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For many, the Christmas season is a time for giving to those who are less fortunate. This is how Carl Robanske spends his Christmas holiday.

Robanske works as a teacher at Garrison Creek Middle School in Walla Walla. Several years ago he was looking for more ways to make an impact on young children’s lives. Robanske was particularly interested in working with orphaned children.

“I don't know exactly why or when or even what was the catalyst to prompt my interest in children with no family. I do know that it was something deep though, some strong call in my heart to love children who don't believe they are loved,” Robanske says.

Robanske took an unusual approach to determine where he should focus his efforts. He simply picked the underserved area that had the least expensive flight from Washington State. That flight turned out to be to Jamaica.

That year, Robanske spent his Christmas working as a childcare worker at a Jamaican orphanage. The experience was transformative. “The children were starving for relationships and love,” he says. Robanske became determined to make a difference.

Robanske started a non-profit organization called Embracing Orphans in 2008. The all volunteer organization works through fundraising and outreach trips to improve the lives of orphaned children. Embracing Orphans is currently working with two orphanages in Jamaica – Blossom Gardens Child Care Facility and Windsor Girls' Home.

Blossom Gardens is located in Montego Bay. The facility houses seventy-five children from newborns to age eight, with a focus on abused, neglected, and orphaned children. Windsor Girls' Home is located in St. Ann’s Bay. The facility houses sixty teenage girls who are impoverished, abused, or orphaned.

At Blossom Gardens, Embracing Orphans has done numerous projects from providing toddler toys, to funding two commercial playgrounds, replacing worn out cribs, constructing a library, and providing dental checkups.

While Blossom Gardens has very serious needs, Windsor's needs are even more basic. Robanske says, “After my fifth trip I came across a newspaper article that outlined the atrocities at Windsor. Men were coming in the evening and luring the girls out of the home for sexual relationships and illicit drug use. Something like this turns your stomach, but forgetting about it is still easier than doing something about it. I chose the latter.” Embracing Orphans is currently working to build a security wall at Windsor to protect the orphanage from people who prey upon the children.

To date, over 160 volunteers from four different countries have served in Jamaica through Embracing Orphans. The organization has worked with three churches in Walla Walla as well as one in California and one in Indiana to help form teams.

Of course, all of this takes money. Embracing Orphans has conducted a number of fund-raisers to help raise money for their efforts. Most recently, Robanske has teamed with Walla Walla winemaker Josh McDaniel’s of Sweet Valley Wines to make a wine whose profits are dedicated to the cause.

Robanske had been McDaniels swim instructor, and the two had remained friends. McDaniels traveled to Jamaica with Robanske this time last year to help volunteer at the orphanage. McDaniels says, “At first I wasn’t sure how bad it could be. A nice, tropical island with great resorts? No problem.” What he found however was something quite different.

“We were surrounded by gunfire, snuck into a girls school in the middle of a jungle at night to film child trafficking, dealt with gangs, drug dealers, and even corrupt local authorities and orphanage leadership. This was definitely not the resort Jamaica we are all used to seeing on T.V,” McDaniels says.

McDaniels and Robanske first talked about doing a joint project to help raise money for Embracing Orphans several years ago. “My first year of college, I began to talk more and more to Carl about Embracing Orphans and what kinds of things that he needed. Money and awareness became the two large topics and hurdles in the way of achieving abundant success for the lives of the many orphaned,” McDaniels said. He saw a way that he could use his winemaking talents for just these purposes.

Robanske and McDaniels will be releasing their first wine dedicated to raising money for Embracing Orphans – called Monesia’s Song - in spring of 2011. The wine is named after one of the orphans Robanske met in Jamaica. The girl, Monesia, hardly ever spoke. However, after several weeks of working with Embracing Orphans volunteers, she suddenly began to not only to talk - but to sing.

The Monesia’s Song label contains the girl’s image painted by the Carribbean artist Elgo. The wine will be sold via a mailing list as well as to select restaurants. Thirty percent of the proceeds go to charity with the rest covering production expenses.

McDaniels says that the experience of volunteering in Jamaica and seeing the problems and the poverty has made him even more focused on wanting to help. “If I can even sell one case of Monesia’s Song and change one child’s life with the money and awareness from that, then the project has totally been worth it,” he says.

Meanwhile, as with previous Christmas holidays, Robanske is currently in Jamaica, working to make a difference.

Monesia’s Song Red Wine Walla Walla Valley
2008 $60
Rating: + (Good) Abundant plum and pepper aromas along with black fruit, cola, milk chocolate, licorice, and light floral notes. The palate is dry and grippy with lots of tart fruit flavors. Needs time to fully come into its own. Give 12 months. 63% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Petit Verdot, 5% Merlot. Birch Creek, Golden Ridge, Les Collines, and Seven Hills vineyards. Aged in French oak (50% new). 14.8% alcohol. 75 cases produced.

Sample provided by winery.

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