Stop Hitting Kids With a Hammer

hamerI recently went out to lunch with a friend from Thailand. He’s an American who moved there several years ago with his family to open an orphanage. Within a couple of years, he had a revelation and shifted his entire ministry from orphanage work to doing everything in his power to keep healthy families together, he is passionately anti-orphanage. We had a great time.

Now you might be asking why I would take the time to meet with someone who is working against what I’ve spent most of my life building. He’s never going to be a donor, he’s never going to “come around” and open an orphanage again. He knows we’re not closing down our home and we’re not a donor (he mainly travels for fundraising). So why do we make it a point to get together whenever we can? It’s an “iron sharpens iron” thing. We make each other better, we both understand that we are an important part of the eclectic mix of ways to care for at-risk children.

Most of the time if there is a serious issue people feel passionately about, there is very little room for them to look at it from a different angle. Once someone is set on their ideal, everyone else must be wrong. A short glance at most Facebook feeds is a good example. So many people are feverishly posting about their pet topic, while “un-friending” anyone who might disagree with them or have the nerve to question an opinion.

The problem is, in most of the larger issues plaguing society, there might be several answers to the same question. How do we help with the homeless situation? How do we address the opioid problem in the US? How do we improve education? Ask 20 different people these questions and you’ll get 20 different, frequently very strong, opinions. Maybe, just maybe, the answer is; we need several different answers and many of them might be right.

Every society has a percentage of children that wind up in the “system,” whatever that system might be. There have been orphaned and abandoned children for thousands of years and we still haven’t figured out what to do about it. Most countries shift over decades from orphanages to foster care, neither are great. Some policies push for keeping families together at all cost, this is frequently a nightmare for the child due to abuse or severe neglect. So what is the answer? We need it all. We need every tool in the box. We need to understand each child and situation is different and should be handled in its own way. This is NOT easy.

Keep families together: This is ideal, whenever a family is broken up it’s a horrible thing. Some families need a little push of coaching to keep it together. Maybe it’s marriage or financial counseling. Maybe a free or cheap daycare so both parents can work. Perhaps a short-term loan or a one time gift to keep a family from becoming homeless or having their children wind up in the system. Sometimes, when abuse or severe neglect is going on, it is best to break up the family.

Foster Care: When a family can’t, won’t, or shouldn’t care for their child, and extended family is not an option, foster care can work. It’s not great, and it always depends on the quality of the foster family. Foster care is the direction many countries go to over time. It works, but it’s not an ideal situation. Lack of stability is a real problem as children are moved around for many reasons. Put yourself in a child’s place; if we had to change housing, churches, schools, relationships, etc. every few months, we’d probably have some issues also.

Orphanages: Orphanages have been used for a very long time. Unfortunately, many orphanages around the world are underfunded or run by the wrong people with the wrong motivations. Some outstanding homes do a great job with the children, raising them up to be healthy physically, emotionally, and ready for life. The problem is the great homes are the exception. Many homes are run by people that love children and want to help, but they are in over their heads when it comes to fundraising, staff training, etc. Without solid management, orphanages can be a disaster.

Adoption: Adoption, when it works, can be fantastic. We love to see our children adopted into loving, stable homes. Unfortunately, many children are not adoptable. Once a child is over five years old, the odds of adoption drop to almost nothing. Many children have multiple siblings, or there could be a family member still in the picture that might eventually be able to take them back. For the vast majority of children in any system, adoption doesn’t happen.

Listed above are just four options for children at risk. We need to use them all and stop trying to fit every child into the one system we are personally in favor of. Sometimes a child isn’t a good fit for one particular system of care. You might have heard the saying: “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” If we stay focused on the one solution we have at our disposal, we miss out on the many other tools that might be available. We need to use the correct tool for the job of helping at-risk children. We need to stop hitting kids with a hammer and reach for the right tool.

What is an Orphan?

Armenian_orphans_in_Aleppo_collected_from_Arabs_by_Karen_Jeppe

What is the definition of orphan? I know this sounds pretty straightforward but depending on who you talk to the definition of what an orphan is can vary widely. Most people assume that an orphan is a child that has no parents. But orphan can also define many other situations where the child might have a parent or two; they just aren’t around to care for the child. Both UNICEF and World Vision define an orphan as a child who has lost one or both parents.

I, along with an exceptional team, run a large orphanage. We care for about 120 children from newborn up through adulthood in a family like setting. The bulk of our children are not technically orphans in the traditional sense; this sometimes surprises people. “If they’re not an orphan, why are they in your home?” Well, it gets complicated.

If a parent or parents are in prison, rehab, or some other institutional situation where they can’t care for their child, the child needs to go somewhere. Frequently there is no extended family available or willing to care for the thousands of children whose parents are no longer in their lives. These children are technically not “orphans” but still need a home. Of the children in our care, 70% will never see blood relatives again. The parents might be out there somewhere; it’s just that reunification is impossible. We are big fans of adoption, but it’s not a reality for most children. Because there are still parents somewhere, the children are older, or there are siblings in the picture, adoptions are pretty rare.

Some children are brought to us due to severe abuse or neglect. Some have gone through things that would rip your heart out if I were to detail them here. Even though they have been removed from a home situation for their protection, they still technically have parents and are not “orphans.” They need to be cared for, counseled, and brought to a place of healing.

Occasionally a woman will give birth and for any number of reasons decide to abandon that child. The mother might be too young, they might have hidden the pregnancy, or they don’t want to acknowledge it, they might be going through some deep psychological issues. For whatever reason, in any society, a percentage of infants are abandoned by their parents. Once again these children are not technically orphans, they have parents somewhere. These abandoned children need to be cared for and raised in a way to show them how valuable they are. They need to be shown that they are not a mistake or just something to be thrown away. Being abandoned at that level leaves some deep scars.

The work of orphan care is rarely black-and-white, there are a vast amount of gray areas that we work in every day. Many people accuse orphanages of breaking up families just for the sake of filling their dorms. I’m not saying some orphanages haven’t done this, or even continue to do this, but in my experience, it’s less frequent than some people would lead you to believe.

Most of our children are referred to us by social workers just like they would be assigned to foster care families in the US, but occasionally a child will be brought to us by a parent asking us to take their child. We will do everything in our power to keep the family together. Whether it’s counseling, short-term financial help, housing, etc. we fight to keep families together. We’ve even gone so far as hiring qualified single mothers so that they could stay here with their children in a safe place. We feel a healthy family is without a doubt the very best option for a child. Unfortunately, for many children, the family option is not on the table.

So why this rambling explanation of the difficulties of defining an orphan? I just wanted to bring up the idea that orphan care can be very nuanced, complicated, and it can be hard to peg down solid answers. Orphaned and abandoned children don’t fit into our preconceived boxes. In any ministry, there are Solomon like judgment calls made frequently. What is your definition of homeless? What is your definition of a “special needs” child? Words and definitions matter a great deal, but the realities are people are messy, and we need to meet them where they are. We are all on a sliding scale of messed up. Just because a child doesn’t fit our exact definition of orphan, doesn’t mean they don’t have needs. Too many children in this world are desperate for a place to call home, filled with people who genuinely care about them.

In orphan care, we need to see each child as God sees us. God sees each one of us as individuals with needs, desires, and profound pains that are uniquely our own. Psalm 68:5 says, “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows, is God in his holy habitation.” God cares deeply for each one of his children. He cares so deeply for us; we should also care for those lost children all around us, whether it’s a true orphan, an abandoned child, or the lonely child next door or in our church. There are more “orphans” among us than we might realize: act accordingly.

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Orphan Care is a Short-Term Gig

pexels-photo-167300When caring for children at risk, children who are abandoned or orphaned, it’s important to realize it’s just for a season. You need to know that, for many reasons, children you’re caring for are going to leave. We need to be ready for it, and we need to help them be ready for it.

Frequently children leave your care to go into questionable situations, and it will rip your heart out. Sometimes we initiate the change; usually it’s outside influences. Sometime they will head into great situations, some not so great. As people who are called to serve children, we need to realize the time we have with the children in our care is frequently shorter than it should be, and that time is precious. “Normal” parents have at least eighteen years to speak into a child’s life; we don’t have that luxury. The short time we have with these children will impact them the rest of their lives.

I have been in orphan care for almost 25 years. I still remember my first year, when the team here decided that we needed to kick a teen boy, Raul, out of the orphanage. Think about that for a minute: a child who’s already been abandoned, we were going to remove from what I thought we were building as the last refuge. This teen boy had become so rebellious, and such a danger to the other children and staff, that we needed to remove him from our home. We tried every form of discipline and professional counseling we could, but nothing broke through. His tearful pleading for “one last chance” as he was being taken away to a smaller, stricter orphanage will be burned into my memory forever. His departure tore me up for weeks.

About five years ago a 15-year-old girl, Maria, who had been in our care for several years was returned to her mother. We didn’t feel great about it, nor did Maria, but we didn’t have a say in the matter. All we could do was watch her leave and hope and pray that the social worker made the right decision.

Recently, two wonderful young girls were returned by our government social worker to their parents. We did not believe for a moment this was a good thing. For a number of reasons we did not feel this was the right decision, but the social workers had completed home visits and felt it was right to return these girls to their family. The girls had shared with us the horrible treatment they had received in their home and when the parents visited we could see it was just an unhealthy situation. It was VERY frustrating, and several of our staff were very upset, but you can only do what you can do.

It can be a long hard battle as we fight for what’s best for a child. Ask anyone who works in foster care about the frustrations experienced as children are moved around and often placed back with unstable or questionable family. Don’t get me wrong, when it’s a healthy situation I am 100% in favor of the family reunification. But frequently these are Solomon like decisions made by well-meaning but fallible people. When the decision is right it’s great; when the decision is wrong, it places children in harm’s way.

All we can do is plant the seeds, pray over our children, and hope for the best. Whether it’s our biological children that get married and move on when they become adults, or a temporary care situation and the child leaves us when they are much younger, their future is not in our control. All we can do is give them tools they will need to make healthy decisions. We need to show them how to handle the incredible challenges that life will place in their paths. They, like us, are in God’s hands.

About ten years after we “kicked Raul out,” he dropped by for a visit. We had lost track of him and assumed we would never see him again. But, the time he spent with us had a deep and positive impact on his life. He came back with his wife and two children to show them where he had spent several years and to introduce us. We had a long talk, and he shared that he now understands why he needed to be moved. He also now felt it was the best decision we could have made for his life. It was hard, but it was a wake-up call for him. It turned his life around, and he was now doing well with a family of his own.

A few weeks ago Maria got in contact with us, and we went out to lunch. We were right about her mom. Maria’s mother ignored her, never put her in school, and spent most of her time drinking and partying. After several months with mom Maria went with dad, who was no better. But, Maria remembered what she had been taught. She is now on her own, doing well, active in a church, and is planning her wedding. The seeds we planted took root.

There is a point to this rambling blog. What we do in child care, while we can, matters more than we know. Not all stories have happy endings. Most of the time we will never know about the lives of the children once they leave us. But when it works, the moments when we emotionally connect with a child, the time we spend listening to them, the examples we set changes lives. Use what little time you have as the precious gift it is.

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress…” James 1:27

(Names were changed to protect the privacy of people mentioned here.)

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In Orphan Care, One Size Doesn’t Fit All

child-children-girl-happyWe’ve all received gifts that say “One-size-fits-all”; this really means “One size will fit some people and will be a poor fit for others, but that’s all we’re offering.” In orphan care, rarely does one-size-fits-all. Each child and situation is unique, and we need to be in a position to give the type of care that is the perfect fit for that individual child in need.

It seems as though society as a whole is more and more polarized. “It must be my way or nothing; you are wrong.” Try to get a Fox news fan to agree with a CNN fan, and you can see how people can NOT come to a compromise. The reality is, with many of life’s dilemmas, there are no black and white answers, sometimes the answers are found in the fuzzy middle. Many times life requires a much more nuanced approach.

Few things elicit a stronger opinion than what to do with the kids who are orphaned, abandoned, or need placement for other reasons. Everyone has an opinion on child rearing and how best to help a child. The prevailing theories shift back and forth from orphanage to group homes to foster care every few years, not unlike the “expert” opinions on whether eggs, butter, coffee, etc. are bad, then good, then bad, then good again. (I’m very happy eggs, butter, and red wine are currently “good” for us.)

Most reasonable people agree that no system of caring for children at risk is perfect. A child should be raised by two loving parents whenever possible. Unfortunately, we live in a VERY broken world, and way too many children wind up in horrific circumstances, needing care either short-term or long-term. To rule out ANY healthy option to care for a hurting child is a mistake. This is where “one size fits all” doesn’t work.

I once had a leader from a large, respected mega church inform me that their official church policy is to never work with or support orphanages. Their reasoning being that orphanages are terrible, that the ONLY good option for a child is adoption. They are not alone in their beliefs, the current prevailing opinion is that it’s better to move away from the orphanage system. I and many others do not agree. For some children, an orphanage is the best option.

For the right child, adoption should always be the first option if no healthy, loving family is in the picture. But many times, there are situations that make adoption difficult or impossible. If there are multiple siblings, very few couples are willing to take on three, or four, or more children. If the child has extreme special needs, the pool of adoptive parents is pretty small. If a parent or parents are still somewhere, but due to prison, substance abuse, or other reasons are out of the picture “temporarily,” the children are left in limbo. The reality of adoptions is that once a child hits about five years old the odds of adoption drop dramatically. The fact that international adoptions have reached a record low doesn’t help the situation. When you factor all these problems in, very few children in need of care can ever be adopted. The most recent statistics say that worldwide, a child in a care situation has a 2% chance of being adopted. Too many people work for years and spend thousands of dollars trying to adopt only to be denied or to have serious problems handling the child placed in their care. When adoption works, it’s fantastic, but it’s a long road and doesn’t always end well.

So, if there is no healthy family, and adoption is not an option, you are left with foster care or orphanages. There are a lot of great people working in the foster care system that truly have a heart for the children they are serving. Unfortunately, there are also many people involved for the wrong reasons, and everyone is working in a system that has many profound challenges. Too often, children are moved around more than they should be, creating a very difficult, unstable life. How would you react if you had to change homes, friends, schools, churches, etc. every six months or so? With the system the way it is in the US, although it was set up with the best of intentions, the statistics do not play out well. I’ve had many people involved in foster care vent to me about the lack of stability and the crushing bureaucracy involved. Foster care does not work well for most children. Every system is complicated.

Most people agree the orphanage system is broken, but, when done correctly, orphanages and group homes can be the best option. Just like foster care, there are some great people working in the orphanage systems worldwide, and some not so great. There are definitely orphanages that are horrible and should be shut down. There are also orphanages that are healthy, stable, and give the children a loving home with a great future. A well-run orphanage can provide a child or sibling group the stability, professional counseling, and love they need to heal and grow into healthy adults. We need a last resort when adoption or family care is not an option.

Everyone has a strong opinion. Everyone seems to have an agenda. About the only thing everyone agrees on is no system of caring for children at risk is perfect. We, as a society, have the right tools to help these children, but we need to use every tool in the box. We need to find the right size for each child. One size does not fit all.

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In an Orphanage, Leadership is Everything

pexels-photo-678637Why is it that when people cross the US border and go into the missions field, they think the common sense principles that work in the US suddenly don’t apply? If you have weak leadership in an organization, it won’t go well. The best of intentions, or spending more money, won’t help. Throwing money at a dysfunctional ministry in the US won’t make it better, so why do we think it will work in other countries? An organization needs good leadership to be healthy and effective in what they do.

Every week, some person or group comes to me and asks what it takes to open an orphanage. The first thing I do is try to talk them out of it; it’s harder and more complicated than they think. If they STILL want to open an orphanage I start to explain the three things it takes, in ascending order of difficulty:

1) It takes a safe, clean, functioning location. This is relatively easy; EVERYONE wants to put up a building. It’s easy, it’s long lasting, and you can see the project when completed. Once a project starts, it’s amazing how many people want to help.
2) It takes on-going funding. This is harder than number 1. It takes a lot more money to run an orphanage than most people think. Food, staff, medical, education, transportation, etc. add up quickly. Depending on where you are in the world, figure about $300 per child. If that sounds like a lot, you try to raise ten children on $3,000 a month for everything and see how hard it is.
3) The MOST important thing in running an orphanage is: Who is going to be the on-site director or leader. This is critical, and not everyone has the gifting or skill set to do this. Loving children is not enough.

Frequently, organizations who want to open a home tell me they have the first two items covered (location and funding). When I ask who will run it they respond with either “Oh, we’ll just hire someone”, or “We believe the right person will show up.”  If you were opening a church and needed a pastor would you “Just hire someone?” No, you would spend extensive time interviewing, meeting with, and praying over anyone interested. You would want the BEST person possible because the leader sets the tone and quality of everything that goes on. What type and quality of person would you want to raise your own children if something happened to you?

Organizations spend years and tremendous amounts of money finding and keeping the right CEO or president because they know the leader makes all the difference. Whether it’s a neighborhood diner or a huge corporation, the right leader will determine whether the organization thrives or dies off.

A few years ago I was asked to consult with an orphanage in Africa; it mainly involved visiting the home and helping to train their long-term American staff. After spending one day with the on-site leadership, I had a meeting with the people who brought me. I kind of offended them when I said: “No one I met today would make it through the first interview with an organization in the US, why are they running a home? They should not be here”. They were good people, but the completely wrong people to be running an orphanage. God can use anyone, just not in every position. Desire is not enough if the skill sets and the willingness to learn are not there.

If you run or are thinking of running an orphanage, please pray long and hard. Seek honest counsel from people who really know you. If you still want to move forward, please study all you can and spend time working with orphanages that do a great job. Learn all you can.

If you are looking for an orphanage to support or partner with, the most important thing you can ask yourself is: What is the quality of the leadership? Are they doing it for the right reasons? Do they show a high level of integrity? Do they have the skill sets needed to do a great job? If the orphanage leadership is weak, no amount of funding or short-term visits are going to help. An orphanage can not be run by a committee in another country any more than a church could be pastored by someone living in another state. Who is living with and raising the kids is everything.

If I come across as blunt or unforgiving, it’s only because orphan care needs to be great, and I’ve seen way too many homes that are not. This work matters greatly and should be done professionally and in the best way possible. The children who wind up in orphanages have already been dealt a lousy hand; we have a responsibility to help them heal in a safe, loving home. A home where they are lovingly guided through healing and into a healthy place. This can only be done in a home lead by people who are called to this work and have the skill sets to do it well.

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Dealing with Family in Orphan-Care

pexels-photo-262075Recently one of the boys we raised, who is now an adult and on his own, stopped by my office and asked if we could talk about a few things. He and his brother were dropped off at our home by their father over 20 years ago. Thier father visited once but then disappeared. Sadly this happens way too often.

Frequently, for one reason or another, a child or a group of siblings are brought to an orphanage and the family is never heard from again. Hopefully, whatever orphanage they’re left at has the resources and skills to help move that child from the pain of abandonment through the long journey to healing. An adoption is always a good option. But the reality is that once a child is over the age of about five, they won’t be adopted, especially if they have siblings. The orphanage will become their home; the orphanage staff will become their family.

When a child is dropped off, and they are old enough to know what’s going on, they begin the grieving process just as anyone who has lost a loved one. They have lost their family and life as they knew it. They begin to go through the various stages of mourning: grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These can vary from person to person, but less than you might think. We humans are very predictable creatures.

Whether a child was abandoned or removed due to abuse or neglect, their first reaction is always denial. “No, really, my parents are going to come back for me.” or “My mom is in rehab, this time I know it’s going to work.” Our hope is that the child can eventually go back to a healthy family situation, but the painful reality is it’s not the norm. More often than not, if the family cares enough to visit, they sometimes make the situation harder by making false promises, to the child and maybe to themselves. “It will just be a few weeks, I really am coming back for you.” or “Your dad and I are getting back together, then we can take you home.” These types of promises rip the wounds open again leaving the child stuck in the denial stage, living in false hope.

The next stage in the healing process is anger. If a child reaches the point of being very pissed off at their parents, we are thrilled, this means they’re moving forward in the process. I remember one 11-year-old boy who had been with us about three months. He was here with two younger siblings and was starting to settle in. One Sunday, his mother showed up to visit. He was seriously angry; wanting nothing to do with her, he ran to hide behind one of the buildings on our property. I walked back to talk with him, and as I approached, I could see he was so angry he was trembling. I sat down with him and told him he could do whatever he wanted, “If you don’t want to visit your mom you don’t have to. Go hang out with your friends or spend time in my office; I don’t care.” I just confirmed to him what he already knew about his mom, that she’d done nothing to earn a visit and it was OK to be angry at her. I believe my response did two things. First, it shocked the heck out of him. Second, it showed him he was in a safe place and that we would be here for him. It turned out to be a pivotal day in his healing process.

I could write about the different levels of mourning, but I’m sure you get the idea at this point. The healing process is slow, painful, and depending on the person can take weeks, months, or sadly sometimes years. Our hope is that every child moves through the process and reaches acceptance as soon as they are able. Until an abandoned child (or anyone who has experienced tremendous loss) can reach that point of acceptance, it is incredibly difficult to begin to rebuild their lives.

Once a child reaches acceptance, they can start over. They can start taking school a little more seriously knowing they’re not ever going back to their old school. They can start making real friends knowing they probably won’t be leaving in a few weeks. Most importantly, if they’ve landed in a healthy orphanage or care situation, they can begin to bond with healthy adults who are committed long-term in the child’s life.

Even if a child reaches acceptance and begins to move on with their lives it doesn’t mean the pain has gone away; the pain just softens over time. For most children, as they move into adulthood, they reach a point where they will try and find their biological family. If, years later, reunions can be arranged, it’s not always the Hallmark moment we envision. Occasionally they can rebuild a relationship with their family, sometimes they’re rejected all over again. People are messy and messed up.

I opened up by sharing about the young man who came into my office. I’m incredibly proud of both him and his brother as they’ve grown into healthy, productive, men of God. The older brother is married with two children and has demonstrated an incredible commitment to his wife and caring for his family. It was the younger brother who came into my office. He wanted to talk over the situation that after twenty years he and his brother had recently found family in another state. He had just talked with his “biological” mother. He has no memory of her, but they’re planning on visiting her next summer. The draw to know your biological family is strong and we’re tremendously happy for them both. (I’m tearing up as I write this)

The second thing he wanted to talk with me about was also life-changing. We were planning a get-together with many of the children raised in our home, and he was asking permission to propose to his long-term girlfriend in front of his true family at the party. (She was raised in our home also.) I think he’s reached a good place, a place of wholeness; God has restored this abandoned child.

There is hope for an emotionally wounded child, if they are lead to the master healer, and allowed to grieve in His arms.

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We All Need A Nest, Orphans Even More

pexels-photo-581087Human 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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