Human beings are pretty basic. Although we’re all individuals with different quirks and preferences, there are some basic needs that we all want to have met. Basic physical needs are obvious: food, water, shelter, etc. We all understand these needs, but then it gets a little more complicated. Especially for a child who has been orphaned or abandoned.
We all want our “nest,” our own stuff, our space. You’ve probably experienced this while traveling. You might be just a little nervous until you see your bag slide onto the luggage carousel at the airport. You feel a little better when you’ve dropped your stuff into your hotel room. Even if you’re camping or at a retreat center, you want to find and set up “your” bunk, then you can relax. When everything else is stripped away, a homeless person will defend their shopping cart or personal belongings. It’s a basic human need to have some sense of our own “stuff” to mark our space and existence.
When a child has been abandoned or removed from their home situation for some reason, in their mind their life is over. In a way it is. The life they’ve known is gone forever. Odds are they will never see their friends again, they will never be back in their old school, and will probably never see their old home again. This obviously doesn’t cover family that they might not ever see again. Even if they were removed from a horrible situation, it was their family; it was what they knew. How would you react if tomorrow EVERYTHING was removed from your life and you had to start over with just what you had on your back? Then try to do that when decisions are being made for and about you with no input from you. All control is gone.
Orphanage staff and foster parents usher children through the terror of that “first day” often. A while back we had a police cruiser pull up to our home, two officers and a child got out. The terrified ten-year-old boy was holding a small, kind of squished, plastic basket of strawberries. The short fat cop turned to me, kind of shrugged and said: “We didn’t know what to do. We got him a snack.” At least they tried.
We do a few things to make the first day a little better than it could be. We have systems in place where a child of the same age becomes a “mentor,” the new child’s first friend in our home who can show the new child around. This new friend explains how things work and what goes on. All this new information is received much better coming from another child, and not a scary adult.
One of the things we do that helps a child settle in is get them their “stuff.” They get their belongings to set up near their bed; they get to set up their nest. One of our staff goes to our stash and sets the child up with a few changes of nice clothes, some of their own toys, items to help them establish their space. We know full well we’ll need to speak into deeper areas of their lives over the following weeks, months, and years, but those first few hours are critical to the child settling in and realizing they’ve landed in a safe place.
It might seem odd that we focus on “stuff” so much, but it matters tremendously to a child (or anyone) in crisis. There are volumes written about caring for children in these situations. Every step of the journey to healing is important; the first day is just a small step in a very long path. The reason we focus so much on the clothing and toys is that it lets the child begin to create his or her own space again, it allows them to establish their identity.
The quality of clothing and belongings given to a child on their “first day” makes a statement. Too often, out of necessity or lack of thought, orphanages give the new child whatever used items that have been donated. We understand this, but it makes a strong statement: “You are not worth new stuff so you get what other people have gotten rid of.” Too often, a child who has been thrown away, a child who has been demonstrated to be trash, is given things that no one wants. What is that telling them? What kind of value does that place on their lives? Very often, the toys our children are given on the first day are the first new toys they’ve ever had. The items they are given will not restore them, will not heal them and will not bring their old homes back, but it helps give them a new sense of identity. It can show them that they are worthy. I’m not saying the child you’re helping needs high-end name brands, but whatever it is, it can show them that they are worth more than they realize.
While reading this, I’m sure some people are thinking “But stuff is just stuff, it’s not what’s most important!” I agree, it’s not what’s most important, but it’s a start. Anyone who says stuff doesn’t matter has never lost everything.
If you’re in orphan care, do what you can to bring a child’s first day from terrifying to passable. If you’re supporting an orphanage or people who do, please remember that the quality of items given matters more than you might think. Please show the children what they’re worth.
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