Brooke Matheson left her Mount Pleasant home last summer to head to an area of Ethiopia that began as a leper colony and today is surrounded by a trash dump.

The people, many of whom have leprosy and HIV, dig through the trash to find food and wares. But it was the country’s 4.8 million orphans who haunted the mother of two.

When she returned home from the mission trip she, wondered, “What am I supposed to do with this? I didn’t go through this life-changing trip to do nothing with it.”

She heard about Welcoming Angels, a ministry of America World Adoption that has placed more than 500 Ethiopian children in adoptive U.S. families.

Welcoming Angels brings Ethiopian orphans ages 7-13 to the United States for four weeks to live with Christian host families. The program is designed to raise awareness of the plight and needs of older orphans.

The first group came to Charleston in December. Four boys stayed with local families, including Matheson.

They saw the ocean for the first time, learned how to ride bikes, toured the S.C. Aquarium and played soccer with former professional player Michael Petry and his wife, Shanna, who volunteered their time.

Now, Matheson is looking for more local families who want to host a child or sibling set in June.

Families can enroll through March. They will receive training, and children who come have received medical and psychological screenings.

The children speak Amharic, the primary language of Ethiopia, and most know some limited English.

They come to experience American culture, make friends and learn English.

And for parents considering international adoption, Welcoming Angels offers a chance to meet the children and get a practical look at what adoption would mean. (The Ethiopian government asks that orphans’ identities be kept private.)

For instance, Matheson realized how much she would have to prepare her biological sons for things like sharing Mommy if she and her husband ever adopt.

The visits also can form bonds that lead to creating families. Of the five Ethiopians who visited Charleston in January, four met someone who is pursuing adopting them.

Matheson’s host child may be adopted by a family from another state.

“This is incredible when you consider that these are older, waiting children who often get overlooked by adoptive families,” Matheson said.

However, the orphans aren’t sent here to be adopted, nor are host families expected to do so.

“All that is asked of host families is to care for the children, take them where they go, and advocate for them,” Matheson said.

She recalled her host child’s delight at seeing a toilet flush and turning on a light switch, simple details her kids take for granted.

“It was definitely a life-changing experience,” Matheson said. “We showed them a whole different world.”

Matheson also arranged free medical, dental and vision care for the boys.

Optometrist Dr. Katie Kegel provided free eye exams. Dr. Daniel Gardner treated four of the boys. Dr. Paul Galloway did extensive dental work for Matheson’s host child including multiple extractions, all for free.

“He left with a beautiful smile, and his teeth were pain-free,” said Matheson, whose husband, Eric, is a physician.

Local retirees Linda and Harvey Eckstein have nine grandchildren, including two adopted from Ethiopia. They are in the process of adopting their host child.

And a host family from James Island Christian Church is in the process of adopting two orphans, including their own host child and one hosted by another family.

People who cannot host can help sponsor a child’s trip. It costs about $3,000 per child, mostly in travel costs.

“This is a unique opportunity for families in our area to step into the lives of these children who live halfway around the world,” Matheson said.