Can an orphanage transform into something better? The story of Asian Hope will inform and inspire you. Discover what it took for the director of a children’s home to ask hard questions and risk changing direction.
I am an international adoptive parent. I understand deeply the passion, drive, reward, and challenges of bringing a child out of an institution and into a loving life family.
I am also the leader of the humanitarian aid organization, Asian Hope, which was founded to open orphanages in order to give abandoned children a chance at stability, education and a new life.
I came into my position with the impression that orphanages (or children’s homes if we prefer a more gentle expression for the same thing) are a superior tool for rescuing, protecting, and launching vulnerable children into the future. I rationalized that in a best case scenario the orphanage would be a conduit to permanent placement with international families through adoption. Yet, the last six years have challenged and inspired my way of thinking like never before.
Asian Hope began with the premise that we could provide the best possible environment for orphaned and abandoned children to grow up. We even fantasized that our model might be the ideal one: a young, Christian missionary family taking in a group of vulnerable children to raise as their own within the Cambodian culture and remaining committed to them for the long term. We could give them the best of everything including nutritious meals, quality clothing, appropriate housing, medical care, nightly devotions, Christian schooling, parental modeling, and the opportunity to go to college. We did this for 30 Cambodian children and youth ranging in age from 3 to 15 years old. As I type this it all still sounds wonderful and gratifying.
I first came to visit Asian Hope in June 2003 as part of a short-term Christian mission trip. I vividly remember 3-year old Kinsrey hanging onto my neck as I carried her around her orphanage. I wanted to bring her back to the US and give her the home she so desperately needed.
During the 3 week trip my wife and I played with the kids, went on outreach activities to other communities and orphanages, and volunteered at the international schools owned by Asian Hope. The organization and the American family living with the children were well regarded in the community. I was even challenged by the founder to leave my life and job in America to come with my family and open a second “children’s home”!
There was a romantic, missionary appeal to the idea that touched me and my wife. But instead we pursued international adoption and brought our daughter home from China in 2005. At that point, we realized being house parents to 20 or 30 vulnerable kids was not in our abilities, but we confidently believed that we would serve overseas in the future. That day came in 2008 when I accepted the CEO position at Asian Hope and our family of five moved to Phnom Penh.
Impressions can be deceiving.
Asian Hope almost didn’t make it to that day. In 2005 the founding family who had lived with the 30 children was no longer with the organization.
Over time it was apparent that the ability of the children to create strong and lasting relational bonds had been severely handicapped. They were no longer fully literate in their own language, but they were not native English speakers either. Many of the children believed that their culture was inferior to Western culture, and some were terrified to interact in public with their own countrymen.
In fact, just recently one of the kids who had transitioned into self-sufficiency expressed to me that they have all become “third culture kids.” They no longer fit with their home culture and they don’t fit with the American culture they have been exposed to. They are kept just outside of belonging due to the “odd” ways they walk, talk, dress, and think. They miss cultural clues necessary for communication. They lack a relationship network among their people and are fairly confined to the expatriate community. They don’t have a family network to guide them and provide context and contacts. They feel alone.
When I arrived and began to see what was happening, I went on a search for answers. I needed a game plan to repair, improve, and ultimately justify my orphanage paradigm. What I found shook my beliefs to their core. What the Asian Hope kids were enduring was not uncommon, even among the children of local, non-religious Cambodian orphanages. This was and is the normal result of raising children in residential care rather than in a functioning family.
It took nearly three years of honest investigation and reflection to reach this conclusion. We considered opening another children’s home exactly the same as before but with only 5 to 10 children. We considered finding a poorly run traditional orphanage and taking it over (because we were certain we could do better). We even considered starting a consulting service to go into private and government orphanages to help them “do it right” or “do it better.”
We learned that these ideas were (and are) not the wishes of the Cambodian government, which is encouraging family-based care. And in all honesty, we came to the conclusion that God designed people to grow up and develop in a family—not an orphanage or a children’s home or even a group home. We as relational beings have a need for belonging and security that these non-family-based institutional solutions can’t satisfy.
Of course, there are true orphans out there who have no living parents, and there are truly abandoned, vulnerable kids as well. There are children sold from their families into child labor or even worse, prostitution. What do we do about that? What is Asian Hope’s role if not to intervene on their behalf?
Our DNA and our original intent has always been to protect, educate, and empower vulnerable children through the love of Jesus.
We decided that (1) we cannot run from who we are and our calling to vulnerable children, (2) we must recognize who and what God created Asian Hope to be as a tremendously resourced education provider, and (3) we cannot be afraid to tackle the hardest, most complex issues in God’s way even if it seems impossible. We concluded that God’s vision for Asian Hope was working to keep children in families and restoring struggling families to health – even if that is much more difficult to do.
Consequently, we committed to finishing our work with the original 30 children and then shutting down our orphanage programs by the end of 2013. We committed to developing the capacity and resources of our international schools to reach as many Cambodian children as possible with the highest quality of education. And we committed to creating a new ministry model: we use Catch-up Schools to positively impact vulnerable children in their daily lives, and we empower their families to stay together and thrive.
It isn’t simple or easy working in poor communities with real families. It is complex, draining, stressful, and messy work. But we believe it is what best supports the human development needs of children. Sopha is a boy whose family has experienced tragedy and hardship. All of his aunts and uncles and his grandfather were lost during the Khmer Rouge. He lives with his mother, grandmother, and younger brother and sister. Sopha is a beacon of hope for his family. Without the services provided by Asian Hope in his community he would be a prime candidate for placement in an orphanage – or child labor.
We know what we are good at and what we need others to do.
We collaborate with organizations that support kinship care (placing children with extended family), offer emergency respite services, and arrange foster care. We sometimes turn to other organizations to intervene in cases of human-trafficking or domestic violence. We also need those that can help a family start anew financially, or that can address a health crisis threatening to push a family into tragic decisions.
But unlike before, when we moved children away from their closest living family members and communities, we have moved ourselves instead! We are present daily in our target communities. Our staff members interact with local leaders and see the needs first-hand – an effective safeguard against romantic do-good fantasies. We are better positioned to respond quickly and appropriately. As with Sopha, when a need arises we mobilize resources on behalf of children and their families.
We started with a vision of a home. Today we have an inspiring story to tell of children, families, and communities growing healthier and stronger together.