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.

Please share on Facebook or with your missions pastor.  Thanks

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.

Please share on Facebook or with the orphan care ministry at your church.

Your Missions Project Doesn’t Matter

pexels-photo-298297If you’re organizing or participating on a short-term missions trip, you probably spend a lot of time raising money or planning for your “project.” Your project might be building a house, roofing a dorm in an orphanage, or some other physical way to assist in a needy community. These projects are necessary and a huge blessing, but they are not what is most important. It’s good to recognize this, discuss this, and encourage your missions team to remember why they go. Ultimately, it’s all about representing Jesus well.

When I first started bringing teams to Mexico on weekend trips, I would only focus on having our team do a quality construction job for the orphanage where we were serving. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that; anything we do for the Kingdom and to serve others should be a quality job. In whatever we do, we are representing Christ and the church. After I had lead three or four trips, a good friend of mine pulled me aside and we had a conversation that I remember almost word for word. I felt like we were making an impact on that orphanage through the construction and painting projects we were working on. My friend asked this question: “In ten years, will these children remember that we painted the wall? Or will they remember the time we spent with them playing soccer, sharing a meal, and listening to what is going on in their lives?” That one conversation stuck with me and has had a dramatic impact on my ministry work over the last twenty-five years.

One of the many privileges of hosting hundreds of short-term missions teams over the years is being able to observe the differences in the groups. We’ve been able to see a wide range of aptitudes, attitudes, funding, skill sets, goals, and all the details that set groups apart. Sometimes these things set them apart for good reasons, many times for bad.

Without a doubt, our favorite groups are the groups that understand the bigger picture. They come down focused on working on a project and doing a quality job, but they realize that the projects themselves are irrelevant. The construction projects, the home builds, and the painting projects are just tools to build relationships. They understand that we are all in this together and they (or we) do not have everything figured out. Humility goes a very long way in missions work.

It is so important to remember that in the grand scheme of things; our physical projects are irrelevant to the relationships that we build. The activities we might organize are irrelevant to our heart behind them, and our heart for the people that we are proposing to serve. Lives are touched by people, not stuff. Does a child care more about a new soccer uniform, or the fact that his parent was present at every game through the season? When a casserole is brought to a grieving family, the quality of the dish might matter, but the fact that an individual would put forth the effort and deliver the meal to the grieving family means so much more. It’s all about relationships.

I network with a lot of international ministries and every year my team hosts a tremendous amount of visiting short-term mission groups. We have one group that really stands out for all the right reasons. It’s a fairly large church from the middle of Iowa. Every year they send large teams into our town and over the course of two weeks build between two or three houses for needy families in our area. If that was all they did that would be plenty. These houses are a huge blessing in our community and a tremendous witness to all those involved in the project, and the surrounding area. But this group from Iowa really “gets” that it is not about the houses. They do a quality job, but they also go out of their way to build a relationship with the families they are serving.

This Iowa church shares meals with the family, and the family usually prepares a few meals for the group. They invite the families to come back with them and spend time around the campfire. Every year when they come back, the leaders go around and visit the families that they’ve met in prior years. Sometimes this group even sends packages down for birthdays, graduations, etc. for the children in the families. A couple of years ago they took it to another level. They realized that over time they had built about thirty houses, so they planned an evening and invited all the families to come together for a potluck and games with the kids. Thier dinner is now an annual event and a big deal in our town.

I, and the many people in the full-time missions field, could not do our work without the groups working on projects, putting up buildings, etc. I like a quality project, but I know that it’s just brick, wood, and paint. It’s not what is MOST important. Jesus never painted a wall. Jesus never built a house for someone. Jesus listened. He encouraged. He asked, “what do you seek?” Jesus was (and is) all about relationships. He sets the perfect model for all of us to follow.

Please share on Facebook or with your missions pastor, thanks.

The Church Needs to be Infected

pexels-photo-415564To say the church in America is going through challenging times would be an understatement. There are churches on almost every corner but in-spite of all the efforts they are dying as fast as shopping malls and book stores. Most traditional denominations are quite literally dying as congregations age, and the next generation is not embracing the old church model. Fewer millennials attend church on a regular basis than any prior generation and the fastest growing belief system in the US today is atheism. For every church that opens today, four close.

Today more than ever there are hundreds of options competing for our time. It’s common to see people on their phones during church checking social media. As technology increases, there are more and more demands on the few precious hours we have available. This lack of time creates a huge challenge for the American church. How do you compete with the unlimited activities and interests screaming for our time, attention, and involvement? How do you break through the noise? The default reaction is to make the church as “friendly” as possible by adding more coffee houses, spending more on worship, and remodeling the stage to be as Pinterest friendly as possible. This is not working.

So, how do we reach people at a deeper level? We need to let them see and experience others who are on fire for Jesus. Short-term missions can do this. The standard model for missions is “let’s go and tell that group of people over there about the Gospel.” It might be time for us to flip that model to “Let’s go over there and experience a level of faith we have a hard time finding at home.” Maybe, just maybe, if we go out with an open mind, something different might happen. If we go out with the attitude of “Yes, we’re here to serve, but what can I learn from these people who are so on-fire for God?”

Years ago, before vaccinations, if a child had chickenpox, it was common for the moms in the area to get together and have all the kids hang-out so they could infect each other. It was much better to have chickenpox as a child than maybe have it later as an adult. By spending time with someone who’s been infected, the children were much more likely to develop the disease. By hanging out with anybody who’s contagious, we are more likely to catch whatever they are carrying. Faith acts the same way. We can read about it, be preached at, maybe even be exposed to it through family history or tradition. Until we hang out with someone who is deeply passionate about their faith, someone who has been infected by their experience with Jesus, it’s hard for our faith to become real and personal to us.

I’m assuming if you’re reading this blog you are a believer, if you’re like the vast majority of believers, you were first drawn to the faith by spending time with someone else who was passionate about their faith and their walk with Jesus. This is truly how faith spreads, one-on-one and relationally. Even if you came to the Lord at a large concert or outreach, odds are you were brought or invited by someone else who had already experienced the joy of walking with Jesus. Can faith sprout spontaneously when someone is reading by themselves or just spending time contemplating the Lord? Absolutely. But it is much more likely to be spread by contact with another believer.

There are churches in America that are doing some incredible things. There are pockets of revival and people of passionate faith anywhere. God is not limited by geography. Just as a plant can survive growing through the cracks of the sidewalk, faith can live anywhere. But for a plant to thrive it needs better conditions, better nutrients, the right climate to grow into the healthy living organism it was intended to be. There is no greater influence in our lives than the people we surround ourselves with. We need to be spending time with churches that are on fire, that are going through revival, churches that are passionately in love with Jesus.

Around the world, God is doing incredible work through financially poor, persecuted, understaffed churches. Standing in a church in the middle of Ghana you can experience a level of real, joyful worship that makes anything you can experience in a US mega-church pale in comparison. In a cramped living room in Cuba listening to an “uneducated” pastor preach the gospel makes the best-trained theologian sound dry and feeble by comparison. Hearing the stories of the pure joy experienced by persecuted American missionaries in Muslim countries makes the writings of Paul come alive. The church in America is in desperate need of experiencing faith as a child, faith that is all consuming, faith as God intended our relationship with Him to be.

If we hang out with people who eat too much, we will eat too much. If we hang out with people who exercise, we will exercise more. If we hang out with people who are cynical and sarcastic, those traits will grow in our own lives. Faith works in the same way. If we spend time with people who are passionate about their walk with Jesus and are truly living it out, we will be drawn to do the same. If our church spends time and builds relationships with churches experiencing revival, with churches trusting in God at a deeper level, our church will be healthier. Short term missions can help to save the church in America.

By taking teams to other parts of the world and learning how to serve others, ultimately it can change the lives of the teams that go. The phrase that comes up over and over again from short-term missions teams is “I’m leaving with so much more than I came with.” Obviously, they’re not talking about material wealth; they’re leaving with something so much more valuable. The teams are leaving with a renewed and energized faith. In the grand scheme of things, their renewed faith is something extremely more valuable than any skills, supplies, or financing they might have brought to their destination countries. They leave infected.

Missions Funding Can Transform Communities

cashRecently, I spent some time with a few adults who were raised in our orphanage. All of them have been out on their own for a while, mostly doing pretty well. I asked them about their opinions and feelings on the hundreds of short-term missions teams they’ve experienced. It turned into a very long conversation, almost all of it positive. One of the things they discussed among themselves was the sheer economic impact short-term missions have had in our community.

We are a fairly small town, about three thousand people. In our community, there are two orphanages, a large free clinic, men’s and a woman’s rehab center, a career skills training center, and a free-of-charge daycare center. All of these ministries are supported by, and through, the short-term missions teams that come and visit our community. Many of the restaurants, mini-marts, hardware stores, etc. are open today, and are supported by, the sheer volume of short-term teams that come to serve in our area. Collectively, more people are employed in our town, either directly or indirectly, through short-term missions than any other “industry” in our area. Is this the norm for most communities? No, absolutely not, but in areas with fewer teams visiting, the teams that do visit can have an even greater impact. By purchasing food, building supplies, and whatever your team might need locally, you are providing jobs and pumping the local economy with fresh funds they would not see otherwise. There is a reason every city in America fights for convention business, people traveling to an area bring cash and can dramatically boost the local economy.

Some people put forth the argument that short-term missions teams can be detrimental to local economies by creating dependency or taking away jobs locals might have. I fully understand that, but if the teams are managed correctly, and are partnering with solid on the ground ministries who know the economic landscape, the impact can and should be very positive. We and many other responsible organizations take great pains to make sure any projects that groups might work on are not taking away jobs from the local community. The projects can be geared to augment work opportunities through healthy partnerships.

One example of responsible group management: We run a home building ministry here in our town in Mexico. These are very nice homes, about 600 Square feet, three bedrooms and very “homey.” These homes cost about $7,000 to build. The families receiving these homes are well screened, truly needy, and it would take them years to build a home that we can bless them with in a week. At first glance, it’s easy to say that the teams coming in are stealing these construction jobs from the local community. Experience tells us that these home projects are adding jobs to the local community. The average family who receives these homes would never be able to hire the workers they would need to complete the construction. The construction would just never happen. The family works alongside the visiting team, and we use some of the funding to hire other locals to work alongside them, creating jobs that would not exist otherwise. Frequently, the groups leave additional funding to finish out the house, creating even more jobs. We also work hard to purchase all of the building materials locally from community hardware stores. $7,000 spent in a small local hardware store has a tremendous impact on their profits and their ability to provide jobs.  When managed correctly short-term missions can have a profound, positive financial impact in small communities around the world. But, as with any project, the efforts have to be managed correctly.

There are plenty of examples of people using funds in a way that does no good or even causes harm. Last year a great, well-meaning group built a house for a single mom with two children who lost their home in an electrical fire. In that same fire, the daughter was severely burned. As the group was leaving, one gentleman saw that the house was being powered by running a cord from the neighboring house (not uncommon in much of the world). This very well-meaning man handed the lady over $1,000 to put in the electrical meter and have the house connected safely. $1,000 was more money than she had ever seen in her life and she did not have the experience to handle it well. Two weeks later she had a large new TV, a gaming system, and nothing left to wire the house correctly.

Money is a double-edged sword. Money handled with wisdom can change lives, communities, ministries, and the future of countries. Money handled poorly can destroy lives and communities. It’s a cliche that everyone who wins the lottery says that it ultimately destroyed their lives. Most lottery winners are bankrupt, divorced, and lonely within three years. Over 75% of professional athletes are bankrupt within a few years of retirement. Everyone claims they will be different, but large amounts of money changes how we see the world, how others see us, how people interact with one another, it changes way more than we can imagine.

If teams are focused and wise in how they use the funds, a long-term positive impact is an attainable goal and can transform communities. When done right, micro-loans for small business start-ups can change lives. Partnering micro-savings programs with solid, applicable financial advice can shift a person or families’ future. By providing equipment, medicines, and practical training to an established local medical clinic, you can literally save lives.

Take a short-term missions trip, lead a short-term trip, but please do so responsibly.

Please share on Facebook, or with your short-term mission leaders. Thanks

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.

If you liked this, please share with others on Facebook or wherever you hang-out.

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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