Most of the time, orphan care seems like a losing game. The bulk of the time it just doesn’t work the way we envision it. Often, a child is brought to a home with so much baggage that it’s almost impossible to help them reach a healing place emotionally. Frequently, a child is in an orphanage (or foster care) for a short period and then returned to the family, and the cycle of abuse or neglect continues. Orphan care can be a discouraging, heart-wrenching journey. But it can work some of the time. The times orphan care does work makes all of the other times worth it.
Recently, two great young adults married. Weddings go on all the time, but this marriage was a little different. Both had been raised in an orphanage. For reasons that aren’t important here, they were each brought to an orphanage with other siblings at a very young age. They were raised in this large home, and it was the only family that they knew for many years. They grew up independently, she going on with her education, him apprenticing in construction and learning various marketable trades. After they were out and on their own, they started dating and continued to make healthy life decisions as they planned for the future. A few years later, once she graduated, and he had established his own successful construction firm, they decided to marry. Today they are constructing their own home and building a wonderful life together. They’re a joy to be around. Granted I am biased; I so am proud to call Jerri and Yury two of my many children.
So how did these two beat the odds of becoming healthy productive adults while being raised in the system? I’m not saying we have all the answers, and I’m not saying every child brought to us has the same outcome, but it can work. We have found that many of the children raised in our home for years have gone on to be healthy productive members of society. Today there are doctors, lawyers, businessmen, many healthy individuals that can look back and say they were raised in an orphanage. It can work.
Many factors go into what makes a successful orphanage, even defining what “successful” means can get complicated. But, there are two factors that we’ve found to be the most impactful for children who need long-term care and healing.
1) Consistency. We all need a stable environment. Most children in the system anywhere in the world are moved to new homes, returned to blood relatives and then removed again, moved to another home, etc. If we each had to change homes, schools, friends, churches, etc. every month or two we would have some serious issues also. Constantly shifting living arrangements is not how people are designed to live and grow. God is consistent; He does not change. We all need a certain level of security in our lives. Over time, we’ve found that children given a loving, consistent upbringing will eventually learn what it means to feel comfortable, to know they are loved and wanted. We all need this.
Part of consistency is building traditions into our lives — the same activities for the holidays, the traditional meals, celebrations, and events that occur annually. The simple rituals that happen in most families: birthday cakes, the tooth fairy, etc. almost never occur in the lives of children who are in the system. They never know what the next week will bring, they don’t know what to look forward to. We need to be consistent in our care and model stability in these fragile lives.
2) A Servant’s Heart. We are designed to serve others. Most child-care systems never give the children the privilege of serving others. Children are fed and cared for, but a life of just receiving is an empty life. It also creates a victim mentality that does not make for healthy relationships in adulthood. By allowing children to experience the joy of serving others, it gives them purpose. When a child is abused or abandoned it can be hard to show them they have value. When a child has been thrown away, it teaches them at a profound level that they have no worth. By showing them they that can have a positive impact on others, it shows them they have great things to offer the world. Service shows them they have value. Service shows them God wants to use them to impact other people’s lives in a positive way.
An attitude of service makes us all healthier. It makes us better workers, bosses, spouses; it just makes us better people. Christ’s example to us is a perfect servants heart. We need to not only follow that example ourselves, but we also need to instill that humble servant’s heart in the children we are raising. A humble servant heart is the most empowering gift you can give a child. It will heal them, and change them for the better.
Does orphan care always have a happy ending? No. But it can work. Even in the cases where we feel it’s failed, we need to know that the seeds we plant in the hurting children we encounter are what matters. Those seeds can grow down the road; they can impact lives. If you are in orphan-care, please know your work matters a great deal. Your efforts are needed, work through the discouraging times. It can work, hang on to the times when it does.