Coach, athletes find more to life than sports

Toni Crebbin takes time to share with a special-needs orphan in Chaoyang, China. - Photo courtesy of Toni Crebbin
Toni Crebbin takes time to share with a special-needs orphan in Chaoyang, China.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of Toni Crebbin

Sports are often over emphasized in America. Professional athletes are paid millions of dollars, 90,000 fans cram a stadium to passionately cheer on the home team, parents push their 6-year-old into year-around select soccer.

However, from time-to-time life has a way of injecting sense into the madness to help balance one’s perspective.

Coupeville High School volleyball coach Toni Crebbin receives her reality check each summer as she  journeys to China to work in an orphanage in Chaoyang.

This year she traveled with a team of 13, and among her group were three high-school athletes: her son, Joshua, a three-sport athlete and state-caliber wrestler for Oak Harbor; Amanda d’Almeida, an all-conference soccer player and district tennis champion for Coupeville; and Bessie Walstad, a multi-year three-sport starter for Coupeville. Their group was part of Visiting Orphans, a national organization that will send out 60 teams this year.

Toni Crebbin, who began the yearly visits in 2007, already has next year’s trip planned; a group will travel to China July 10 to 21. Her husband Mike, the Oak Harbor High School wrestling coach, joined her in 2008 and 2009.

The Crebbins first went to China in 2004 for the adoption of their first daughter, Kaia, then returned in 2006 to adopt another special needs daughter, Jaelyn. Along with Joshua, the Crebbins also have an older son, Kellen, 21.

Toni Crebbin said, “Once we decided to adopt from China I realized that I hadn’t really learned much in school about China, so I educated myself as much as possible about the history of the country, and particularly what led them to have so many children (particularly girls) without families.”

Crebbin was skeptical about adopting at first, but her husband and Joshua persuaded her to consider it. She said, “I had to pray about it. After I went to an adoption seminar, I became aware of the need.”

During the first trip she developed a “compassion for the children still waiting for families,” and when “an opportunity came through friends leading a team to work in an orphanage, I jumped at the opportunity to return. I now lead that team that they started.”

The main focus of the trips is to “show the children love.” Many of the children have special needs and are bound to cribs, so the visitors show them as much attention as possible.

Crebbin said there are some planned activities, but “what we do most is spontaneous play.”

“To some of the kids in cribs,” she said, “just the fact that we take them out of their cribs and pay attention to them brings the hugest smiles on their face. Nothing makes us feel better than being the recipient of a grin.”

Another goal of the visits is to make the Chaoyang area, with a population of 3 million, aware of the orphanage and its needs.

Each year, without fail, she said, the team meets locals who commit to helping. For example, two nursing students they reached out to last year logged over 100 hours each this past year at the orphanage.

Crebbin said she enjoys taking young people -- such as her son, d’Almeida and Walstad -- as part of their teams: “They verbalize that they realize you don’t need so much ‘stuff’ to be happy. It is love and relationships that matter most.”

Joshua Crebbin said, “My mom was really the one who pushed me to go. I expected it to be pretty eye-opening, but the children were much happier than I thought they would be. I learned that it is really easy to help people and make them smile.

He said he would consider returning “because it makes me happy to help people.”

Walstad said for the past few years she felt called to go to China but believed she was too young to “really impact the kids” until this year.

She said, “The experience changed me so much and I am definitely not the same person.”

The children stole her heart the first moment she saw them, Walstad said, and consumed her thoughts throughout the trip.

The trip taught Walstad to be “more grateful for the little things in life and to not take things for granted.” She added, “I definitely want to keep doing mission trips. I feel called to do this with my life, and I have a great support system to get me through it.”

The teams that travel to China also raise money to buy items for the orphanage, such as cribs, playground equipment, flooring and a wash machine. This year they funded a year’s worth of extra nutrition/protein for the crib-bound children, bought two air conditioners, paid for bus passes to keep the nursing students coming and helped fund a surgery for an orphan.

Toni Crebbin said other Americans tell her they could never do what she does because it would be too difficult and, when leaving, they would want to bring all the children home.

“Both of these are true. It’s hard, and you bring all of them home in your heart. But we aren’t just called to do the easy stuff in life, and the fact is, we get to leave that behind and come back to a comfortable life, but the children left in the orphanage have to live it every day.

“The pain only reminds me to pray for them every day and to keep coming back.

“They have it hard, not us.”

(Below, Bessie Walstad shares a fun moment with one of the orphans.)

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