicago, for example, some senior women said, “Well, we know how to relate to street kids.” I said, “Well, become the cookie grandma.”

Jim: (Chuckling) That’s right.

Rob: Show up for cookies when they’re playin’ basketball.

Jim: There’s no kid that will turn down a cookie.

Rob: That’s right, especially no teenage male.

Jim: That’s right.

Jim: Become the cookie grandma. That’s somethin’ you can do. They said, “Well, we can do that.” I said, “Well, go be the cookie grandma.”

Jim: That’s good. The book I wrote called Finding Home, one of the things for me was just that long journey of wanting to be a good father, never having that kind of model like you. Again, speak to us about your journey of finding home. How living in an orphanage, did you have any idea of what having a home would be like?

Rob: The first answer to that was the summer after I was released from the orphanage. At that time it was literally a sports coat for the boys and bus ticket to wherever you wanted to go and, “Good luck, Kid.” That was it. That was it. You know, if you’re sick, don’t call; there’s no money. If you’re in jail, don’t call; there’s no bail.” If you’re dead, don’t call. You get a pauper’s funeral.

Jim: Just to paint that picture in a, you know, suburban perhaps home in America, a 17-, 18-year-old boy or girl probably leaves for college and Mom and Dad cry and they put their arms around ’em. They may even drive ’em to that college or fly with them to that college. This is entirely different.

Rob: This is entirely different.

Jim: You hear, “Here’s a bus ticket; good luck, kid.”

Rob: Yeah.

Jim: That’s your going away party.

Rob: The summer after my first year away from the home, I was going back to Lake Geneva to be a lifeguard swim instructor. [I] flew to Chicago, took a bus to Moline in the Quad Cities to meet a buddy. And unbeknownst to me, the bus stopped through Princeton where I grew up.

Jim: Hm.

Rob: And it was truly like a Twilight Zone movie, cause there I’m in a bus and I can see people I used to play sports with, the Dairy Queen ice cream stand and they don’t even know I’m in town–

Jim: Right.

Rob: –or care. And that is when I just got washed over and over with waves of anger and bitterness. Yes, I was a Christian, but it doesn’t change I wasn’t angry and bitter. And I yelled at God for a long time in that bus. And finally in exhaustion, I just sat there a minute and God doesn’t speak to me often, but when God does, it’s a phrase I know is not my own.

Jim: Uh-hm.

Rob: And God said, “Call Me ‘Home.’ Call Me ‘Father.’” And my first response was anger, instant anger. That doesn’t change things. I can’t take my children to my family home. I can’t show them the bed Daddy grew up in. I can’t give you grandparents. How is this changing anything, God?

And I got done yelling quietly in the bus, so people wouldn’t think I was crazy and God let my anger calm down a minute and said, for the rare time in my life, “Call Me Father. (Emotion) Call Me Home.” And I processed it for a while and I responded, “Okay, God. You’ve made an offer. You’ve got a deal.”

Jim: Hm.

Rob: “I will call You Father and I will call You Home.” And I was 18-years-old and I’ve always been home.

Jim: (Emotion) Rob, you could probably see the emotion in my eyes right now, just the tears, because you know, I think all of us that have that kind of background … my conversation with the Lord was actually somewhat humorous in that way, because I was frustrated and feeling some bitterness about coming up a different way. And you know, at that moment I remember having this argument with the Lord, but the question was a little different. It was, “Haven’t I been a good Father? Look at where you’re at and what’s happening to you.” And I thought, “Wow! You have been an absolutely wonderful Dad.”

Rob: Yeah.

Jim: Those are the conversations that we have and I can feel that in you, as well, Rob.

Rob: And God’s a big boy.

Jim: (Chuckling) He is a big boy.

Rob: You know, He can take our anger. He can take stuff that doesn’t sound good comin’ out of our mouths, whether it comes out of our mouth or in our hearts and our souls and our minds. One of the great lies is, if we fail once, we’re not worthy enough for God.

Jim: Hm.

Rob: That’s a lie. Failure’s not the problem. Not getting back up’s the problem.

Jim: Right, God wants you to get back up–

Rob: That’s right.

Jim: –and walk with Him.

Rob: Uh-hm.

Jim: And again, there are many people I’m sure that are devastated because the enemy works on that.

Rob: Yes.

Jim: When we have that failure, the enemy works on that. See you’re not good enough. Especially you haven’t had a dad in the home. Your dad left you when you were young,” like in our case. Perhaps your mom is also gone, like in our case. Those devastating thoughts can cripple you emotionally and spiritually. And you’ve got to overcome that. You gotta know that God is in your corner–

Rob: Uh-hm.

Jim: — and to pursue Him.

Rob: Right. And it’s one of the challenges that in quiet conversations, I’ve often had with folks who have that feeling. I mean, over and over again, children of divorce say, “I remember the day Daddy left.” It’s burned on their memory.

Jim: Yeah.

Rob: And lots of times, they actually make it a connection. I remember one woman saying, “I stole his hairbrush that morning, just to have fun.”

Jim: Yeah.

Rob: “And he comes in and yells and screams and leaves.”

Jim: Yeah.

Rob: “And I thought it was ’cause I stole his hairbrush.”

Jim: Hm.

Rob: And I think what God calls us to do is, if we’re struggling that we’re not good enough for God, then one of the first questions to be asked is, “Why? What’s the ‘it’ you’re allowing yourself to be judged as a failure by? And is that ‘it’ scriptural?”

Jim: I agree, Rob and I’m thinking of a story as you were speaking there, one that came into Focus many, many years ago and this would be the paraphrase of the story, because it probably has been 20, 25 years. But a man who was divorcing his wife brings his daughter before him and says, “Honey, your mom and I, we’re not gonna make it and I’m gonna leave for a while. I’m gonna live in a different area. But this will give us more time and you can come visit me two weeks in the summer and you can see me hopefully, once a month; we can spend a weekend together.” That was the last time she saw her father.

Rob: Yeah.

Jim: And those empty promises, you know, they do create a barricade. I don’t know what happened to that young girl who heard those promises and never saw her father again. How does she connect with God? How does she find a connection there that she can believe in God’s promises? And the answer is, you can-

Rob: Uh-hm.

Jim: –because He’s not your [natural] father.

Rob: Uh-hm.

Jim: We’re flawed.

Rob: Yes.

Jim: We walk this earth with a sin nature.

Rob: Uh-hm.

Jim: We make promises we cannot keep.

Rob: Yes.

Jim: But God does not. His promises He keeps. And He wants to be your loving heavenly Father. And Rob, it just seems right to pray for those people–

Rob: Uh-hm.

Jim: –who maybe don’t know the Lord or they’re struggling in their walk. Can we do that? Can we–

Rob: Absolutely.

Jim: –pray for people who need a touch from God the Father

Rob: Uh-hm.

Jim: –right now?

Rob: Dear God, I fought telling my story, ’cause I thought, who can relate to a kid from the orphanage? But as You began to reveal, the world is full of wounded people who understand betrayal, abandonment, desperate loneliness, anger with one of their biological parents and God, angry with You.

And yet, You have promised, You will never leave us or forsake us. And Lord, right now somebody’s listening who’s in the deep darkness of desperate loneliness and woundedness, who perhaps has been wounded by others, but perhaps Lord, they’ve wounded themselves.

And they are asking one more time, “How can a holy, loving God want me?” Thank You, God for making a promise that this person is not invisible to You, that You know them and that You love them.

And Lord, I encourage this listener right now, where they are today, to step out in faith and pray a simple prayer, “Dear Jesus, I may not understand it all, but I open my heart one more time in trust. Forgive me. Make Yourself real to me. Give me the courage to start studying the Bible and the courage to find Christians who will help me become the person You imagine I can be, not the person my past says I was doomed to be.

And Lord, as I finish my prayer, thank You. Thank You for loving the wounded, for the orphaned, the widowed, the castaway. Help us, God in each of our walks, to make You real to them. This I pray in the precious name of Jesus, amen.


John: And we wrap up this “Focus on the Family” broadcast with that heartfelt prayer from Rob Mitchell. He was an orphan, one of the last children to live in a U.S. orphanage before the system was switched to foster family homes. And Jim, there are still significant needs for orphans today.

Jim: It’s true, John. The numbers are staggering. In fact, there are about 400,000 children who are currently in the U.S. foster-care system and about a quarter of those, 100,000 are waiting to be adopted today. Their parental rights have been terminated by the courts, so they’re really children of the court system.

And I know in Canada the percentages are very similar with the kids north of us. So, that’s why we started the End The Wait orphan care outreach, to encourage and equip parents to consider adopting through foster care.

But we also help with resources and training and idea for how all of us can make a difference in the life of an orphan. It’s not easy. We want to make sure people are aware of that, but if you can’t adopt, there are many other things that you can do to come alongside those families that have.

It’d be wonderful if churches could take on the adoption effort as a community. So, if one family adopts, five or six other families in that church could come alongside that family to strengthen them, give them the breaks they need, because it’s tough duty. And you know, these kids are broken. They have a lot of emotional needs that you really need to step up and deliver. But it’s not impossible and who better to do it than those who can love these children with the love of Christ.

Also when you make a donation today to Focus on the Family, we want to send you Rob Mitchell’s book, Castaway Kid as our way of saying thank you. We can’t do it without you, you know. You’re the … the fuel for the engine here at Focus. So, please if you can make a donation today to step in the gap for these children, we deeply appreciate it.

Also we’re working on our second documentary film that will release next spring called The Drop Box. And it’s about a South Korean pastor, Pastor Lee. He and his wife have opened up their home. They’ve put a little drop box that’s heated, where moms who can no longer emotionally, perhaps physically take care of their babies, many of them with special needs and they leave their child behind for the hope of a better future than what they can provide. It is gut wrenching, but it also delivers the hope that’s found in Christ. You’ll be hearing more about that movie, The Drop Box in the months ahead.

John: Yeah, we really do have a lot going on here in terms of reaching out to care for orphans. And we’re highlighting that as part of National Adoption Awareness Month.

And you can learn more about everything we’ve discussed today, including Rob Mitchell’s book, Castaway Kid, which again, we’ll send you when you make a donation of any amount to Focus on the Family, when you call 800-232-6459; 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY or you can find resources, order Rob’s book and make a donation at .

Our program was provided by Focus on the Family and on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team here, thanks for listening. I’m John Fuller, inviting you back tomorrow. We’ll have Greg and Erin Smalley with us sharing some insights about how to appreciate those differences in your spouse, as we once again, help your family thrive.

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