But a few hours at the orphanage soon turned into a lifetime of change when Southworth met nine-year-old Ala'a, one of the orphanage's most severely handicapped children, and decided to adopt him.
"It was the right thing to do," Southworth told Beliefnet of the decision he remembers making in an instant. "I knew that God was calling me, period, to go get him and take him to America." Now, three years after adopting Ala'a, Southworth is working to bring more than 20 other physically and mentally handicapped Iraqi boys found neglected and abused in another Baghdad orphanage to the United States for medical treatment.
Southworth is nominated as one of Beliefnet's Most Inspiring Persons of the Year for his determination to make better lives for boys who were once forgotten in a war zone.
Ala'a, who has cerebral palsy, singled out Southworth from the start, calling him "baba," Arabic for father. He was brought to the orphanage after being abandoned on the Baghdad streets at the age of three or four.
Southworth decided to adopt Ala'a when a doctor said the boy would soon be placed in a government-run home. Without thinking, Southworth blurted out, "Then I'll have to adopt him." Immediately he started thinking of all the reasons he shouldn't adopt the boy--he was single, had no job at home, no house, little money, and no medical expertise.
But when Southworth, a lifelong evangelical Christian, envisioned meeting Ala'a in heaven, he thought of how he would answer the boy's question--"Why didn't you come and get me?"
Today, Ala'a and Southworth live in central Wisconsin. He was allowed to pick up the boy in early 2005, and the adoption moved speedily, aided by Iraqi and American government officials and numerous people who wanted to help. Ala'a is now 13, attends the fifth grade, and speaks fluent English. He will become an American citizen, perhaps as soon as the New Year.
"I got the privilege to be a part of something and watch God work through me and other people to make something, in this case a miracle," Southworth told Beliefnet. "By any human standard this never should have happened--a soldier in a war zone in a country that doesn’t allow for adoption to adopt a handicapped boy. There were walls. We didn't hurdle over them, we walked through them."
And Southworth says that Ala'a has made his father's life richer. "Ala'a knew from the very first day that I was going to be his father," Southworth said. "So this little poor orphan boy from Iraq taught his dad what absolute faith really means, and that just leaves me speechless."
Now Southworth would like to help other Iraqi orphans. Last June, U.S. and Iraqi soldiers discovered 24 severely handicapped orphaned boys naked and hungry in a government-run home. When pictures of the boys--some of them tied into cribs--reached the U.S., Southworth recognized some from Ala'a's orphanage.
He now works with two other National Guardsmen--First Lt. Sheree Gunderson and Sgt. Kerry Otwaska--to bring the boys to the U.S. for medical treatment. They have managed to line up host families, but still await Iraqi permission for the boys to travel. Adopting the boys will be brought up later, Southworth said.
And all the reasons Southworth had to not adopt Ala'a never actually came to pass. "Everything I didn't have to care for this boy, I have now," he says--a house, a job, medical care, and a girlfriend he expects will become his wife. "I am happier than I have ever been."