Best Orphanage Ever

When visiting orphanages, you never know what you’re going to find. There are some incredible orphanages. There are more than a few horrible orphanages, most land in the fuzzy middle doing the best they can with the skills and resources at hand. Every now and then I come across an orphanage that shifts my perception of what an orphanage can be.

Several years ago I was asked to go and evaluate an orphanage in Tijuana. This happens from time to time, a US group wants to help an orphanage, but they would like an outside opinion first. My wife and I made an appointment with the director and hit the road to do an evaluation.

As we followed the directions and got closer and closer to the location, we kept turning to each other and saying “This can’t be right. Please tell me this is not the right location.” We were driving through twisting dusty hills into one of the worst areas in Tijuana. We finally found the “street,” it was just a very rocky dirt alley leading up to a ramshackle two-story apartment building with a couple of mangy dogs asleep outside. As we stepped out of our car we were hit by the stew of smells that are produced when too many people are living in too small an area: a mix of burning trash, poorly built septic systems, greasy food, and spilled motor oil. The sounds matched the smells: dogs barking, a rooster crowing nearby, some loud ranchero music playing down the street with too much bass, you get the idea.

The director met us and brought us inside. The orphanage cared for about 12 children in a tiny two bedroom apartment downstairs from a drug dealer. There was so little room inside that they had set up a homework and play area in a 20ft x20ft dirt yard with a tarp strung across to create some shade. Their only van had been stolen two days before we got there. The furniture and flooring were well-worn, many years past what most people would use. What happened in the next 20 minutes would shift my perception and priorities when it comes to orphanage management. It also shifted my understanding and definition of what poverty is, versus a poverty mentality, and what it means to bloom in whatever situation you land.

I encountered joy.

Although the apartment was tiny and overcrowded, it was immaculate and welcoming. The children each came over to shake my hand and thanked me for coming. We heard about their focus on education as a few of the children showed off their homework. They laughed as they shared of the ways they found to stretch their rice and beans diet. While I was there, one of the girls was carefully ironing each school uniform so they would be presentable and polished for the following school day. Although they might have been poor in a material sense, the had a dignity about them that showed a wealth beyond what most people experience.

In that home, we met a healthy, enjoyable, inspiring group of people. You could feel the affection the children had for the directors, and see the love and caring attitude the directors had for the children. Through the leadership of that home, the challenges of living in those circumstances forged an incredible family from the wounded children brought to them. It was deeply inspiring.

As we got back in the car, I turned to my wife and said, “That is the best home in Baja, including ours.” As we drove away, I called the group in California who had asked for the evaluation, and I surprised them with the strength of my opinions. My exact words were, “Throw money at this couple, give them anything they want.”

There are countless ways to judge an orphanage. Most people will look at programs, nutrition, maybe the quality of buildings or staff ratios. All of these things are important, but the most essential part of an orphanage is the heart and passion of the people running it. The same thing that makes a family healthy makes an orphanage healthy, the parents.

Frequently, the American mindset is: if there is a problem with an orphanage (or almost any situation) give more money to the problem. This does not help long-term in many cases. Yes, money is needed to run an orphanage, but if the leadership is dysfunctional or is leading from the wrong motivations, it will just be a dysfunctional orphanage that eats and dresses better. A dysfunctional church with a lot of money is still a dysfunctional church. A dysfunctional family with money is still a dysfunctional family.

Think of the families in your circles. My guess is there is very little correlation between material wealth and an emotionally healthy family. In most families, once the basics are covered, adding more “stuff” really doesn’t add quality of life. We all know happy, close, poorer families. We probably know some fairly dysfunctional families who have a great deal of money. The reverse can also be true, having money doesn’t make you dysfunctional, it just doesn’t guarantee functional either. Orphanages are just big families, it all comes down to mom and dad. Do they have a handle on things? Do they see the big picture? Are they healthy emotionally? Money can’t buy this.

You’re probably asking, “Whatever happened to that small orphanage? Today, many years later, they’ve moved to a much better location and the last I checked that have about 50 fortunate children in their care.

In orphanage work, or any ministry, always back solid leadership. Everything else is fluff.

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