It was the last place Lois Prater's children expected her to go – overseas to become a missionary.
At age 80, Ms. Prater, who had been a stay-at-home housewife all her married life, sold her Seattle-area home, her car, and other belongings to build an orphanage in the Philippines. She became the unlikely helping hand for hundreds of orphaned children over the years, many of whom were abused or abandoned.
“She sold everything,” says Bonnie Swinney, one of Prater's three daughters. “The only things she kept were the things she could use in the orphanage.”
In 1991, Prater, with her own money, bought 12 acres of land covered with mango and coconut trees near Orion, a small town in the Philippines. Three years later, the doors would open to King's Garden Children's Home, a 2,000-square-foot, white stucco building, giving orphaned children from infants to teens new hope.
“I can't imagine at my age going over there now,” says Ms. Swinney, who is 73. “What she did was amazing.”
For 13 years, Prater lived in the Philippines, enduring both physical and financial hardships. She had to overcome a number of challenging physical ailments along the way. And there was the difficult task of living in a foreign country, far from her family. Yet she refused to come home.
Finally, with a new manager in place, Prater retired and returned home to live with her daughter near Seattle just before her 90th birthday. She died in January at age 100.
“I didn't know anything about business, about building an orphanage,” Prater said several years ago when talking about her decision to open King's Garden. “All along, I've just trusted in God, and He's answered my prayers. I did what I could do, and God did the rest.”
Just a few years after King's Garden Children's Home opened, Prater invested in expansion. King's Garden tripled in size and started a school. Over the years, an average of about 60 children at a time have lived at the orphanage.
Prater's unlikely journey began six months after her husband, Galon Prater, died in 1988. While Lois Prater was watching a Christian TV program, Lora Lam, a missionary on the program, asked for people to join her on a three-week outreach trip to China. Prater, who had attended Bible school as a teenager and had earned her ministerial license, felt her childhood desire to become a missionary rising again.
“I said, 'Lord, I'm too old to go now,' ” Prater said.
But she went, making three trips, one to China and two to the Philippines, taking part in open-tent meetings. Inspired by her trip with Ms. Lam to China, Prater returned for a second trip several weeks later with 11 other women for a month-long stay in the Philippines. She later made a third visit to the Philippines alone and was speaking at a church when a poorly dressed man came up to her after the service and offered to sell his baby to her for 1,000 pesos, or about $40 at that time.
“That impacted my soul so deeply I knew I had to do something,” Prater said.
So, in 1990 she returned to the United States and sold her home for $65,000. She sold everything she had, determined to build an orphanage.
“It was a strange feeling to see her selling everything: her couches, her chairs, her China hutch, her washer and dryer, everything,” says Swinney, who made several visits to her mom's orphanage over the years. “But I had heard her stories about her wanting to build an orphanage all my life. This is something she had always wanted to do.”
Prater admitted selling her home wasn't easy.
"I struggled, but I knew that what I was trying to do was something much more important than hanging onto my faded couch," Prater said.
At 89, Prater had a physical setback and was forced to step down as the orphanage's director. She returned home, this time for good. But she made several short visits to her orphanage over the next few years.
The orphanage and school continues to do well today. Monica Jarvis assumed directorship of King's Garden Children's Home in 2005 and remains in that position with the support of the Assemblies of God World Missions.
“To think that my mom opened the orphanage at 80 and worked there until she was 89 absolutely blows me away,” says Swinney, who has adopted several children from King's Garden Children's Home. “My mom has the biggest heart.”
Each of the children brought to King's Garden Children's Home has a heartbreaking story. One of the first children, who had no name, was brought to Prater when he was just nine days old. Prater named him Albert. His alcoholic father was in jail and his mother moved into the jail with him because she had no other place to stay.
One-by-one, Prater took in each of that mother's four children, keeping them out of jail.
Another child, who Prater named Tommy, was brought to King's Garden Children's Home by the police when he was just one year old. Tommy's ear had been cut off by his father. Heidi, another child brought to Prater by the police, came to King's Garden with stomach worms and head lice. Many of the children who come to King's Garden are in need of medical treatment.
The mother and father of a girl named Jennifer died, and she moved into King's Garden when she was 10. Her step brother brought her to the orphanage because she had no other place to live.
“I feel I'm not talented enough to do any of this,” Prater said while she was still overseeing King's Garden. “But God enables me. My responsibility is to do what I can. He does the rest. My only regret is I didn't start when I was younger.”
Prater's story has been an inspiration to others, including her daughter, showing how it's never too late to live a life of serving others.
“My mom was such an amazing person,” Swinney says. “She had tremendous faith in God.”