I’m filled with a strange sadness and joy as I try to wrap my brain around the news that one of the children my wife and I sponsor in Turkana, Kenya has died. He drowned in a freak accident—a flash flood in a desert where it rarely ever rains.

Elkatarot was out gathering firewood (a daily ritual in Turkanan life) when he and several other children were caught up in a flash flood. Field workers were able to save the other kids, but Elkatarot could not be reached.

This news made me sad in many ways. Holly and I sponsor several kids from Turkana (my church members collectively sponsor 170 of them!) and I have no less than six pictures of Elkatarot in my office. His photos stand out because he is always smiling. Most kids from this region don’t smile much, partly because life is so hard and partly because certain tribes in Africa don’t smile in pictures. But Elkatarot almost always smiled, because he wasn’t like most kids. He was special, what we would call “special needs” here in the U.S.

I first met Elkatarot when I visited CRF’s project in Turkana in 2013. At that time, the Turkana project only consisted of a schoolhouse and a few wells, but it was the first fruit of a project that has gone on to save more than 100,000 people with clean drinking water! This place was called Nadapal. It was in the middle of nowhere, a mini-oasis in a seemingly God- forsaken desert, made into a community by virtue of a new well. The water brought animals, and a village had sprung up around it simply because of the water. A church met there under one of the few shade trees nearby, and that morning hundreds of people were on hand for services.

After the service and dozen baptisms in a river miles away, my good friend Francis Bii came around behind me, leading Elkatarot. He said, “This child needs your help. He needs clothes and food and schooling and to know about Jesus.” I must have, in my awkwardness, said something to the effect of, “I’ll bet we can do something. I’ll consider it.” Then they left.

Throughout the afternoon, Francis continued bringing groups of ragged, malnourished children, saying “Jim. These children also need your help.” Each time I nodded and replied, “Sure. We’ll see what we can do.” And before an hour had passed every kid within reach was interviewed, photographed, and thus became potential CRF kids. The only thing standing between them and a life with love, food, clothing, medical treatment and education was a willing sponsor. I’m proud to say that my church has never failed to sponsor a Turkanan child since that day, given the opportunity! Lord willing, it will always be so.

But Elkatarot was the first child sponsored in Turkana. He was the one Francis and God used to finish breaking my heart. He was the one, with needs beyond my imagination, needs that could mostly be met for my small sacrifice of $35 a month—a pittance out of the well-spring of wealth God has given me, and given… you. How could I have possibly said “NO?”

Saying “Yes” changed Elkatarot’s life dramatically. And it has changed my life, and the life of my church. God used a African orphan with special needs as the first seed. Because of Elkatarot, “starving orphans” became real to me and to my church. And the church has gone on to support water wells, new schools, missionary residences, churches and farms that weren’t there four years ago. Hundreds of souls have been saved and thousands of people are now alive because they have clean water. Connect the dots and they all lead back to Elkatarot, and the God who made him special, the God who used him to bring about God-sized things. Isn’t that God’s way?

So I’m sad to think that this “son” of mine is no longer smiling under a tree in Turkana. I feel like I need a funeral to go to, some way to do something. But the best thing I can imagine doing is making a life-changing difference in the life of some more Turkanan orphans. I’m sad, but I’m joy-filled to know that in his last four years of life Elkatarot was known, loved, taught, nurtured, clothed, fed and introduced to Jesus Christ. I’m joy-filled that this ever-smiling-very-special-special-needs-child was used so mightily by God. I only got to talk to Elkatarot face to face on two occasions; I only wanted him to know that he was loved and known. Now he knows that in a perfect way. And I hope he knows all that God made possible through him that day in Turkana. Elkatarot, see you in heaven!