SPRING HILL — While thousands of people were traveling to Beijing to see the 2008 Summer Olympics, Pete Paolillo was just passing through. His destination was Xinzheng City in Henan Province, almost 500 miles farther south.
The games he would witness would not involve the world's greatest athletes. They would be games played by 73 orphans during a week of summer camp as part of an orphan outreach program.
Paolillo, a 36-year-old firefighter/paramedic with Hernando County Fire Rescue, decided to spend 10 days of his summer — July 24 to Aug. 2 — volunteering in a program sponsored by Bring Me Hope, a nonprofit Christian organization based in California that is dedicated to bringing love and hope to orphans in China.
Paolillo's China adventure actually began several years ago, in 2005, when he and his wife, Kim, an elementary school teacher, adopted an infant girl from an orphanage in Nan Chang.
"I believe it was God that directed us to adopt Hannah Joy," Paolillo said. "She was a week shy of her first birthday when my wife and I went to China and adopted her. It was an amazing experience."
Touched by the plight of the many orphans in China — as many as 15-million, by some estimations — Paolillo felt he was being called by God to do more.
"A month later, I was searching the Internet, looking for links about orphans and adoption," he said. "I came upon Bring Me Hope. I thought it was neat that they helped orphans that were sometimes special needs or older kids that maybe didn't have the chance to be adopted like my daughter did. I felt this was a good opportunity to give back and do something for some kids."
Paolillo made inquiries about the organization's first summer camp, planned for 2006. He was unable to go that year or the next.
Then he received a call from a friend, Bill Byrne of Tampa.
"Bill called me one day and asked me if I was interested in going to the camp. I said, 'Wow, Bill, it's awesome that you mention that, because I looked into that camp a couple of years ago, and I've just kind of been putting it off.' When he told me he was interested in going, that confirmed it for me. So we went together."
Camp was set up in two cities, Nan Chang and Xinzheng City at Sias Unversity. Not wanting to return to Nan Chang until his family could go with him, Paolillo chose to volunteer at the latter, an area largely unaffected by the May earthquake in Sichuan province to the south.
Between 400 and 500 orphans from several orphanages attended the camps for a week during a four-week period in July and August. More than 200 volunteers from several countries helped. Each volunteer was assigned two "buddies," between the ages of 5 and 18, and a translator.
Paolillo's buddies were Stone, a 17-year-old boy with Down's syndrome, and Dominic, a 12-year-old boy with behavioral issues. His translator, Eric, 22, was an English-speaking student from the university.
"We were there to hold their hands and take them from event to event and spend quality time with them," Paolillo said about the orphans. "We started in morning assembly after breakfast. They'd have dancing and singing. Then we'd go to either arts and crafts time or to the water park, where the kids had a water slide and water pistols. They loved that. Then we'd go to the pool. Most of them had never been swimming before. It was a great time."
It was a week of deep emotions, and Paolillo couldn't help but become attached to the orphans. Eric did as well and told Paolillo that in the future he plans to visit the boys at the orphanage.
"It was extremely touching the whole time," Paolillo said. "They're great kids, and you could see them transform. You could tell that they weren't used to being loved on. They were shy at first and kind of standoffish. But at the end of the week, they had given me hugs and were telling me they loved me. It was really touching."
Paolillo said even though Chinese law kept the volunteers from sharing their Christian faith with the children, he could see God at work in the camp in the lives of the boys and even Eric.
"At the start of camp, Dominic was definitely a tough kid," Paolillo said. "I found out that he'd been at the orphanage four years, and before that he'd been living on the streets. I can only imagine what his life was like and what kind of experiences he went through. But I saw God transform him into a sweet little, kind boy. I will always hear Stone calling my name. I don't think there is a kinder soul that I have ever met. I'll be continuing to pray for them."
Paolillo said saying goodbye to his buddies was the hardest thing he's ever had to do.
"Since I've been home, there hasn't been a moment that I haven't thought about them," he said. "It was sad to see them go. But they went back to the orphanage happy and with hope that they would have a family some day."
On the day he left to return to the orphanage, Dominic gave his new friend a letter.
It read: "Dear Peter, Thank you so much for the hamburgers. I liked it and I am so happy to be with you. I will remember you forever. I will miss you, too. I hope I can play with you in the future. Thank you and I hope you are healthy and everything is okay."
Paolillo said that he will definitely go back to China and that he and his wife continue to pray about the possibility of adopting again. He hopes that others who hear his story consider adoption, too.
As he wrote in an online blog to his friends: "The trip is over, but the journey will continue."