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.

I’m currently setting up my 2018 speaking schedule, if you’re interested in having me share with your church or organization please let me know.  Click here for details.

Find Your Defining Moment

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Many people have a defining moment in their life. Whether positive or negative, it is a moment that is branded into their memory and will be with them until they die. Frequently that moment changes the direction of their life. Maybe it was being present as a loved one died, or the first time they stood up on a surfboard, maybe it was the first time performing in public and receiving applause. What might seem trivial to one person, might have life-altering implications and impact for someone else. What is your defining moment?

One of the handful of questions I get asked by everyone is: “How were you first called into orphan care.” I can still remember the sites, smells, and emotions during that day that changed my life twenty-five years ago. My defining moment that would radically shift the direction of my life happened to be shared with someone who I had never met before, during their defining moment. Each of our lives would be forever changed in a few hours together.

I was comfortable in my life as a semi-successful Christian businessman and helping with the high school group at my church in my spare time. I assumed that would be the direction of my life and had no problem with that. I was comfortable; I wasn’t even considering that God might have something else in mind. I was helping to lead our church’s high school group on short-term missions trips to serve a very small, very depressing orphanage in northern Baja. I enjoyed serving the kids in the orphanage, but I also enjoyed the change I was seeing in my high school students as they learned to serve others. Unbeknownst to me, God was making those same changes in my heart.

One day I got a call from the orphanage. They needed something brought down from the US and asked if I could help. I had a Saturday to kill and agreed to drive down. While I was there, a ten-year-old boy was being dropped off. Most people don’t think about it, but every child in an orphanage has a “first day.” Almost always it is a terrifying, branding, horrible experience they will remember for the rest of their lives. They have either been abandoned by their family or removed due to abuse or neglect. To them the reasons are irrelevant, everything they’ve ever known is gone, and they’ve landed in a scary building, crowded with strangers. It is a defining moment they will remember the rest of their lives.

As I watched this boy being dropped off, I could see how terrified he was. I didn’t speak the language at the time but even if I did, what do you say to that? What did I have to offer that child when he was at his most fragile point? I couldn’t tell him it was going to be okay. I couldn’t tell him he landed in a good orphanage (he didn’t), everything I had in my youth ministry bag of tricks was useless. So I sat with him. We split a Coke. He cried. And a couple of hours later I got in my car and drove home. I hurt for that child, I hurt for that child deeply, but intertwined with the hurt was something I had never experienced before at that level. I had been involved in a lot of ministry, but I’d never felt so used by God as sitting with that boy, in the dirt, at that moment, when he desperately needed somebody. I wanted more of that in my life. I wanted to experience more of being used by God to touch and serve people at that level. Everything I had been working towards suddenly became incredibly trivial and pointless in comparison to those few hours in Mexico.

It’s impossible to plan a defining moment in your life, but if we step out of our comfort zone and place ourselves in new and challenging circumstances those defining moments are more likely to happen. If someone doesn’t take the chance at “open mic night” they might never experience the exhilaration of an audience laughing at their jokes. If someone chooses to stay home rather than go on that first-day snow skiing or surfing, they might not ever experience that rush of adrenaline. These same principles and ideas apply to our Christian walk. We won’t know what a prison ministry, a homeless ministry, or the ministry of encouraging others is like until we’re willing to take that first step, and put ourselves in uncomfortable and awkward situations.

In my experience, both personally, and as a witness to thousands of others, few activities encourage more defining moments than short-term missions. There’s something about leaving your home country, crossing borders, and making yourself available to be used by God in new circumstances. Short-term missions, when they are done right, can bring a heightened sense of awareness and help to bring our priorities in line. Although people might be on a mission to share the gospel and meet the needs of others, there is frequently a whole other layer of ministry going on where God is working on us.

Over the years I’ve received countless letters, emails, and comments from people sharing with me how a short-term missions trip changed their lives. I know many people today who are in full-time ministry as a direct result of a defining moment brought about through short-term missions. For countless others who aren’t in full-time ministry (yet), a short-term missions trip becomes an experience that will ripple out in their lives for years to come. It can become their defining moment, a touchstone that they will remember forever.

My hope and prayer is that through whatever circumstances, you will have that defining moment that will bring more significant direction in your life. I would encourage you to take chances, to say “yes” to trying something new. Stretch yourself emotionally. You can’t plan a defining moment, but please be open to it.

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The Enemy Hates Orphan Care

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In any ministry, it’s important to realize the battle is real. The struggles and hurts that we encounter and confront are part of a bigger spiritual battle. We live in a broken world and the enemy is very skilled, effective, and relentless. Whether it’s a megachurch pastor caught in sin, or a small food-bank struggling due to lack of funding, the enemy works towards, and rejoices in, ministries failing. Recognize it, get used to it; it’s going to be part of your life.

Orphan care is very close to the heart of God. God cares deeply for the hurting and abandoned child. The book of James explains that true religion is caring for widows and orphans. The enemy attacks all ministries, but I believe orphan care is a priority target. Whenever I’m talking with someone about opening an orphanage, or orphanage care in general, we spend time covering the expected basics: funding, staffing, organizational issues, dealing with childhood trauma, etc. Then I pause. After the basics are covered I pull back the curtain and ask them if they’re ready to enter into the battle, are they ready to have their world rocked? It’s easy to say “yes” to that question when it’s hypothetical; it’s a very different when it’s part of your life.

I recently had breakfast with someone who, along with his wife, is preparing to open a new orphanage. I asked him again, as I’ve asked him many times over the last six months “Are you ready for this, REALLY ready for this? You will never have a normal week again.” The challenges are real.

Although we have everyday challenges on a regular basis, I figure about twice a year our orphanage goes through something major. Some unexpected event or series of events that try to hurt the home and undermine the work that’s going on here. Sometimes we can see immediately what the attack is, sometimes it’s a little more stealthy. However they come, we know the attacks are real, and it sucks to go through them. But, and this is an important point here, we know God is bigger than the enemy. He won’t only protect us during attacks; He can use them for our good and for His glory. We might not see how God can use everything BUT, we have His promise, and can rest on that promise in the midst of the battle.

Several years ago, one of our older boys came to me and told me his eye was bothering him. This isn’t that uncommon, and we made an appointment to have him checked out, not a big deal. Within 24 hours, he had lost all sight in that one eye. We suddenly realized this might be a bigger issue. As we moved from specialist to specialist, it was determined that he had a golf ball sized tumor that was growing and crushing his optic nerve. That afternoon sitting with him across the desk from the neurosurgeon, when we were told he had maybe days or weeks to live, is burned into my memory. As we worked to get him to a specialist in the US, something very powerful happened. We operate as a large Christian family and prayer is an important part of our lives, but this challenge really upped it a notch or two. Without any coaching from us, our children started a voluntary dawn prayer meeting, churches from across Mexico and the US began praying for him and the situation. A few miracles later and he had a passport, medical visa, and an appointment in the US with one of the top neurosurgeons in California. On the day before he was scheduled to leave, we had a soccer game here on site with a bunch of the local teens to send him off. Without any prompting from us, the soccer teams (made up mainly of non-believers) formed a circle around him to pray him off. After several surgeries, he is now doing fine, attending college, and waiting on tables to earn spending money. I would never wish to go through that again, but God used that cancer to create an incredible sense of unity here in the home, and brought our level of prayer to new heights.

The enemy can be very creative; the attacks are always different and present in different ways. Among our large team of multicultural staff, we have quite a few couples. We love that our children are seeing healthy marriages and families modeled as most of them have never experienced that before. We went through one season where every couple on our staff, Mexican and American, went through a rough patch in their marriage. We know any marriage can or will go through rough times, but to have a dozen couples go through rough times over the same few weeks is pretty odd. All of the couples made it through, and today they are doing fine. In hindsight, it’s easy to see how this was a spiritual attack. Healthy marriages are the basic building block of a healthy family, and the enemy was going to do everything he could to destroy these marriages. Fortunately for all of us, we once again saw that God is bigger than any attacks that might come our way, if we allow Him to take over.

I’ve only shared a couple of examples, but there are countless others: hepatitis outbreaks, wells going dry, we’ve had three children pass away over the years, challenges from the government, infighting among the staff, etc. The only thing normal for us is that we will never have a normal week. Please do not read any of this as complaining; we are rejoicing. We, as believers, know we have already won, that Christ has overcome the world.

If you’re in orphan care (or any ministry) and are going through trials, please know you’re not alone. The storms are where we grow and learn how to flex against the raging wind. It’s the storms that water and nourish us down to the roots. Rest in the fact that, if we trust in our heavenly Father, He will protect us. He will use everything we’re going through. The battles are real, but we know who has already won.

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Why Are So Many Superheroes Orphans?

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Spiderman, Batman (and Robin), Superman, Ironman, etc. Why are so many superheroes orphans? It’s more than just an odd coincidence. Comic book writers know basic human nature. They know that, when channeled correctly, trauma and pain can be used for good. Unless someone is cut deeply, it’s challenging to have the empathy and understanding needed to truly help and reach out to others. Unless someone has lost everything, they have no idea how to reach others who have.

In our area of Mexico, broken tile mosaics are very popular. You start out with clean, bright, shiny, usually flawless tile. You then drop it, or in some fashion shatter the tile to break it into sharp, jagged, usable pieces. After the first breaking, you take a specialized type of pliers to crush off rough edges or create new edges, to shape it into the perfect piece to create the design. Without that shattering and crushing, the tile might be flawless, but it would be useless for its intended purpose. The artist creating the mosaic sees the bigger picture and breaks each piece to create a stunning masterpiece that brings joy and beauty into the world. Sometimes, we are that tile.

When my wife and I first got to Mexico, the children in the orphanage had seen a lot of people come through and had heard a lot of false promises. When they met us, in their eyes, we were just another couple that was going to abandon them. The first few weeks they tested us, and we had a hard time connecting with our limited experience and horrible Spanish. One night, while talking with some of the teen boys, it came up that my mother had died when I was fairly young and my wife came from her own challenging upbringing. The moment they heard about our histories, I could see something change in their expressions that said: “Oh, they get it.” Suddenly, although our Spanish still sucked, and we still had a LOT to learn, a door was opened between us, and we had a connection. Without the pain we had gone through, that door would not have opened. Without our histories, I doubt we would be in orphan care today.

We interview a lot of people who feel called to orphan care and want to join our team, and we ask all the standard questions. The one question where I carefully watch their response is “tell me about your childhood.” If they get nervous, they move to the top of the list. Over the years, we’ve found that our BEST staff are the ones with the worst childhood. I don’t wish pain on anyone, but I know God can use it. Abandonment, child of divorce, alcoholic parents, time in foster care, should never have to happen. But man, it can create people of depth and understanding. They “get” the pain our children have gone through. They understand the healing that needs to take place, and how to guide our children through it. The Master has used their broken edges to shape them in such a way that He can use them for a masterpiece.

We had one long-term volunteer come in that seemed perfect, on paper. He was raised in a great family, very polite, came from a very active church, impressive education, etc. It quickly became apparent that he was a disaster in orphan care. He didn’t do anything wrong exactly; he just couldn’t connect with the kids. He didn’t get it; there was no empathy in him. He even had a hard time connecting with the other team members on a deeper level. It just didn’t work. In talking to him even, he used the term “charmed life” when referring to his history. Ideal family, small-town upbringing, popular in school, etc. He had never really suffered anything. He went home to the US after a few months and he’s doing fine, I’m sure he’ll have a good life, but his lack of suffering hindered his ability to minister to those in need. He had never been broken.

If you’ve gone through loss, abandonment, the death of loved ones, etc., take joy in knowing that we have a loving Father, a master artist, who can take our broken, rough edges and shape them into a masterpiece. If we’ve turned the pain over to God, and allowed Him to move us through healing, we can now be the tools He will use to change lives. There is nothing that has happened to us that God can not use if we allow Him.

If you’re in orphan care, the healing process is long, complicated, and can sometimes be an agonizing experience as we lead children through the pain. But it can work. God can bring children through horrific experiences and bring them to a healthy place. The sad truth is, not every child heals emotionally. Some will make poor life decisions and never reach that place where they have moved on from what’s been done to them. Our job as caregivers is to guide our children to healing, to show them that what’s been done to them is not who they are. We always need to remember that God is the master, the artist, who will shape the broken parts into His perfect masterpiece. We just carry the broken tile to the Artist.

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So You Want to Open an Orphanage…

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Do you feel called to open an orphanage? Trust me on this, lay down until the feeling goes away. If you still want to open an orphanage, continue reading.

I wish orphanages didn’t exist. The first choice for caring for abandoned children should be extended family. If extended family is not an option, then children at risk should be placed in healthy families. Unfortunately, placement with a family is just not an option for many children. Most orphanages are filled with children who, for one reason or another, are not adoptable or are very difficult to place. Orphanages care for children with multiple siblings, children with physical or mental challenges, children with an extended family that cannot care for them but still hold parental rights, etc. So if orphanages have to exist (and they do), they should be great, and run by people with vision and the skill sets to make them a fantastic place for children to heal and grow into healthy adults.

On a regular basis, people contact me who feel lead to open orphanages. My first question is always: “Who is going to run it?” Putting up buildings is easy(ish), on-going funding is harder, but living at, and running an orphanage can be hugely challenging and is not for the faint of heart.

Like pastoring, it’s very different once you’re in charge as opposed to watching from a comfortable distance. Running an orphanage is 24 hours a day, just like pastoring. Like pastoring a church, everyone who walks into your ministry will be second guessing all of your decisions and how you’re running things (and they know they can do it better). You not only get to care for kids and staff, you also need to keep government officials AND donors happy, all at the same time. Good luck with that.

On the long list of things that surprise most people is the amount of administration that has to go on. From the outside, people tend to think that the day-to-day parts of running an orphanage are about holding babies, craft projects, and building healing relationships with the children. All of these things go on, but they make up a remarkably small part of the day-to-day hours of running an orphanage. Actually, “child care” is an almost insignificant part of the job. Days are occupied with the mundane: grocery shopping, hosting guests, managing staff, answering emails, etc. Your days and weeks are filled with what it takes to keep the ministry open and moving forward.

Fundraising will take up much of your waking hours for the rest of your life. Just because you’re passionate about orphan care doesn’t mean anyone else cares. Everyone has different passions, callings, and challenges in their lives. Other people are called to serve and help in other ministries, that’s a good thing. That people have passions and interests that don’t connect with orphan care makes fundraising that much more of a challenge. Sharing the needs of your home, sharing the needs for orphan care in general, and sharing your passion is all part of the work. Share with the right people, get the word out, and God will connect the right people to support it.

Here is what they don’t teach you in “orphan school”: the struggles are real. Caring for orphans is very close to the heart of God. If you’re doing it right, the enemy doesn’t like it. You will never have a normal week again. Sick kids, staff issues, government issues, will be the norm. We figure about two significant attacks a year. Hepatitis outbreaks, wells going dry, we went through one season where EVERY couple on our staff went through a rough patch in their marriage. We’ve had children diagnosed with cancer, we’ve had children die. The spiritual attacks will be part of your life, get used to it. The good news is we’ve never gone through an attack God could not use to make the home stronger and cause us to grow. I can honestly look back and give thanks for all we’ve experienced. Don’t get me wrong, we dread the attacks and storms when we’re going through them, but we also know God is so much bigger.

Please know that this work will rip your heart out. And dance on it. And then bounce it around the room. We deal with the worst side of humanity. I could shock you with the profoundly horrific things that have been done to our children. You do not want this in your life. Then, once a child has been in your care for a long time, and they’ve begun to heal, you never know when a social worker will sweep in and say they are going back with family. Sometimes this is good; many times it’s not. Your emotional scars and callouses will build over time.

If this rambling article sounds like I am complaining, please do not interpret it that way. I just want people going into this work to do so with their eyes wide open. I’ve dedicated the bulk of my adult life to orphan care, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. The work is challenging, the battles are real, and it can be emotionally and physically exhausting. That being said, I have zero regrets about walking away from my “normal” life running a business in Southern California. Although the challenges can be extreme, the rewards far outweigh any of the battles we’ve gone through.

The graduations where you see groups of your children graduate from high school or college makes it worth the sacrifice. When you’re able to walk so many of the young women you’ve raised down the aisle at their weddings, it’s worth it. When you see children you’ve raised, caring for their own families in a healthy loving fashion, it’s all worth it. If you’re indeed called to orphan care, surround yourself with people of similar vision, give it everything you have, and press forward. It’s a worthy calling and will be the most rewarding experience of your life.

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Random Affection in Orphanages

orphanchildOne of the realities of orphan care is that everybody considers themselves an authority. Just like parenting styles in a traditional family, opinions on orphanage styles tend to shift frequently on how to “do it better.” These opinions change depending on what’s trending in any given year. In the last few years, there’s been a lot written on the potentially harmful effects of too many visitors on the children in an orphanage. After working full-time in orphan care for over 25 years, I could not disagree more.

The current theory states that having visitors in orphanages on a regular basis leads to attachment disorder problems later in life because the children are bonding with random, different strangers every week. In my experience, children raised in dysfunctional orphanages will have a wide range of emotional problems later in life, just as anyone raised in a dysfunctional family. If the children are bonding with random strangers every week, this means there are many underlying problems in the orphanage already. The bonding issue is just a symptom.

Let’s look at two scenarios:

Scenario 1) In our orphanage we have more visitors than almost any orphanage in the world. In a typical year, we host around 280 groups and have other “drop by” visitors on a regular basis. We enjoy hosting the groups, we enjoy leading them into service and short-term missions, and we believe when well-managed, these visits are healthy for everyone. So how do we avoid the random attachment? First, we have solid, consistent staff and plenty of them. Our children do bond with adults, but it’s with consistent adults in their lives. We have excellent child to staff ratios (about 4 to 1) and minimal staff turnover. Second, although we have a tremendous amount of visitors we intentionally limit the time they have with our children. We limit the visiting hours with our infants and toddlers, but more importantly, we encourage all of our groups to stay with us but travel out daily to serve in the community or with other ministries in the area. Our children see the “visitors” as just that, visitors dropping by to see our family. The majority of children who grow up in our home go on to have healthy marriages and families. In spite of all the visitors, most of our children turn out okay.

Scenario 2) In an orphanage that is understaffed and overcrowded, the children will seek random affection from any visitor that comes through. You can see this when you first arrive in a home. If children above the age of five are running over to hang on you and ask to be held, they’re starved for affection. A normal, well-adjusted 10-year-old doesn’t just walk up to a random stranger seeking physical contact; this is a symptom of much deeper issues in an orphanage. The children are not bonding with the staff and are severely lacking affection. They WILL have problems bonding later in life without a tremendous amount of healing. Most children raised in poorly run orphanages eventually produce children that wind up back in the system and have a tough time with healthy relationships. (Just like too many children from foster care.)

So how does someone, or a mission team, respond to these two examples? If you’re dealing with a healthy orphanage, one that has well-adjusted kids and is well run, continue to back their work. Find out what their needs are and keep supporting a healthy situation. Help them to continue to provide what their children need.

If you’re working with a home that’s not so great, it gets complicated quickly. A few years ago we were helping an orphanage near us that was a pit. The orphanage was overcrowded, filthy, and the children were deeply starved for affection. We were praying for a change in that home but did not have a lot of hope with the current management. With eyes wide open to the situation, we continued to send teams to that orphanage on day trips. The teams would clean, prepare meals, and spend time with the children in need of attention. I would encourage the teams by telling them “This home will probably never change, but for one memorable day, those children can know someone cares about them.” With these “hit and run” trips it was far from perfect, but it was giving these children something.

Everyone knows that eating junk food all the time makes for a lousy diet. In a perfect world, we would all have access to regular, healthy, balanced meals. If someone is starving, the standards drop, and junk food is better than no food. If a child was starving, and all we had to give them was a candy bar, that candy bar would mean the world to them. Long term, you would hope that the situation would change, but I don’t think anyone would withhold the candy bar because it’s not the ideal, healthy option. “Junk food” affection, when it’s the only real option, is better than no affection at all. People not visiting an orphanage to avoid this attachment and bonding problem does not suddenly make healthy bonding occur if the orphanage is understaffed and poorly run.

Caring for orphaned and abandoned children is obviously a complicated issue. It’s an issue that has been around for thousands of years and will not be going away soon. To believe that not visiting orphanages will help the situation is like saying not providing services and meals to homeless will end the homeless situation across America. I wish orphanages didn’t exist, but if they have to exist, they should be great, and they need our help.

Please, continue to follow the fundamental teaching of our Christian faith in regards to orphan care:

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. James 1:27

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