EAGLE BUTTE, S.D. (BP) — The Lakota children in South Dakota were rambunctious. School was out, and a team of teenagers and their leaders from Alabama had come to lead Vacation Bible School.
When Ahbee Orton positioned herself in front of the class at First Baptist Church in Eagle Butte, the children became quiet and attentive. The 15-year-old ethnic Chinese is hardly a master teacher or experienced in classroom discipline — she had never taught a Bible study before.
Ahbee opened a large notebook she had meticulously prepared long before arriving in South Dakota. With her fingers, she began to scan the coded bumps on the paper. Blind since birth, she was reading braille.
“It was an amazing moment,” said Ryan Tyler, youth minister at Ahbee’s church, Highland Baptist in Florence, Ala.
“They had gone from jumping off the walls to sitting down because this young lady is different. They wanted to hear what she had to say and how she said it,” Tyler recounted.
Ben Farrar, pastor of First Baptist in Eagle Butte for four years, marveled at how Ahbee’s teaching captivated the children.
“They had never seen anything like braille in their life,” Farrar said.
Apparently, the Lakota children listened well to Ahbee. When she posed various questions to the children, they were able to answer each one.
Ahbee’s adoptive parents, Joy and Paul Orton, have no information about her birth family in China. When they adopted her at age 4, they only knew that the orphanage received Ahbee after someone found her in a marketplace.
The Ortons named her Gabriella, but their new child was calling herself Ahbee, which is a derivative of her Chinese name. From the beginning, they could tell she was independent.
After arriving in Alabama, she began using a white cane. Later, the family arranged for her to get a seeing-eye dog, which she used for years until announcing one day that she was relying too much on the animal.
“I’m better off without the dog and using my walking stick,” Ahbee stated. “It challenges me more.” The family returned the dog for retraining to serve another person.
The Ortons fell in love with Ahbee as she was being adopted, even with her challenges.
“If a family has a child who is born blind there is some grief,” Joy said. “But it was not a disaster or tragedy for us.”
The Ortons helped Ahbee learn skills that would make blindness more of a nuisance or inconvenience than a disability.
“She has chores at home. She is very trustworthy and responsible,” Joy said. “If that’s her job to feed the dog or empty the dishwasher, she will do it.”
Soon after adopting Ahbee, the Ortons had two biological daughters, Elizabeth and Sarah, who are now 9 and 6. Ahbee and her family had been on other mission trips together, but this was the first time she had gone without either parent. Even as Ahbee was learning more about her capabilities and independence, the Highland Baptist youth group also was learning about her as a person and her challenges.
For Tyler, even with 25 years of experience as a youth minister, helping Ahbee assimilate into the youth group brought new knowledge. For instance, the other students didn’t immediately realize that Ahbee could hear them.
“At first it was difficult,” Tyler said. “They thought that because she couldn’t see them, she didn’t know they were there.”
If people ask her questions, Ahbee said the inquiries are predictable. What’s that stick? What do you use it for? Why do you have it?
“I prefer them to ask and come straight up to me,” Ahbee said.
With a growing understanding among other Highland Baptist teens about Ahbee’s realities, Tyler had no hesitation about her venture to South Dakota.
“I’ve seen her and how she does things and how our group has learned to be aware of situations to head off so Ahbee doesn’t have any major difficulty,” Tyler said.
As Ahbee puts it, “I think the other kids in the youth group have a better understanding of what I can do.”
Joy and Paul Orton met at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. Joy had already served one term as a Journeyman with the International Mission Board. Missions is central to their family.
While 15-year-olds rarely know definitively what their career choice might be, Joy believes that the South Dakota trip will “strengthen her interest in ministry.”
Ahbee starts high school this fall in Florence where she will play the synthesizer in the marching band. She’s near the top of her class academically, Joy said, and her language arts skills are outstanding.
Ahbee’s birthday was during the mission trip, so leaders prepared a cake with candles for her to blow out.
“The reason we get to celebrate this moment is that somebody thought that a blind girl was not worth keeping,” Tyler told the youth. “But the Ortons brought her to us.
“She is not just surviving in our midst, she is thriving amongst us.”