In a riveting story of hope and redemption, Carolyn Koons tells how she, as a single woman, felt led by God to adopt a young boy she encountered in a harsh children's prison during a mission trip to Mexico. (Part 1 of 2)
John Fuller: She was in a foreign country on a ministry trip when she discovered a prison full of children and heard this plea."
Carolyn Koons: Señorita, señorita, his name is "Little Antonio," Antonio Hernandez Sanchez. He's such a good boy. Is there anything you could do for him? Someone's gotta help our little Antonio. Somebody's gotta get him out of this prison.
End of Excerpt
John: Well, that someone became that woman right there, Carolyn Koons, as she responded to that little boy's horrible situation. You're going to hear about that on today's edition of "Focus on the Family" with Focus president Jim Daly and I'm John Fuller.
Jim Daly: John, my heart goes out already to that little Antonio, just hearing that clip. And I know the rest of the story is just as touching. So, I hope you'll stay tuned. You're gonna be amazed at what Carolyn Koons has to share with us. This is one of those classic "Focus on the Family" messages that we've aired several times over the years.
But we've got an update from Carolyn that we're gonna hear at the end of the program next time, so don't miss it.
John: Well, Carolyn has a heart for missions. I mentioned she was on a ministry trip. Over 300,000 students and adults--that's a lot of people--have participated in the mission trips that she organizes. And she's now involved in Mexico missions full-time since her retirement after 50 years of teaching college.
Here's Carolyn Koons, speaking at her school, Azusa Pacific University on today's "Focus on the Family."
Carolyn: Fourteen years ago, just two weeks before we were getting ready to go to Mexico, to be really honest with you, I was looking at my wonderful life here at the university, as a professor. My classes were going well; I was taking young people to Mexico. I live over here in Glendora in a nice condominium. You know, to be really honest, things were going very well for me.
And I looked at my life and I said, "God, I'm ready for a change. I'm ready for the next step." Have you ever told God that? "Lord, I want You to change my life." I bet you a lot of the seniors right today are saying those statements. "What's next for me, Lord?" Two weeks later, I found myself in Mexico. We had only about 500 on that trip and we thought that was big. I'd been able to take our varsity basketball team into the men's prison. We took our soccer team into the men's prison. We were working in villages all over that valley. We were working in [an] orphanage and for the first time we heard about something we had never heard about before in Mexico.
They told us that further on down in that valley, that they didn't tell people about, they literally had a children's prison. And in that prison they had boys anywhere from as young as only 5-years-old, to as old as 17. And then when they turned 18, they transferred them into this men's prison. Well, we'd worked that men's prison for years, and I'm telling you, Third World prisons, you would never want to be in that men's prison.
They told us that this boys' prison was far worse than the men's prison we'd been working. They said the boys, well, these little children, they were in the prison for anywhere from stealing a few dollars, because maybe they were hungry or they tried to steal some food, or maybe some of these boys literally tried to sneak across the border to some kind of freedom. Then they said that some of these boys were in the prison for literally rape and murder. And they asked us if I would take the APU basketball team and I had a music group. I had another gal that had a big puppet. She had learned her Bible stories in Spanish.
Twenty of us headed on our of the town of Mexicali, down that valley, off the main highway, down the dirt road. We kept going further and further down into that valley. My reaction was, "There is no way there's a prison down here. What do you mean, children's prison? I mean, boys, you know, we don't believe in prisons for kids." And I want you to know, when we pulled up in front, well it was way over there in the valley. We pulled up in front of this, it looked like a gigantic concentration camp. And we pulled our vans up in front of one of the most intimidating fences out in the middle of nowhere. It was about 15 feet tall, with huge rolls of barbed wire all around this compound. And there were guards standing around with guns and watching us as we came toward the gate.
We got inside of this children's prison and I want you to know, down here at this end, oh, I don't know. It must have been about five acres, seven acres of property. It wasn't real big, but down here, just a few little straggly trees, and you could see some of the boys--children. I mean, they were wearing rags. They didn't even have shoes on their feet. But man, I don't even know if they'd had baths in weeks or months. And the children were just standing all over in this compound, really lifeless.
Well, down at this end was the only place that there were buildings and there was a long U-shaped adobe buildings with cold bars on all of the windows. And in the middle of this U-shaped building there was an old basketball court, except the cement was so broken up that the weeds were growing up through it and the basketball hoops were bent down. I don't know how the basketball team was gonna do anything down here.
Well, we were standing over by the gate and as soon as the head guard saw us, he walked over to this wall and he rang a bell. And as soon as the sound of that bell just echoed through that compound, I'm telling you, we almost got trampled as these children came darting down, past us, running down to this basketball court. Boys came from around that double-steel door, around that corridor, around this building. All of a sudden, there they appeared before our eyes. And one by one, those little children, little kids lined up on this basketball court, military style, as fast as they could. I mean, we're standing there and row after row--250 plus little kids in a prison. Well, that guard stood there and he watched those boys, and as soon as the last one jumped in line, right over there on the end, that guard spotted him.
Right in front of us, as if almost to show off, that big, greasy-haired guard walked over, walked down that line, grabbed the kid, pulled him out of line, threw him down on the cement in front of us and he pulled out this billy club and he started hitting this kid. I don't know, this kid must have only been about 15, 16-years-old, and he was just, just beating on top of this kid. And this poor teenager had his hands, well, he was curled up in a ball and he has his hands over his head, so the guard couldn't hit him in the head.
Do you know that there wasn't a boy in any of those rows that turned around to watch as you could hear the thuds. And then the guard picked the kid up and I watched his face, and the boy was trying to fight back the tears. Then this guard walked up to the all and he rang that bell. All of a sudden, the boys started marching. And they marched forward to the wall. They marched down this wall with all the bars on the windows and they marched right into a huge steel door.
And the guard looked at the 20 of us from the university and he just motioned for us to follow, so we obediently just walked right in with these guys, until I heard the door slam behind us and I turned around real quick and I noticed there [that] none of the guards came in. They locked us in this, well, I guess you'd call it a gigantic gang cell. It was about the size of our basketball court. It was all … every inch of the room along the walls was jammed with old military-style bunk beds, rusted out, missing mattresses, a filthy, rotten, dirty blanket maybe. The whole place was lined with bunks and down the middle. And we found out later that they slept three to four boys to a set of wires.
And then most of the guys, you know, these tough guys, they were hittin' on the little kids. I mean, they had all these ages together. Down at this end was the only place that was slightly open and there was a partition just a few feet from the wall and these little kids were throwing this green, slimy junk up on the walls. And I went down here to say," What is all the commotion?" And in this green slimy junk, they had a stick and a rag. And I went up to see and I didn't have to get too close till I could smell it. And this green slime came down over the filthiest urinal. It was just gross. It just reeked; it was black and grungy and right next to it was their one toilet for all 300 boys, with half of the toilet seat ripped right off. Right next to that was the first bunk, about two feet away. The kid on the bunk could touch the kid on the toilet. I thought the men's prison was bad and we began to hear horror stories.
Well, we set up our program. I thought, "Hey, captive audience. We're here. We're not gonna waste a minute." We started singing our songs in Spanish. We started sharing stories. And you know, we were like Christmas had arrived. These young kids, they just jammed down at this end and sat right on the dirt floor and then, of course, the tough dudes, they came down and they worked their way and they lined all the bunks. We were there to share [with] them some kind of hope. Even though they were in that prison for who knows what, that we believed in the kind of God that could change their lives and could give them a future and could give them a hope and even if we had just a few minutes to do that.
Well, right in the middle of our program, a fight breaks out. And this little kid had actually gotten pinned up on the back bunk and these guys were just wailing on him. And we're still singing our songs in Spanish, trying to distract everybody. They beat this little kid, throw him down off the bunk. He gets up and now he wants to sit up here in the front. There's no room up there, so he literally crawls over everybody and plops himself down and starts his own front row. And all of a sudden, this big smile comes over this little boy's face. I don't know. He looked like he was only about 8- or 9-years-old. His hands flew out and immediately, he starts singing our Christian songs as loud as he could. He absolutely blew us away. Every single one of us on the team said, "Carolyn, Carolyn, look at the kid in the front row. Look at that smile on his face. See the one there in the blue jacket." I mean, there were 300 boys in this room. It was like we only saw one of 'em.
I turned around and the whole row of bars were lined with guards, with their hands hanging in, trying to figure out what in the world is going on in there. I walked over to one of the guards and I said, "See the little boy in the front row, the one in the blue jacket? It looks like he's got a little cross hanging on his shirt." I said, "What is he in here for?" And the guard said, "Oh, señorita, he's not in here for anything. His mother dropped him off about five years ago. We've been just raising him in this prison." And I'm going, "What?" And then the guard reaches through the bars and grabs my shoulders. Scared me to death at first. And he starts shaking. He says, "Señorita, señorita, his name is little Antonio--Antonio Hernandez Sanchez. He's such a good boy. Is there anything you could do for him? Someone's got to help our little Antonio. Somebody's got to get him out of this prison."
John Fuller: Well, listening to that, I can just hear the plea in that guard's voice and my heart goes out to that boy and to Carolyn Koons, our speaker on today's "Focus on the Family." She was a single woman who up to this point, was leading what seemed to be a routine mission trip to Mexico. And then God did some remarkable things. And in a few moments, you'll hear what happened when the other prisoners discovered that she was, indeed, going to try to free Antonio. Get a CD of this entire presentation and information about how you can help orphans, by calling 800-A-FAMILY; 800-232-6459 or get the instant download of this program at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio. Let's go ahead now and hear more from Carolyn Koons on today's "Focus on the Family."
End of Program Note
Carolyn Koons: What would you do? What would you do? I couldn't get this little boy out of my mind, and I left the rest of the team there. I got a missionary, my student director, and we headed out of there. We drove all the way back that dirt road, all the way down past the men's prison back in town, to this place called the Office of Juvenile Records--you know, down an alley, around the corner, just where you can't find it--to find the biggest shock. When the secretary looked at us and she said, "Señorita, Antonio Hernandez Sanchez, didn't they tell you? Well, he's in prison for murder for life."
And I mean shock went through me. I said, "What?" She says, Oh, sì. He's in prison for life. He committed a murder." And she went back, grabbed the file folders and we're still standing there stunned. Surely not that cute little kid in the front row. And she pulled out this file folder and out fell this picture, and sure enough, it was the kid in the front row, but this was not a smiling face. It was a terrified face of a 5-year-old boy.
It appears that little Antonio lived right down here in Tijuana, up by the dump. And his mother was a prostitute, and apparently here was 5-year-old Antonio and then another little brother and another little girl and another little girl. The mother basically had a baby every cycle practically. And the littlest one was a little baby boy--Albino and retarded, a total disgrace in that macho culture right there.
And one night, this poor little innocent, retarded Albino baby was found beaten to death with a baseball bat. Someone had taken a bat and had crushed the head of the baby. And when the police came out to the shack by the dump to investigate this murder, she and the man she was living with turned to little Antonio and said, "He did it. He's got a terrible temper. He's the one. He's the one that killed his baby brother," and the police, in the confusion, picked up a 5-year-old child, lock him in the car and drive him down and lock him up in the Tijuana men's jail downtown. How would you like someone to come along and take your 5-year-old brother or sister?
The mother was supposed to come the next day and press charges against her son, although she didn't show up. So, they thought, "Well, maybe the problem was transportation." They get in the car--the police car. They go all the way back out to the dump and find out that the place is stripped. She is gone. Her other children are gone. They go around the neighborhood and they start asking about her and they found out that she's the one that has the bad temper and the man who's been staying there.
And they told horror stories about how she used to beat her children and torture them and used to tie little Antonio and his brother to a bed and lock them up for three and four days with chains and kick them and throw water on them. They began to realize they had the wrong person. Except they don't have the systems down there that have here and this little child, this little Antonio gets left in the men's prison. According to the records, the secretary said he lived in the Tijuana men's jail for a year.
Finally they got around to transferring him a couple of hours over. This is the same little kid we saw in the front row? No way. By the end of the day, we went back out to our main camp. By now, all the teams were coming in and we shared with all 500 high school and college young kids what we had just experienced. And man, they started praying. They said, "Hey, we're going to trust Jesus to get this boy out of prison. We're going to help get this boy out of prison." And I could just sense the electricity and the faith of these young people living in the dirt in Mexico.
And then this gal friend of mine, she had just gotten married, and she says, "Carolyn, this is an answer to prayer. We've been praying about adopting a child--an older child--preferably a juvenile delinquent," because her husband works with juvenile delinquents. And She said, "If you can get little Antonio out of prison, we want to adopt him, sight unseen."
Whoa! You know what I felt? I felt like I was a part of this incredible miracle that God was gonna perform and God was gonna use me. I says, "All right, God!" You know, this is already Easter break. Trumped-up charges, we'll have this boy out of prison [in] two or three months. He'll be up by the summer, he'll be living up in northern California with this wonderful couple. I says, "Come on, God. It'll only take a few months." I'm always telling God how much time something should take. (Laughter)
Except the biggest shock is I couldn't get a lawyer to handle the case. I tried to get the top lawyer in the city; I tried every office possible. Not only the months went by, but a year went by and little Antonio was still locked up in the prison. Then a year and a half went by. We were frantic. We kept going down. We kept trying to make contact. Nothing worked out. By the end of two years, Antonio was in the prison. We could not even go visit him anymore, because the older kids found out that somebody was trying to get him out and they literally tried to kill him. They would rather kill one of their peers than let someone get out free. And we were even more frantic.
Finally, by the end of a couple of years, I found this young gal. She was just a graduate of college, a single gal. We would call her a secretary. She was interning in the lawyer's office and this young gal walks up to me. I'd already tried every top lawyer in that city. And she says, "Señorita Koons, my name is Lupe." She says, "I think I can help you." And you know what? Inside I started to laugh, because I thought, "No, no, no, no. You can't." And I looked at Lupe and she says, "I think I can help you." And all of a sudden, this little dynamo of a college graduate got excited about getting this little kid out of prison.
First thing we had to do was we had to go to court and win the murder case--little difficulty here, a kid that's in prison for life. And Lupe set it up. Three months later, Lupe Puga and Carolyn Koons stood in this court in front of three juvenile judges, and in a 25-minute trial, Antonio Hernandez Sanchez was proven innocent--25 minutes. And then that judge stood up in front of us. And he says, "Oh, Señorita, we are so sorry for the injustice done to this boy. We just hope that the rest of his life will be better than this first part of his life." Everyone thought the judges were gonna retaliate. Are you kidding? They were sorry for this boy.
Lupe and I were so ecstatic! We were like a bunch of junior highers. We flew out to the prison to get little Antonio, because the court said he could be released in seven days--it only took seven days to process the papers--only to find our biggest shock. He was missing. Not only was he missing, there were a lot of kids missing. And when Lupe went checking around, she came back. I mean, she was ghostly white. She said, "He's sold. He's gone. He's probably dead." I said, What?" And she said, "The prison director, he's been selling these kids into slavery. He's been pocketing the money."
And I'm telling you, there was nothing; the prison director refused to talk to us. He absolutely forbad us to be in the prison. We left the prison and were in shock. She says, "Carolyn," she says, "Slave labor is a big practice in Mexico." She says, "They sell these children, because there are so many hundreds of thousands of them. They use; they abuse them and they torture them and we never hear from them again." She says, "He's probably dead."
Are you kidding? I had papers that said, "You're going to be released--innocent. You know, you're gonna get out," and now, the next sentence I hear, that this boy is probably dead. And in tears, Lupe said, "What do you want me to do?" I said, "We're gonna trust God." I says [sic], "We're gonna proceed with every legal document and we're gonna trust God to keep our little Antonio safe."
You can imagine how I felt, driving back from Mexico, court papers in hand--innocent--and now I'm told he's maybe dead. And the months went on and the months went on. Well, to be really honest, we did report the prison director. The police came in and arrested him; [they] threw him in the men's jail. (Laughter)
Started cleaning up the boys' prison, put a mattress on the bed, gave them some blankets, gave them some shoes. Eighty percent of the kids didn't have shoes and put an old black-and-white TV up there. I says [sic] ,"God, was the whole purpose of this to get the prison rehabilitated? Where is our little Antonio?"
Two-and-a-half years from the time I saw that little boy, I'm just gettin' ready to walk out of the door to come down here on campus and teach my Introduction to Christian Education class and I get a phone call, an international phone call. "Are you Señorita Carolyn Koons? Are you interested in the adoption of Antonio Hernandez Sanchez?" I says [sic], "Well, yes, I am." They says, "Come and get him today, right now. Don't wait. He just showed up at the prison. Come and get him" "Who is this?" (Laughter)
I go, well, there's a guy over at my church and he has his own plane. He said he'd take me flying any time I wanted to go, and I went over and I says, "Now! Now!" (Laughter and Applause) I called the lawyers; they met me at the border. We flew down to the border. I don't know who taught my Christian Education class. (Laughter)
And we're exchanging papers. They go across the border and sure enough, he's there. And they whisk him out of that prison and we hide him in a Mexican village further on down in Mexico, because I had one more set of papers to deliver to L.A. Immigration. I race back. It's Friday. I thought, "I've got time." You know, I dashed over, all the way down to L.A. in my car. I got to the office. We got the papers notarized, because those papers had to go to Washington, D.C., and be stamped, and had to go to the border, and I did not want one more day or one more weekend to pass.
I get home that night. I mean, this miracle had occurred--miracle--and nobody knew it. And you know, it was like midnight now and we've got little Antonio safe and so I thought, I've got to tell somebody. I thought, I'll tell Happy. That's the couple, the gal that wants to adopt him. I call long-distance and it's like midnight and I said, "Praise the Lord! You'll never believe it!" I said, "We got your son. He's safe. You can come and get him in seven days."
And probably the most life-changing conversation on the other end of the phone is when Happy said, "Carolyn, this is so hard for us to explain, but we've been praying about this and we don't feel we should adopt him." What? And he had all kinds of legitimate good reasons and I'm telling you, I hung up that phone. I spent 2½ years getting this kid out of prison for this couple to adopt and they don't think they should take him. I thought my pastor has this obnoxious teenage kid. He should adopt him, you know? (Laughter)
"Hey, Walter, you want to adopt this kid? He only spent seven years of his life in a prison for murder. No big, you know?" And I was frantic. And at that point, you know, there are times in our life when we hear God's voice and God says, "Carolyn, Carolyn, remember that prayer you prayed 2½ years ago? You asked Me to change your life. You asked Me for a new challenge."
I said, "Oh, wait a minute, Lord." (Laughter) "Lord, you don't understand. Lord, I'm single; I've never been married. You know me. You know, last month, I think I was home one night. I don't remember." You know, and I said, "Lord, and You know me, there's no way I could be a mother." And God said, "Carolyn, do you know why it took me 2½ years to get little Antonio out of prison, and not three months like you wanted? Carolyn, it took Me 2½ years to get you ready."
And all of a sudden it hit me. You know what? I was not the same person I was 2½ years ago. I want you to know I had five days to adjust to the fact that I was going to be a mother. (Laughter) I read in one of those science textbooks over here in the biology. You know, you had about nine months, five days. Was I terrified?
'Cause you know what I said to be really honest? I said, "Well, okay, Lord." It's like now it's 2 o'clock in the morning and I said, "Okay, "Lord," You know what I said to myself? I wonder if I can take that back? I wonder if God heard me. All of a sudden, I wanted to back peddle really fast. Five days later I went down across that border and I picked up my son.
John: Well, there is so much more to this compelling story from Carolyn Koons and you'll hear that next time on "Focus on the Family." And certainly, request a CD or get the download if you can't be with us then, to hear the conclusion from Carolyn.
Jim: John, we'll hear how this adoption turned out many years ago. It wasn't all sunshine and roses and we do plan to get that update from Carolyn tomorrow at the end of the program. You're going to hear how she and Tony are doing and now that he's grown and has a family of his own. And I think this is a wonderful story of trusting God and it's amazing to think about how hard Carolyn worked for Tony's release from prison and then as a single woman, to realize that God was calling her to adopt him. That's courage.
And John, I know the Lord spoke to you and Dena about 11 years ago about taking that step of courage. You had five children already, but you felt compelled to adopt a child from Russia.
John: Yeah, I heard somebody just the other day, Jim say that if God calls you to do something, you're going to be very uncomfortable if you delay (Laughter) or ignore that call. And it took us a while, but I'm so glad, so grateful for what God has taught us. And as you said, adoption is not always easy, but wow, we've learned so much and God has been so faithful and so kind during that journey.
Jim: Well, I'm proud of you and Dena, I mean, for doin' it. It does take a lot to take that step of faith. And I want to remind our listeners that The Drop Box movie will be in theaters for a limited time release this week and that's the reason we're bringin' it to your attention. It's the story of a South Korean pastor and his heroic efforts to embrace and protect orphan babies. And so far, more than 500 of these little babies, many with disabilities, have been rescued or saved through The Drop Box. So, join us for The Drop Box movie, March 3rd, 4th and 5th in the U.S. and that's starting tomorrow night and then March 4th and 5th in Canada. To get your tickets and to learn more, go to the Focus on the Family webpage.
John: Yeah, that's www.focusonthefamily.com/radio and if you can't be with us tomorrow to hear the dramatic conclusion of Carolyn and Tony's story, we really want to make sure that you get the CD and hear the story in its entirety and maybe share that with a friend or a loved one.
Jim: In fact, John, let's make that CD available for a generous gift of any amount and we'll put those donations toward the Global Orphan Care Fund, which will support the ongoing work of Pastor Lee's ministry in South Korea, as well as our very own Adoption and Orphan Care Initiative here at Focus on the Family.
John: Yeah, our number is 800-232-6459; 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY. And you can also find details and donate at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio .
Our program was provided by Focus on the Family and on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening. I'm John Fuller, inviting you back tomorrow. You'll hear how Tony was released and adapted to live in America, as we once again, bring encouragement to help you thrive.
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Carolyn KoonsView Bio
Carolyn Koons retired from Azusa Pacific University after 50 years of serving in teaching, ministry and leadership capacities. She is currently the president of Life Bridge Ministries International and the executive director of Rancho El Refugio, a ministry based in Ensenada, Mexico. Carolyn is a public speaker and the author of four books including Single Adult Passages and Beyond Betrayal. She has a grown son, Tony, and four grandchildren.