I know many warrior moms . . . women who have had to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles as they seek the best for their kids. I know moms who fight for services for their special needs children or advocate for research for childhood illnesses. I know moms who work multiple jobs to make ends meet, and who make great sacrifices to ensure their family’s well-being. I’ve been astounded by the strength of the mothers I have met this week with Help One Now. We have visited with several families in the Gunchire region who are a part of their unique sponsorship program designed to prevent poverty orphans. These are mothers who were at the end of their rope . . . who faced the difficult possibility of having to take their child to an orphanage in order to help them survive. I met Birkenesh and Saiga and Marta and Seada Nesa, who shared their stories of survival with us. They were eager to tell of how their lives had been changed. So eager, in fact, that Saiga came running to find us on the road, greeting each of us with a bear hug and showering us with kisses as she led us to her home. Their narratives were so similar and unfortunately all too common in this region. They had all been widowed . . . most of them losing their husband to AIDS and dealing with their own HIV+ status. In addition to dealing with the loss of a husband – a life-shattering blow by itself, they then had to face being ostracized by their own community. There is still a huge social stigma in regards to HIV, and these mothers and their children were shunned in their darkest hour. As they’ve lost their spouse and community in one fell swoop, they also found themselves in a precarious economic crisis, with no job and no way to earn money. They each described a painful season in which their survival hung in the balance . . . often going days without food, and wondering how to feed their children. Some of them made the difficult decision to take their kids to a nearby orphanage. All of them felt great despair. As we listened, it was hard to even fathom facing such great obstacles. We told the women they were brave, and we meant it. We also fought back tears as we contemplated the love and pain and loss these women have experienced. But their was some redemption to their stories. Each of them shared the difference that Help One Now has made in their lives. They are now able to feed their children . . . every meal. Marta is opening a shop in her home. Saiga is selling vegetables. Seada Nesa received training and now sells traditional clothing at a nearby market. All of the women received agricultural training and assistant with planting their own farm, as well as livestock, and each of them showed off their garden and cows as we visited. We also got to meet the children of these brave women, and see the strong bonds shared between this moms and their kids. All of these children were at risk of being orphaned, by either poverty or death. Now, these moms are receiving the medications they need to survive and thrive, and the community is receiving education to reduce the stigma around HIV. Through the help of sponsorship these families are intact and the kids are benefitting from the love and attention of their mothers, instead of growing up in an orphanage. They are also receiving an education to ensure a brighter future. $42 a month can be the difference between surviving and thriving for families in Ethiopia. Sponsorship provides daily food, school fees, uniforms and supplies, and medical resources for the entire family. It also helps develop the family economically: teaching modern farming techniques (most Ethiopians have extraordinarily large lots which can be entirely cultivated for food), providing cows, goats, and chickens and the training to raise and resource them, identifying existing gifts, skills, and assets of the parents to harness into income-producing outlets, and equip the HIV+ parents to address and overcome social stigma and regain solid footing in their community. I was so moved by the warrior moms we met. Their before-and-after stories were dramatic, and each of them were so grateful and also eager for other women to experience this assistance. My hope, as you are reading this, is that you will be moved to partner with another family, to keep them together. This is life-saving work, and such a small sacrifice for those of us living in privilege to provide to women who are struggling to survive. Please click here to sponsor a family. Photos by Ty Clark, Jacob Combs, and Scott Wade.
That’s what SHE said: #lovehope Ethiopia edition with Jen Hatmaker, Korie Robertson, and Jillian Lauren.
I’m in Ethiopia this week with Help One Now, hearing stories of how their work is preventing the tragedy of poverty orphans. I thought that for this week’s picks, I would share some of the writing of the other women on this trip. I hope you will take the time to click through and read their essays. It’s powerful and heartbreaking, and yet there is redemption. Love Hope | Jillian Lauren Our adoption gave us more than the family we were longing for; it also allowed us to experience our interconnectedness with people halfway around the globe, the permeability of the membranes between our lives. Since then, Scott and I have been trying to finagle a return trip. We often wonder- what can we do to work toward a world in which children are not orphaned by poverty? The answers are not always easy. Like a lot of people, we are sometimes overwhelmed and confused by the choices. How can we do the most good in a conscious and respectful way? Is there something we can do beyond writing a check? Is there some greater understanding we can gain, some more immediate action we can take? 10-Year-Olds Should Not Be Day Laborers | Jen Hatmaker When her children were chosen to be sponsored by Help One Now, she was dying. Her children were considered the most vulnerable. She is HIV Positive and was very sick at the time. She didn’t have access to the important Anti-Retro Viral medication that can make an HIV patient healthy again. Her family, which consisted of herself and her six children, had no cow or chicken or garden to sustain them. She was too sick to have a job – where would she find one anyway? She was forced to leave two of her children at an orphanage because they were sick as well, and she had no way to care for them. A Story Of Opportunity, Restoration, Triumph And Hope | Korie Robertson When her children were chosen to be sponsored by Help One Now, she was dying. Her children were considered the most vulnerable. She is HIV Positive and was very sick at the time. She didn’t have access to the important Anti-Retro Viral medication that can make an HIV patient healthy again. Her family, which consisted of herself and her six children, had no cow or chicken or garden to sustain them. She was too sick to have a job – where would she find one anyway? She was forced to leave two of her children at an orphanage because they were sick as well, and she had no way to care for them. The Road | Jillian Lauren I’m going to get really real with you here. I don’t often talk about T’s origins, or the reasons he came to be with us. Tariku is a poverty orphan. Which is to say, that without the pressures of extreme poverty, he wouldn’t have suffered the trauma of separation, malnutrition, pneumonia- all the things that made his eyes so scared when we met him, his little legs hanging beneath him like skinny, limp noodles. Your Money Can Help Or Hurt | Jen Hatmaker Initially, HON’s mission was laser-focused on double-orphaned children (both parents deceased), but last year local Haitian leader Jean-Alix asked Chris to consider sponsoring children living in impoverished Drouin with their parents. When Chris explained that HON only focused on orphaned children, Jean-Alix said, “Oh. Okay. Then just wait one year and most of these children will be orphaned.” Thus, orphaned and vulnerable children now make up the mission of HON. Both worthy. In some cases, we respond to tragedy. In other cases, we help prevent the tragedy. Either way, children destined for orphanhood, poverty, and family disruption are empowered toward family, education, and economic sustainability. Cyclical chains are broken and the next generation is raised up to lead strong. Again, Always: Ethiopia | Jillian Lauren The minute we walked off the plane in Addis Ababa this morning, the distinctive smell hit me- some mysterious mixture of frankincense, burning trash, eucalyptus, coffee, and bodies. It’s profoundly human and otherworldly at the same time and lets you know unmistakably that you are in Ethiopia- this glorious and complicated place. To read more about the trip and to sponsor a family, click here. You can also follow our hashtag on twitter and instagram at #lovehope. Photos by Ty Clark, Jacob Combs, and Scott Wade.
Four years ago, Birkenesh was at the end of her rope. She had five young children and her husband had just died of AIDS. She was HIV positive and her health was declining. She had no means of supporting herself, and her HIV status meant that the community saw her as an outcast. Meals were scarce. Her children were beginning to starve. And she made the difficult decision to place one of her children, her daughter, in an orphanage. This is a tragedy that plays out all too often in impoverished countries. “Poverty orphans” . . . it’s a term that refers to children who are abandoned for no reason other than economic hardship. Orphanages provide a way for desperate parents to give their children an education and regular meals. Unfortunately, it also means that children are raised outside of their birth family. In most cases, it means institutionalized care, and sometimes it also means that the child will be adopted into a family in another country. All because the parent did not have resources to care for that child. Today, Birkenesh’s oldest is no longer in an orphanage. She lives at home with her family. The difference for this girl vs. the other children still in the orphanage is simple: her family is enrolled in Help One Now’s program to support children living with their families . . . a program that prioritizes family care over orphanage care. It sounds like a simple solution, but unfortunately orphan care usually only addresses vulnerable children at the institutional level after a child has been abandoned. Help One Now is trying to do things differently. Today our second day on the ground in Ethiopia. Yesterday we had the chance to meet with Aschalew Abebe, the local leader that Help One Now partners with in this country. We’ve all been blown away by Aschalew . . . he is hilarious and brilliant and full of experience. He holds a master’s degree in community development and is passionate about child welfare. He talked about what he believes to be best practice for vulnerable kids, and so much of what he said resonated with me. Achalew has been involved in running a children’s home for many years. He quickly became discouraged as he watched local families bringing their kids to the orphanage in search of a better life for them. He also become discouraged as he watched children becoming orphans because their parents were unable to get help. He decided to do things differently. Achelew believes that orphanages should be a triage situation, and that children should be cared for in families whenever possible. To this end, the children’s home he works with holds the value that kids should not spend longer than 18 months in an orphanage. The value for orphan care is as follows:
- If possible, seek reunification within the birth family.
- If reunification is not possible, seek an adoptive family within Ethiopia.
- Work to prevent orphans by resourcing families before abandonment or parental death happens.
This last part, the prevention part, is the focus of our trip. Help One Now wants to prevent children from being orphaned in the first place by resourcing at-risk families to keep their children. Aschelew grew tired of watching local families abandon their kids in his community, so he identified 150 of the most at-risk families in Gunchire in an attempt to provide support for families at the brink of “poverty orphans.” A year ago, Birkenesh’s family was one of the first in the program. Today, we sat in her living room as she shared how this program has changed her life. Today, Birkenesh has all of her children living with her. They can now eat every day. She has no fears that she will need place one of her children in an orphanage for their survival. She has received training in business and a loan to start her own shop, where she and her daughter now work. She has a milk cow and received agricultural training and help with creating her own garden. She is receiving ARV meds, and she reports that her community is now welcoming to her since there has been more education on HIV/AIDS. She is emphatic about how this help has changed her life . . . so much so that she tears up as she thanks us. We tell her that we think she is brave and amazing, and we mean it. When Help One Now first started working with Ethiopia, they had a value to serve orphans . . . but they now realize that a vital step in orphan care is orphan prevention. There are so many families like Birkenesh’s in this region . . . so many families on the brink. So many mothers making hard decisions. So many children being separated from their families because of poverty. Help One Now has been the difference between being an orphan and a daughter for Birkenesh’s children. In the next few days, we will be learning more about how Help One Now is assisting families and preventing poverty orphans. We’ll also be meeting with a few more families eager to share their stories. To read more about the trip and to sponsor a family, click here. You can also follow our hashtag on twitter and instagram at #lovehope. Photos by Ty Clark and Scott Wade.
Over the last few weeks, the story of Davion spread like wildfire across social media channels. Davion was a foster youth who had been waiting most of his life for an adoptive family. His desperation led him to visit a local church to plead for someone to adopt him. “I’ll take anyone,” Davion said. “Old or young, dad or mom, black, white, purple. I don’t care. And I would be really appreciative. The best I could be.” [source] His story tugged at the nation’s heartstrings, and I saw scores of people sharing his story. It even prompted an interview on The View. His social worker reports that over 10,000 families have inquired about adopting Davion. She feels confident that he will have a permanent family by his next birthday. It’s an incredible ending to a tug-at-the-heartstrings story. But I hope it doesn’t end there. Davion brought his reality to the forefront through his brave plea and the power of his story, but his reality represents thousands of other kids across the country. Over 101,000 kids are waiting for families in the U.S. right now. For every person who casually commented on the story with, “I would adopt him in a heartbeat”, and for the thousands of people who called on his behalf, I hope the emotional response doesn’t end there. For every Davion, there is a Milanda and a Tonya and a James and a Tyron. Christa enjoys going to teen night at church. Jazmyne is a ‘people person’ and enjoys the outdoors. Xavier is fun, outgoing and respectful. Tonya is excelling academically and has a quick sense of humor. Keyshaun and Treyshaun are loving, sweet and playful boys who enjoy receiving hugs and praise. They all want a permanent family. There are so many more stories . . . so many more kids waiting. If Davion touched your heart and made you consider adopting a teen, I hope you will follow up and find out more. Older kids need parents, too. In fact, some 18-year-olds have listed themselves on adoption websites not because they need a guardian, but because they want a family as they launch into adulthood. This breaks my heart. Foster children, more than anyone, need a support system as they become adults. The outcomes for foster children who age out without finding a family are not good. And yet, so many of them are just needing support, love, and the promise of a family. Our oldest child is adopted from foster care, and we plan to adopt a teenager from foster care when we are empty-nesters. I’d love to dispel some of the myths about adopting an older child: 1. I’d love to adopt but it’s so expensive. I don’t have that kind of money. Adopting from foster care costs ZERO DOLLARS. All fees are paid by the state. 2. I can’t afford to care for another child. When you adopt from the foster care system, you receive their foster care stipend until they turn 18. This is to incentivize adoption so kids are not stuck in foster limbo. The stipend can range based on where you live, and is increased if there are any medical needs, educational needs (like IEP’s) or psychological issues requiring therapy. 3. I wouldn’t have time to save for their college. In many states, former foster youth are eligible to attend their state university FOR FREE. 4. I am single / I am gay. Most states allow both single people and LGBT people to adopt. 5. The homestudy thing seems to hard and intrusive. It’s less intrusive than pushing a baby out of your vagina with several people in the room, I can promise you that. The personal questions are not meant to intimidate you, it’s a necessary screening process. The social workers WANT to approve you. They want families for these kids, too. If Davion’s story tempted you to respond, I encourage you to check out the myriad of stories of other foster youth. You can learn more about other waiting kids by visiting AdoptUSkids, The Heart Gallery, and the photolisting for your own state. Maybe Davion’s plea will create a bigger change than he ever imagined. Maybe it will prompt our nation to listen to the voices of foster youth who are asking for a family before it’s too late.
Last week I got to speak at Idea Camp about orphan care. I shared my concerns about the trend of churches opening orphanages in third world countries instead of working at keeping children together with their parents. I suggested that the solution to poverty orphans (children who are placed as a result of poverty instead of the death of a parent) should be to provide resources to the family, instead of requiring the child to move into an orphanage for assistance. I shared my belief that the funds spent on feeding a child in an orphanage would be better spent funding that child’s birth family to keep them, and that perhaps we are even enabling families to abandon their kids when we show up in impoverished communities with a shiny new building with beds and three guaranteed meals a day. If the orphanage seems like the best option in town for giving your child an education and getting them fed, who wouldn’t drop their child off? I’ve seen far too many children living in orphanages who have loving, living parents. After my talk, a lot of people affirmed me for “speaking truth” and “going there” and “bringing it”, and you know what? It made me sad. I’m concerned that the notion of family care is a novel idea when we are talking about orphans. I’m worried at how myopic we’ve become when we prioritize orphanages over family care. It’s disconcerting that the orphan care movement is so willing to throw money at the institutional care of a child, but not at parents who are capable but poor. That’s not to say that some people aren’t helping keep families together. There are plenty of people sponsoring children in 3rd world countries, which is definitely a good model for preventing orphans. But in conversations with people who work in most of these large child sponsorship programs, I’m hearing that they get repeated requests from sponsors that they want their child to be “an orphan” . . . because for some reason that makes people more willing to help. I’ve heard the same thing from friends who run programs for young mothers. People are much less likely to support a young mom than they are to support an orphan. Don’t get me wrong – I think supporting orphans is important. Vitally important. But I want to make sure that we aren’t creating and sustaining a child’s orphan status because it’s the only way we are offering a family aid. An orphanage is not a good way for a child to grow up. We have tons of research supporting the idea that children raised in institutional settings will struggle relationally, cognitively, and emotionally. In the US, we see that non-family care leads to horrible statistical outcomes: less likely to go to college, more likely to be in prison, less likely to gain employment, more likely to be homeless. Therefore, when we talk about “orphan care”, our goal, when possible, should be family care. An orphanage should only be a triage situation, where we do crisis management and then assess our next steps. We shouldn’t, as Christians, be taking children from reluctant parents who only bring their children out of desperation. If we have the funds to feed a child, let them live with the family while we feed them. Why is this a novel idea?? Children at Keep Hope Alive in China A few months ago, my friend Tara wrote a really compelling post about why Christians need to stop building orphanages in Haiti. I linked to it before, and I will again. I hope you will take the time to read the whole thing, but here is one quote that merits repeating:
We’ve all seen that adoption can be a beautiful and redemptive thing, the problem is, most kids will never be adopted. Most orphanages are not even licensed to offer adoption as an option. Because such a tiny percent of children are ever eligible for adoption, churches that start orphanages are signing up to raise kids in an institution for life. That’s not a small commitment.
What does life in an institution really mean? Among other disturbing things, this article stated:
"It may seem obvious that an isolated, parentless toddler — with or without social contact with peers — will suffer emotionally from lack of parental love. What’s not obvious is that without devoted, repeated acts of love, a child’s brain doesn’t make the growth hormone needed for proper mental and physical development and numerous other imbalances are also created."
How can we believe that investing the time, energy, and money into building an orphanage and institutionalizing children in a country and culture that we don’t understand is best practice?
I want to bring this up again because of some recent issues that have been brought to light about two “Christian” orphanages. Last year, an orphanage in Haiti was shut down after 60+ kids were found to be neglected and malnourished. The children were dispersed to live at other orphanages. A few children had to be immediately hospitalized due to rat bites. Some were near starvation and needed an IV. If you look at the photos it is clear that these children were living in circumstances that were completely unacceptable. It’s a cautionary tale to anyone thinking about starting an orphanage. In another more recent situation, it was discovered that a pilot, who used his position to fly to Nairobi and Uganda to volunteer at an orphanage several times a year, had sexually abused many of the orphans. Children living in orphanages are the most vulnerable children in the world. They are vulnerable to adult predators and to child trafficking, but they are further vulnerable because they’ve been placed into a situation where there are other children of multiple ages and very little supervision. Sexual acting out is quite common in orphanage settings. I think it is very easy to look at these situations and assume that these things are isolated events that occurred because the orphanage directors were corrupt. I don’t really know the details in each case, but here is what I do know: most orphanages, at some point, are started by a well-meaning religious organization. The thing about starting an orphanage, though, is that it is a LIFETIME COMMITMENT. When you take in a child, you need to have a game-plan for that child’s entire life. Starting an orphanage essentially means that you are adopting all of the children in that orphanage’s care, until they are adults. And those kids do not stop being dependents just because your church cuts their budget, or finds a new pet project, or changes staff. Starting an orphanage is a major, major endeavor, and to be honest I’m getting a little tired of how quickly and flippantly churches are getting involved in orphanage work, without a clue as to how they will care for these kids in the long-term. Many orphanages may manage to take care of a child’s basic human needs, but will still fail to offer a child the nurture, attention, and supervision that any of us would consider basic parenting standards in the US. In fact, I would venture to say that most orphanages are failing to offer this . . . even the very best ones. That is because an institution can never replace a family. Parenting is hard. It requires presence and focus and determination. It cannot be achievement in a large-group setting with a rotating door of staff.. It is unrealistic to think that any institution can properly “parent” a child. Third world children do not deserve to be raised in a setting that we would never approve of for our own kids. I recognize that orphanage life is the only option for some children. However, I think that the overabundance of churches that are building orphanages are harmful in a number of ways: 1. They are taking in poverty orphans. I will say it again: a child should not have to be abandoned at an orphanage to receive aid. If we can feed and educate a child in an orphanage, we can feed and educate a child living at home. 2. They are focused on providing a destination to missions groups. It’s sad to say this, but I’ve heard it from numerous people: the church wants to build an orphanage so they can visit and “love on” orphans when they take short-term trips. NO, PEOPLE. No no no no. Orphans are not mission-trip props. 3. They are motivated by the romanticism of starting an orphanage and how heroic that will make them look. People want their name on the building. It motivates people to donate when they feel ownership. Opening an orphanage looks good on paper. I get it. Still not best practice. 4. They are failing to provide adequate supervision to at-risk children. Orphanages in third-world countries tend to be poorly staffed, with high child-to-caretaker ratios and a high staff turnover. It is rare than an orphanage in a third-world country would meet even the minimum standards to be a licensed childcare facility in the U.S., and yet we are somehow satisfied with sub-standard care because they are poor. 5. They are not focused on permanency planning or family reunification. I cannot tell you have many orphanages I’ve visited where the children have living parents who even visit on weekends and there is absolutely no plan in place to get the kids back home. 6. They are raising children to be ministry partners instead of psychologically healthy adults. I have often heard orphanage directors talk about how they are raising the “future generation of Christian leaders” by raising kids in an orphanage. Except that our goal for kids should be to raise them into adults with a healthy sense of self . . . and the best way to do that is in a family, not in a “future Christian leader warehouse.” Imagine if an organization decided to take in children in order to raise them to be future cotton farmers. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with cotton farming. It’s a noble, needed profession, and there is a scarcity of cotton farmers. Raising kids to be cotton farmers is convenient, because they can be trained from an early age, and because early indoctrination produces loyalty. This organization gets to benefit from a generation of future cotton-farmers, and justifies not placing kids in permanent families (and in some cases, even justifies keeping kids away from able-bodied biological families) because the need for cotton farmers outweighs that child’s basic human right to a family. This would be outrageous, right? We would consider this an abuse of human rights. So why do we think that it’s allowable for a child to be denied a permanent family in favor of being raised to be a “future leader” or future pastor? EVERY CHILD DESERVES A FAMILY. This should be foundational. And every child deserves to make their own way in live, discovering their own passions and calling. If I sound cynical, it’s because I am. I have researched the effects of children growing up in orphanages, and it isn’t pretty. But I’ve also watch my child live it, and overcome it. I don’t want kids in orphanages if there is an alternative. This should be Orphan Care 101. So . . . here are some questions that I think WE ALL need to start asking. If you go to a church, or support an orphanage, ask these questions. If you know someone involved in orphan care, asked these questions. We need to create a dialogue around orphan care that does not settle on orphanages as the first solution.
Questions every church should be asking about their involvement in orphanage support:
- Are the children’s basic needs being met?
- Are the children being treated with the same standard of care that we would expect to be given to our own children? Are they receiving enough food, love, attention, education, supervision, and medical care? Is someone checking in on a regular basis to make sure that this is true?
- Are there children living there who could live at home if the parents received financial support? What efforts are happening to get this child back with their family?
- Are there children living there who are legally free for adoption? What efforts are taking place to find that child a permanent family, through local or international adoption?
- Is this orphanage denying children the opportunity for a permanent family in favor of raising future ministry partners?
- Is there a plan in place to assure continuity of care until each child reaches adulthood? Is there a plan in place for when a child ages out?
- Is there a long-range plan for insuring the orphanage is well-staffed and meeting standards going forward, until the children are adults?
These are not easy questions to ask, but I think they are necessary. It has been my experience that some of the most well-intentioned missionaries are content to house children without much thought given to permanency or psychological development. It has surprised me, in my travels, to visit such orphanages. One we visited was in India, and run by an organization we had supported for years. The organization showed us the children’s home and seemed proud of how many children they packed into a small building. The children slept head-to-toe like sardines on the floor of a crowded room . . . both genders in the same spot. The missionary reasoned that it was better than going hungry. Most of the children had family that visited on weekends. When I asked if they were trying to seek adoption for any of the kids, I was told that they were training up India’s future leaders. After seeing the conditions these children were kept in, and knowing that most of them had families that could provide them with the love and attachment they weren’t getting in the orphanage, we decided to stop supporting this ministry in favor of one that offered nutritional and educational support to children without removing them from a family environment. I really think that Christians need to be more vocal about the way we are approaching orphan care, so that we are not doing harm. We need to stop setting up ministries that encourage desperate parents to relinquish their children, and funnel our resources into programs that support families. If this is striking a chord with you, I encourage you to talk to the missions pastors at your church. Forward this to the people in your life who are change-agents. Dialogue with your family and friends about how we can do better. Here are some ideas for further action:
- consider supporting an already-established orphanage that works towards permanency
- consider supporting foster-care programs in third-world countries, or orphanages that run a family model
- consider supporting an organization that assists at-risk mothers to raise their children, like Heartline Haiti or Mercy House Kenya.
- consider supporting a ministry that rehomes children like the Rileys in Uganda
- consider child sponsorship
Do you have any thoughts on doing “orphan care” better? How can we better support vulnerable children? Do you know of any organizations that are helping to keep kids in families, or preventing children from being orphaned?