Advice for a young leader who wanted to start an orphanage

Written by on June 22, 2014 in Voices from the Field with 26 Comments

One day an experienced Christian worker picked up the phone to call a young woman who was planning to open an orphanage in Haiti. This is what she said.


A group learns from Hatians in Haiti

A group in Haiti learns from Hatians

Over the past two years, I have had the privilege of leading multiple teams overseas with World Orphans. Part of my job that I love is getting to educate and teach team members what the Bible says about orphan care, about our role and responsibility in tackling orphan-causing issues, and about the various models of orphan care that other organizations employ.

I have noticed in the past decade or so that God is doing an amazing work in the hearts of His people in regards to orphan care. The Church is finally starting to rise up and carry out the mandate in Scripture to rescue and care for the fatherless, widows, and the poor around the world. Social media, the Internet, photography and video, and the ease of travel in this day and age have only increased our awareness of the orphan crisis and extreme levels of poverty in the majority world.

I am excited that we are finally starting to respond; however, I feel a huge burden to speak into a particular issue that I have come across time and again while working with individuals along the way.

I won’t beat around the bush: I fear that we’re doing it all wrong.

My concern is that our hearts are leading the way and we are not doing what is in the best interest of the children that we are trying to help. Let me explain….

A phone call I had to make

I had a phone conversation with a lovely young lady who recently served on a one-week mission trip to Haiti. She is passionate, educated, well-traveled and absolutely loves the Lord. She has a huge desire to take care of orphans around the world and is actually starting a non-profit ministry to allow her the platform to do so. I was ecstatic for her and proud of her willingness to make a difference! However, I saw something on Facebook one day that made my heart sink. One of her ministry goals was to start an orphanage in the following year. I screamed at my computer, as if voicing my concerns would make a difference, “NO! Please don’t do that!!” I felt such an incredible burden after reviewing her website and reading through their goals and plans. I had to do something. So I picked up the phone.

We had a great conversation and she took everything I had to say with such grace. I feel as though my relationship with her allowed me the opportunity to speak into this and hopefully shed light on why I am so adamant about NOT starting/funding/partnering with orphanages.

Below are some conclusions from our conversation, summarizing what I communicated to her that day.

There has to be a better way

First, God did not intend for ANY person to be institutionalized. He created us to be in families. If that is the case, then why are we so passionate about orphanages? Why do we glamorize “orphanages” and “orphan homes” and applaud those who go over to invest and work in them? Yes, it’s great that people have a heart for the orphan….but again, my fear is that we’re doing it all wrong. There HAS to be a better way to care for orphans than by putting them in an institution.

“God sets the lonely in families;
he leads forth the prisoners with singing…”

Psalm 68:6

If we build an orphanage, it WILL be filled with children…but that’s not necessarily a good thing. In the movie, A Field of Dreams, there’s a voice that says, “If you build it, they will come.” That rings so true with orphanages, as well. You see, what many of us don’t realize is that many children who are living in orphanages aren’t even orphans! I was astonished to see the statistics on this. In Liberia, for example, 98% of the children living in orphanages have at least one surviving parent. In Sri Lanka the number is 92%; in Zimbabwe it’s 40%.

A mother with her children in Haiti

A mother with her children in Haiti

I saw this first-hand when I was serving in Haiti. We were working one day at a small orphanage and there was a knock at the front gate. One of the workers answered the door and found a mother with her two children. The mother pleaded with the orphanage for them to take her children because she didn’t have the means to care for them anymore. What we discovered is that this is a COMMON thing that orphanage directors face around the globe. Orphan Care Network says it like this: “These statistics reflect a very common dynamic: In communities under severe economic stress, increasing the number of places in residential care results in children being pushed out of poor households to fill those places.”

It’s a sad reality, but we have to put ourselves in the shoes of parents living in poverty or who are faced with other dire circumstances. Think about it, if you had children and had no way of providing adequate food, medicine, or education for them, would you not consider taking them to a nearby orphanage to see if they could take them in so that your children wouldn’t starve? I know I would.

Those parents aren’t bad parents – they are just hopeless and in survival mode. So we have to ask ourselves the question: if most of the children that are institutionalized actually have family, but have been brought to that facility because their parents or other family members didn’t have the adequate means to care for them in the first place, wouldn’t it make more sense for us to assist those FAMILIES so that they can stay together? That, to me, seems to be the best solution and one worth figuring out.

Symptoms

Second, growing up in an orphanage has an adverse effect on personality, emotional, and social development. Many studies have shown that every child who spends significant time in an orphanage will display “symptoms of inadequate personality development such as aggression, attention-demanding behavior, sleep disturbance, over-affection, and repelling affection” (The Urban Halo, Craig Greenfield).

I’ve seen this first-hand in orphanages during my travels as well. Individuals on short-term mission teams think it’s something special when a child at an orphanage is overly affectionate with them during a visit. We think, “Oh, look how sweet he is! He has been holding onto me all day and won’t let go of my hand.” (I’ve mistakenly assumed this as well prior to my study on this particular topic.) What we don’t understand, though, is that the child acts that way with every single visitor who comes to the orphanage because “over-affection” is actually a psychosocial issue. This phenomenon results from a child not having a secure, stable, and nurturing parental relationship. Such children are deprived of a deep and foundational emotional need. Therefore, they are overly affectionate with any adult figures who will give them the time of day.

Other studies show that IQ is severely affected, especially when children are institutionalized at a young age. Even when high quality orphanages are adequately staffed and children are receiving attention and love, researchers have discovered a statistically significant difference in emotional stability between the institutionalized children and similar children in foster care. Researchers also found children living in orphanages had a greater tendency toward depression.

I feel as though well-intended individuals, churches, and organizations around the world think that if they construct an orphanage with brightly-colored walls, adequate staff, funding for two or three meals a day, and an educational program to keep the children in school, then they are doing a great thing. In light of all the research and studies that have been done, is it really? Is it really a great thing considering that those children WILL struggle and face developmental delays because of being institutionalized?

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I believe that the hearts of people who are starting orphanages are BEAUTIFUL, please don’t get me wrong. I just believe those hearts are misguided, and we need to do more to inform them. That passion and love for orphaned children just needs to be redirected, so that the best interests of the children are considered first and foremost.

We can do more

Finally, orphanages are expensive and lack sustainability when compared to community-based orphan care models. It costs about $2,000/year per child in an orphanage, on average, whereas supporting a child to live with a family in the community costs about $30/month (about $360/year). This includes the cost of subsidizing the child’s basic needs and hiring and training staff to follow-up regularly. Furthermore, considering that most orphans are “economic orphans,” meaning they are only residing in the orphanage because of economic stressors, it makes total sense for a ministry/organization to support the child to stay in his or her own family and community.

Keeping children in the community and empowering families strengthens both nation and society, and it leads to economic development, not deeper brokenness and dependency. We could see a HUGE difference in the lives of vulnerable children if more organizations and ministries would focus on working with local communities to empower and train families rather than building more orphanages. If families are empowered and trained to sustain themselves, then the parents won’t be knocking on the doors of orphanages to provide food and education for their children.

I ended my conversation ended with this young lady by reinforcing the fact that orphanages are not BAD…and I want to reiterate that again for you as a reader. Many of you, I’m sure, have some sort of connection with an orphanage. Perhaps you even know and love the children or the staff who work there. I do, too, and I will continue to support them as best as I can with the resources and knowledge that I have. I have no intention of abandoning those places!

If I were asked by the orphanage director to give my opinion about the best way to care for the children currently in his/her orphanage, I would reiterate that the solution is not to turn our backs on existing orphanages or orphan homes. Then I would say we must make a radical shift in our thinking about how to operate such facilities.

Ask yourselves these questions

We can start by facing some potentially transforming questions.

  • What can we do to “de-institutionalize” the children and help them reintegrate into society?
  • Can we trace the families of any children and possibly reunify with their parents or relatives?
  • Why wouldn’t we redirect funds that we are using at the orphanage to help train and equip families to care for their own children at home?
  • If families are nowhere to be found OR they are not capable of properly caring for children (i.e., due to abuse, or a parent’s severe physical or mental disability, etc.), can we equip and train families in the community to be to be long-term substitute or adoptive parents?
  • We believe that God has provided the mandate for the Church to care for orphans, right?
  • So why not start with families in the local church right there in the community where the child was born?
  • And, finally, can we re-train the orphanage workers as social workers to visit the children in their new homes and ensure that proper care is being provided?

God created families and he intends for us to grow up in them. So let’s invest in solutions that allow for orphans and vulnerable children to be raised in loving families. That is the only way to tackle the worldwide orphan crisis.

My appeal to you is simply this: let your head guide your heart. Praise God for the hearts of those who want to serve and sacrifice to make a difference in the life of a child. But my prayer is that you seek wisdom, study the topic thoroughly, network with as many individuals as you can including real experts in the field, and make sure that you are doing what is MOST beneficial for the children (and their families).

May we all be challenged not to just do what appears to be right, or (heaven forbid) what makes us feel good about ourselves.

Let’s put the orphan and the vulnerable child (including the widows often struggling to raise them) above ourselves and our plans and ask: If they were my own children, what would be my best hope for them? I doubt many of us can even imagine our own children being placed in institutions or “children’s homes” knowing the likely emotional, social, physical and mental outcomes. Why not work for the very best, and God’s intentions, for their children as well?

May we all “learn to do good, seek justice, help the oppressed, defend the cause of orphans, and fight for the rights of widows” with wisdom and discernment (Isaiah 1:17).

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Lori Resmer

About the Author

About the Author: Lori Resmer resides in Gallatin, Tennessee and has been in missions mobilization for the past eight years. Her most recent employment was with World Orphans  (http://www.worldorphans.org) She served for 3 years as director of Journey117, the short-term missions mobilization and discipleship program. Lori is now a stay-at-home mother focused on the preparing for the upcoming adoption of two girls from the Democratic Republic of Congo along with her husband, Jeremy. Lori and Jeremy attend LifeChurch in Hendersonville, TN, along with their two-year-old son, Justice. After meeting in Kenya, the Resmers felt that God was calling them to a life together of pursuing justice for the fatherless. .
  • Praveena Ravichandran

    this is a great post… very well written!!! especially on not trying to institutionalize a child when a child can and should be accomodated in a family…

    • Arigi Comrade Abdulazeez

      Your wrıte up ıs very ımpresıve . Before now ı have made up my mınd to establısh an orphanage home and care for old. I need supportıve ıdeas/advıce from humanıtarıan mınd that can assıst me to achıeve dıs objectıve.

      • Arigi Comrade Abdulazeez

        Any body can fallfallalleamvictour’s do odoposiblee best to help the affeced ones.

  • Benjamin Brooks

    What do I do if I want to adopt? Is it a selfish thing to want to adopt instead of finding a local family to adopt a child? I have this dream of moving to Africa and adopting 10 kids to be my children and raise them in a home I provide.

  • Benjamin Brooks

    Would an orphanage be a good temporary place for a child until a local family was found to place the family in? Or would it be just as quick to place a child temporarily in a foster home instead of temporarily in an orphanage?

  • Stephanie

    I enjoyed reading your post that advocated for best practices of orphan care! I too am a huge supporter of family-based care and people being well-equipped before they start the journey of orphan care. I work for a small online Bible school called Austin Bible Institute that has entire certificate and degree programs on Christian Ministry to Orphans and Vulnerable Children. Many of the concepts you touched on in this post are taught and explored in depth in these programs. It’s good to see people like you who are encouraging others to do better and do more. http://www.austinbibleinstitute.com

  • Mpumie

    Ive learned a lot here. Thank You Mam

  • Tonya

    How can we make this possible? What can I do? I am willing to help organize or assist in helping children stay with their families. I agree that orphanages are wonderful, but I agree more that we need to help teach parents/families how to nurture and care for their children. How do we do this? I am traveling to Haiti in November and I strongly believe I will be doing more in Haiti in the next 5 years. Where do I start? Please lead me in the direction I need to go. Thank you!

  • john monday uganda

    interesting article. surely, Orphanages with skill centers can be a better palace. Forexample https://www.facebook.com/Educate-A-Child-International-512410038944562/ intends to put a very good orphanage to care for children on street,those as a result of divorces,etc. we intend to equip these children with skills as well as rehabilitating them to become better persons. ours will be made in a way that a school/primary level will be available and those who cant go to class will be taught tailoring,craft making and other vocational skills

  • Ruth Juma

    I am a private mentor and have trained orphans and needy children voluntarily in various organisations.i have this burden to help orphans from their own homes and community.children are better of in their own communities than else where unless there is no other way.I live in Kitale, Kenya and should you be willing to assist me reach my objective in any way you can reach me on my email at or cellphone 2540704071909. by sms. ,

  • jessica oyelowo

    Thank you. My son has been talking about building an orphanage since he was very young. We have started researching and found your article. I’m so grateful for the well advised redirection for us. It will be so much better for vulnerable children to stay with their parent(s). Thank you for the inspiration, we will be following this line of research from now on and wish you every blessing in your own work in establishing the solitary in families and caring for those God has put across your path to love and care for. I’m so excited now.

  • Dominique

    Wow!!!! This is a brilliant article! While I was asking God if my husband and I should go for it (opening an orphanage), the Holy Spirit put in my heart to do some research and out of all the articles that came up, I was directed to this one! Thank you for your wonderful testimony.

  • Umekwe Esther

    Nice one there!! As a 19 year old girl, I’ve spent most of my life dreaming of having a big orphanage home, with a school, love the kids, work on their attitudes.. But I see now, the poor children need more than that… I’ll change my dreams from having a big orphanage to helping helpless families and sponsoring helpless kids… Think that’s better

  • Sergio Henry

    There are children really suffering here in Kenya who are completely orphans, guys lets help them its so sad to see how bad their lives are.

  • Abi

    You’ve made good points with parts of which i agree with, but what of the children with no where to go? When the the people in the community are not interested or can not afford to take in a child with no family? What you have said doesn’t apply to every vulnerable child, there are those that are left on the side of the road shortly after they are born and larger poorer communities will have a higher number of orphaned children with no parent or family. Not needing orphanages would definitely be best but we cant deny that their presence is better than nothing.

    • Dan Rabottini

      I agree that not every child is out there because of the financial burden that families have, therefore I also agree there should be some kind of institutions for the unfortunate children who only have the option of living in the streets. I think the writer did suggest though, through the questions, that if there are no families is there the possibility of adoptions with families who can take those orphans in. Overall, I don’t think he is saying to eradicate orphanages but to shift our mindset to make sure every child deserves a loving, caring family instead of finding their way into the orphanages. But you definitely stated a good point Abi that there are other situations as well which we have to take into account when dealing with these world issues.

  • Hope David

    I also do have the vision of establishing an orphanage home,a school for them and a vocational training institute…your article really is insightful and and wonderful ..

  • Beatrice

    All my life I have been dreaming of opening a orphanage , so anyone willing to start a children home we can hook up n start together and help those kids who are in the street of nairobi and other small town’s all over kenya please contact mi +254792221585 whatapp or sms facebook @beah gicheha please
    Thanks

  • Jess

    Lori! This post was absolutely amazing and just what I needed to hear. God set my heart on an orphanage in Kenya last summer and I’m on fire to learn what can/should be done.
    I’d love to tell you all about it, hear from you about your experience, and get direction on the path from an orphanage (where the boys are truly orphaned and have no existing/capable family) to generating a ‘foster care’-like support system in a non-invasive way.
    If you can get in contact, please do! God bless!

    • Andy Gray

      Lori allowed us to post this on her behalf some years ago. If you want to contact her, you could try via Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/loriresmer . If you want to say more about where you are now and what you are considering doing next, there are others I could try to connect you with.

      • Jess

        Thanks Andy! It would be great to get connected with a community that’s on the right track.
        Here’s some info on the orphanage I’m involved with:
        New Life Community Center (nlccorphans.org- website currently under construction) was started in 1997 by a local with efforts from his family. It is an orphanage for double orphans who have no other family to properly care for them. Unfortunately, it runs solely off of donations and the sponsors of people here in the states, mainly from MN and WI. When I first visited last summer, I knew the need of moving towards self-sustainability, but only had experience working with communities in this process (I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines a few years ago).
        Since that mission trip, God set a deep desire to help on my heart and I’ve been evaluating my options for a while. Considering missionary work there, I started looking into what was already being done and talking to friends involved in missions. Hearing that orphanages, although good, are not best was surprising but it made sense. I agree but didn’t have an answer for what ‘best’ was. Finding that out is what brought me here.
        I’m most interested in the best way possible to ease an orphanage into a home-based care system. I’d assume that this has successfully been done before, so getting the help of an organization that does this could be amazing. I took a look at World Orphans and know I could dig into their model and contact them. I’d also like to know if there is an organization like this that would allow me, as a supported missionary, to come alongside them in the process. I’ve been prayerfully considering this ‘best’ route and just want to make sure that God is at the center and guiding what happens. Considering changing a community, village or even an orphanage seems easy with an American mindset, but I know it’s not healthy or sustainable.
        Like I said, any advice, past experience, or references would be phenomenal! I appreciate you (or anyone else) taking the time to help!!

        • Andy Gray

          There definitely are many orphanages that have changed. I know of several in Cambodia. However, I don’t know of any international organization that is doing this (unless World Without Orphans has taken on that role). Every orphanage is so different, and in many cases, I think most orphanages are led by their founders. Therefore, the best hope is for the founder to adopt a new vision. That’s hard but not impossible. The first reaction is often to say: “Who is doing alternative care? If alternative care isn’t an option, then we still need orphanages.” My response is that: 1) More about more people and organizations are doing alternative care all over the world and proving it works, and 2) the best hope for change (and something better for children and families) is that the orphanages themselves will embrace a new vision. I don’t think there’s any method to make this happen because every orphanage is so different. Really change always comes down to relationship and trust, so I’d start there. And if any orphanage can’t or won’t change, then perhaps you have to start somewhere else. I’ve shared the story of one orphanage that changed on this website (http://unitingforchildren.org/2014/10/inspiring-orphanage-story/). In Africa, there is a large community of practitioners who are pursuing family-based care that you can access on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/groups/alternativecareuganda/ ). This Facebook group includes people from all over Africa and around the world who are joined by this common interest. There are many, many more stories, but I’ll stop there for now. I think once you start connecting, you’ll have more than enough examples and information.

          • Andy Gray

            By the way, I should recommend my own book. It’s written as a graphic novel, and it gently (I think) tells a story and casts a vision that change is possible. For more info, see http://www.globalcompassion.com .

          • Jess

            This is so helpful! Thank you so much. I will definitely do some searching into the avenues you mentioned. God bless!

  • Ben Ji

    A truly well-thought article. Thank you!

  • Caroline Uhm

    Our church too is looking to help children in Orphanages in various countries. Your article was so helpful. As others mentioned, it is great advice and a reminder of serving others. The questions you provided are so helpful. I hope to share this article with our church members and brainstorm together.
    Thank you!

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