Orphan care is more than a little complicated. Along with all of the basics of childcare and raising healthy individuals, you are also guiding a child from a wounded place to a place of restoration. One of the realities of running an orphanage is that everyone who visits considers themselves an authority on parenting. I don’t claim any great expertise. The longer I do this, the more I realize what I don’t know, but I believe over the years we’ve modified, and stumbled into, an approach to healing the children in our care.
No childcare system is perfect. The philosophies and approaches to raising children have swung dramatically over the years, especially in the field of orphan care. You can find a book, study, or website to back up almost anything you choose to believe about helping children through hurt and abandonment issues. Combined with a loving, family based environment, in our experience, the best way to help a child move to a healthy place emotionally is to let them help others.
Over the years we’ve had what we consider to be a very high success rate with children in our care. “Success rate” is honestly hard to define, and can be fairly objective. The last I read, 70% of all children in foster care wind up in prison. These statistics aren’t much better for many orphanages around the world. What I consider a failure in orphan care is a failure to break the cycle. Unfortunately, most children raised in the system wind up with their own children back in the system. Honestly, some of our children have made poor life choices, but the vast majority of the children we are in regular contact with have gone on to have healthy lives, marriages, and are doing a fantastic job of raising their own kids. Several of our adult children are now married and caring for orphans themselves, that’s an excellent way to be “back in the system.”
So how do you move a child from a broken hurting, angry place to an emotionally healthy, functioning, contributing member of society? The number one way we’ve found to move a child to a healthy place is showing them the joy of helping others. We don’t ignore the fact that they’ve been abandoned. Though in many cases our children have gone through horrific abuse, we show them that what has been done to them is not who they are. They are precious and valuable individuals that God wants to use to bless others. God does not make mistakes, He can and will use the broken, He can use the wounded, and there’s incredible healing in experiencing that joy of being used by God.
In our home, the goal is to have service flow through everything we do. Bagging groceries for needy families in our community, painting a house for an elderly lady, going and preparing a meal or bringing supplies to other orphanages, etc. are all part of what we do. We want service to be taught through both word and deed. When a new child is brought into our home, one of the first things we do is set them up with a “mentor child,” a child a year or two older than the new one coming in and one that’s been here a few years. The mentor child has the important responsibility of taking the newly arrived child and explaining how everything works. The mentor explains how the different homes on our property work, how the dining hall works, how the activities work, and everything he or she might need to know. Not only is it less intimidating for the new child to get all of this information from another child, think how meaningful it is for the mentor to be trusted at this level and given this great responsibility. They are the first friend the new child will have on a day they will remember for the rest of their lives.
Most of the children in our care have some pretty horrific stories from before they came to us. Some of our children have quite literally been thrown away; you can only imagine how this would affect someone emotionally. By showing them that they have something valuable to offer to those around them, that they have something to give, it gives them purpose. By showing them that they are the hands and feet of Jesus, it shows they are valued by Him.
The idea of service as a healing concept is not in any way new, but it seems to have fallen by the wayside in favor of only providing and “protecting” the child. Don’t get me wrong, we take good care of every child in our home, but if you only treat them as fragile victims with nothing to offer that becomes their identity. Our children are so much more than what has been done to them.
The idea of service to others as being fundamental to our emotional health should be obvious to anybody who professes to be a follower of Christ. If we say we are followers of Christ and are not actively serving others in our daily lives, we are hypocrites. Jesus gave a very clear example of service in his everyday life. Everything he did was focused on blessing those he encountered. He spent his time teaching, encouraging, healing, and serving those around Him. On the last night he had with the apostles he chose foot washing as his final example for them. Service is important to God. Not that He needs us to help others, He knows that helping others is good for us. He only wants good things for us.
We’ve all been hurt, we’ve all been abandoned by someone, but that is not who we are. Over and over again we’ve found that if moved to a healthy place, God can use those hurts to create powerful ministry. We have a great team of long term volunteers/missionaries. When I’m interviewing someone, and they get nervous when I ask them about their childhood, I always bump them up the list. It’s not always the case, but we’ve found that if people have been hurt in childhood, and have moved through it, they have a much deeper empathy for the hurting and wounded. They get it. God can use our hurts to soften us, to shape us, to prepare us to reach others. Through serving others, orphaned and abandoned children begin that slow process to healing.
Please know, I’m not saying this is easy or quick. Incorporating service into the healing process will take years and can’t be a just a program or an experiment, it needs to be part of the base culture of a home. Service is not a cure all, service is just one part of moving a child into a healthy place, but we’ve found it to be a profoundly important part.