Andy Gray

Andy Gray

Andy Gray hosts and writes for Uniting for Children. He lives in Cambodia with his family where he works with Alongsiders International. He wrote Home, a Cambodian story and created the video “Why Not a Family?

Home #2 – We Always Find a Way

Written by on August 22, 2015 in Home, a Cambodian story (series) with 0 Comments


Twenty percent of Cambodians are at a level of economic poverty defined by food insecurity (they have trouble getting enough food to eat), and a significant percentage is barely above that level. There is no welfare of government support to help them, only what help they may receive from family, other members of the community, or outside organizations. Though this 20 percent of the population is undeniably poor economically, consider their resilience and ingenuity in the face of such challenges. We just a little support, many families like Po’s can make it.

Home #1 – The Day Begins

Written by on August 22, 2015 in Home, a Cambodian story (series) with 0 Comments


The story begins in a rural community on the outskirts of a major city in Cambodia. Cambodian villages are typically strung out along roads tracing the edges of rice fields. People know each others’ names and often a fair amount of detail about each others’ lives. Most wake up before dawn to get work done and eat breakfast before it’s too hot.

Orphanages can end positively

Written by on August 21, 2015 in The Blog with 0 Comments

1514UG-F2-020_web-690x460Here’s an encouraging story out of Uganda. It has many elements of a typical orphanage story but a different ending.

Grace and Rachael, a Ugandan couple, opened up their home for vulnerable children with the best intentions. Rachael had grown up in an orphanage, and she wanted to help other vulnerable children like herself. But, as the article states, 96 percent of the children in Uganda are considered vulnerable. Soon their two-room home was bursting with 68 children, and more were coming.

Fortunately, rather than seeking foreign funding and starting another string of orphanages, the couple reached out to Sameritan’s Purse. Samaritan’s Purse helped Grace and Rachael reintegrate the children back into their own families rather than keeping them in residential care.

Reintegration may have a challenging ring to many people, but it’s well within the realm of feasibility. So why not make it the norm?

In order for reintegration to take place, our staff must go to parents and help them understand the importance of being parents to their children. Their thinking has to be transformed. Samaritan’s Purse helps prepare families to take on the responsibility of caring for their children again by empowering them with income-generating projects. The children are also taught practical and technical skills so they can be a blessing to their families.

Read the story here.

I’d like to collect more stories like this: of reintegration, local adoption, and foster care working. Some orphanages are closing voluntarily for the right reasons and with positive results. Perhaps by sharing such stories again and again we can add to that momentum and shift the conversation away from doom-and-gloom (with foreigners as the saviours) toward hope and local people helping their own.

Orphanages are changing for good

Written by on April 21, 2015 in Featured Posts, The Blog with 0 Comments

The change has started. We are seeing orphanages worldwide and in Cambodia transitioning into community and family support centers. They have not lost their vision to care for the most vulnerable children, but they are seeking better ways to accomplish it.

Tom Matuschka, Director of Asian Hope, took over one of Cambodia’s earliest and well-known orphanages in 2008. He began to see a pattern of problems as children matured, so he set out to learn more.

Children learning in a community-based education center started by Asian Hope

“What I found shook my beliefs to their core. The problems our kids were enduring were not uncommon, even in local, non-religious Cambodian orphanages. They were and are the normal result of raising children in residential care rather than in a functioning family. 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.”

Family-based care means working together so that vulnerable children and orphans are raised within loving families in their own communities. It recognizes the need to move beyond “orphan care” under the control of outsiders, to empowering families and communities to care for their own vulnerable children.

Honestly, it’s complicated and difficult. But it’s not as complicated and costly as removing children from their families and communities, then returning them to society years later.

Truth is, family-based care is working in Cambodia – even among the very poor. But it’s also true we have a long way to go here.

We must acknowledge a painful truth. Poverty is the root cause behind most children being put in orphanages in Cambodia and worldwide. Nearly half of the children placed in Cambodian orphanages are sent by their own parents. On major holidays, the orphanages empty out as most children and staff go home to their parents and relatives.

20150216-60-479Orphanages offer food, education, and other physical benefits that poor families need for their children. But putting a child in an orphanage is an inefficient and costly way meet these needs.

Roughly speaking, the cost of raising a child in an orphanage is five to ten times the cost of supporting the same child within a family, and that’s not counting the psychological and social costs.

Spien (which means, “The Bridge”) is a community-based organization working throughout Cambodia that supports nearly two thousand orphans living with relatives or in long-term foster care. In general, all it takes for Spien to keep a child living in a healthy family situation is a regular visit from a volunteer, a fresh set of clothing and school supplies each year, and about ten dollars worth of rice each month for the child and care provider.

They have already lost their parents. In an orphanage, they will lose their uncles, aunts, grandmother and more. Even though they are poor and don’t have very much, they don’t want to be separated from their own family.

– Phan Chork, a Spien volunteer in Takeo Province

“We must stop reacting to poverty by separating children from their families and communities,” says Mick Pease, who has trained orphanage directors and foster care providers around the world. “If they were your children,” he often asks, “would you be happy to see them living in an institution or a group home rather than in a family?”

20150228-139-481But poverty is not the only issue. Many children face abuse and neglect at home, and some are exploited and even sold by their own parents. Step-parents in this culture are more likely to abuse children from previous relationships. Added to all of this, Cambodia has a legacy of violence, family-separations, and post-traumatic stress dating to the Khmer Rouge years.

Family-based care does not mean turning a blind eye to these problems. Nor should anyone naively think that orphanages are free from them either.

When a child cannot live with his or her own parents, experts and Cambodian government policies agree that the following options should be attempted in this order: 1) kinship care (placement with close relatives), 2) foster care leading to domestic adoption, and 3) residential care until a better alternative can be found.

Orphanages should be the last resort and a temporary one, because living with a family is better for a child’s development.

“A family is what every child wants, even after abuse and neglect,” says Mick Pease. “They want to belong to someone, not to an organization. They want to feel normal, not stigmatized. They want to have siblings and relatives and a community. They want things at home to be safe and right. Poverty is not what matters to a child most; it is being part of a family.”

Unfortunately, there are still too few organizations and resources dedicated to family-based care in Cambodia.

By contrast, recent mapping has indicated that more than 600 registered and unregistered orphanages have proliferated throughout the country. What was meant to be a “last resort” has often been the default solution instead.

We can do better than that.

20150314-52-482Family-based care starts with prevention: taking steps to keep the most vulnerable children with their own parents and relatives so they will not be sent away to orphanages in the first place.

Organizations like Indochina Starfish Foundation, Cambodian Children’s Trust, and Transform Cambodia are running community-based programs that meet crucial needs: supplemental education, food support, and family interventions. They may not use the words “family-based care,” but they are keeping families together and preventing children from being sent to orphanages.

Orphanages can start by doing their utmost to prevent children from being separated from their parents due to problems that can be solved with other interventions. Why not make this a top priority and spend accordingly?

For the cost of raising two or three children in residential care, a trained social worker can be hired full time to work with local community leaders to preserve and strengthen families. For the cost of raising ten children, a team of workers can be employed to impact hundreds of children and their family members.

Are we thinking too small?

20150203-125-478There is no line in the sand that stops orphanages from developing high quality family support services, including kinship and foster care programs. The orphanages of today could become the family support centers of tomorrow. We are already seeing orphanages around the world taking these steps.

Not every orphanage will have the capacity or vision to make such big changes, but every orphanage should practice prevention, and every orphanage can seek partnerships with family-based care organizations that provide kinship care, foster care, and domestic adoption services.

When orphanages and family-based care organizations work together, everyone wins.

Are you ready to take the next steps and support the family-based care revolution?

Donors – If you are a donor, please do not suddenly stop supporting an orphanage. But do use your influence to ask questions and press for needed changes. Learn from the resources on the back page, and consider committing new funding to projects that support community and family-based care.

Volunteers – Be wise. Experts have said for years short-term visits to orphanages are not good for the children. They need to form long-term attachments with consistent adults, but they are faced with high staff turnover and a constant flow of visitors in and out of their lives. This can damage a child’s development. If you volunteer, commit long term. If you organize group trips to orphanages, consider stopping them. See the resources on the back page for more about ethical volunteering and group trips.

Christians – Many people caring for orphans are Christians, including many pioneering leaders in family-based care, so it seems right to address Christians directly. The Bible says every person is made in the image of God and worthy of love and justice, and caring for widows and orphans and other marginalized people is central to biblical faith. This is good news! Keep in mind that in the Bible orphans were cared for in families: by relatives or foster/adoptive parents. Widows were supported so they could raise their own children. Surely Christians can agree that strengthening, restoring, and providing families for children in their own communities is a biblical calling.

Orphanage Leaders – This book is also for you, and we hope you receive it as a positive and encouraging challenge. Orphanages all over the world are re-evaluating and changing. There is no reason to draw a line between residential care and preserving and restoring children in families. Erase the line. If you want to learn more and explore making changes, look on the back page for organizations with people who can help and even walk through a transition with you. Exciting opportunities are ahead!

Readers – Thanks for joining us, now go out and share the story with others. Help drive this growing and needed conversation in positive directions. There is much more to say, and much to learn and do! See the back page for ideas, connections, and resources for the next steps from here.



This essay was originally published in the Home, a Cambodian story. It’s a beautiful hardback book available at Monument Books in Cambodia, and it’s also available on Amazon for Kindle devices and tablets and iPads running the Kindle app. Read reviews and learn more about the book here!

Book description: ‘Home’ is a graphic novella telling the inspiring story of two children sent to an orphanage who find a way home again with help along the way. Artistic and captivating, let this story take you on an an eye-opening journey. ‘Home’ features hand-inked cartoons by Cambodian artist Sao Sreymao.

How baby brains develop through relationships

Written by on March 10, 2015 in Featured Videos with 0 Comments

This is a stunning video that I strongly recommend for parents and anyone concerned with how young children develop. You will be moved and educated.

It helps make a strong case for doing all we can to see that children are raised within loving families — but hold on. Family-based care programs take note. This should be taken as a huge challenge for your programs as well. It’s not enough to send children to be raised in families if they will neglected there. The success of kinship care and foster care will hinge on the quality of the families and whether they are properly trained and supported.

An encouraging story about foster families

Written by on March 10, 2015 in The Blog with 0 Comments

Studies have shown that children raised in orphanages have developmental delays, including measurably slower brain development, compared with children raised in families.

These studies, as far as I have seen, relate to institutions that care for children from infancy. The worst examples of such orphanages may be in Eastern Europe and China. The study referred to below is a twelve year effort by researchers from Harvard and Boston Children’s Hospital studying children raised at an orphanage in Romania.

Babies need attention – to be held, talked to, and played with – and they need to bond with a significant and consistent adult, not a string of volunteers. Without the right kinds of attention and interaction, connections in their brains may fail to develop, or develop inadequately.

A must-see for parents and anyone concerned with how children develop

Here’s some encouraging news recently reported in The Telegraph. A twelve year study has shown that even after being raised in such orphanages and suffering impaired brain development, children placed in well chosen and supervised foster families show remarkable recoveries.

Their ‘white matter’ – the part of the brain which helps neurons communicate – was significantly damaged by their ordeal leading to poor language skills and decreased mental ability.

However the researchers discovered that those children fortunate enough to find loving foster homes were able to regrow the missing connections and restore lost function.

“Results from this study contribute to growing evidence that severe neglect in early life affects the structural integrity of white matter throughout the brain,” said report author Dr Johanna Bick of Boston Children’s Hospital.

This is a ray of hope, and it’s further evidence that we should be doing everything possible (through our efforts, donations, and advocacy) to ensure that children are raised within families to begin with.



Before starting or supporting an orphanage

Written by on January 27, 2015 in The Blog with 5 Comments

I like this post at Rage Against the Machine about orphanages. It is addressed to Christians directly, but the information and questions could just as well apply to anyone interested in supporting orphans. She says, “I think supporting orphans is important. Vitally important. But I want to make sure that we aren’t creating and sustaining a child’s orphan status because it’s the only way we are offering a family aid…our goal, .when possible, should be family care. An orphanage should only be a triage situation, where we do crisis management and then assess our next steps.”

She makes a good point, but be careful about throwing out words like “supporting orphans.” As good as that sounds, it can play right into the “great white savior” complex. Rather, what can we do to empower and restore families and communities so that they care for their own most vulnerable children – and then foreign intervention can move on?  There is far too much emphasis on foreigners and organizations as the “carers” rather than on the families and local communities being restored to that role.

It’s great to see more and more people like Kristen speaking out clearly, if not perfectly, about the need to change.

She also provides a good list of warning signs that a church (or group) can look for before supporting an orphanage. It’s not a bad list, and I hope the people who these items apply to will have the eyes to see it. If you’re thinking about starting an orphanage, change the words slightly and see if they may apply to you or your group. At the end I’ll add my own #7.

1. They are taking in poverty orphans. I will say it again: a child should not have to be abandoned at an orphanage to receive aid. If we can feed and educate a child in an orphanage, we can feed and educate a child living at home.

2. They are focused on providing a destination to missions groups. It’s sad to say this, but I’ve heard it from numerous people: the church wants to build an orphanage so they can visit and “love on” orphans when they take short-term trips. NO, PEOPLE. No no no no. Orphans are not mission-trip props.

3. They are motivated by the romanticism of starting an orphanage and how heroic that will make them look. People want their name on the building. It motivates people to donate when they feel ownership. Opening an orphanage looks good on paper. I get it. Still not best practice.

4. They are failing to provide adequate supervision to at-risk children. Orphanages in third-world countries tend to be poorly staffed, with high child-to-caretaker ratios and a high staff turnover. It is rare than an orphanage in a third-world country would meet even the minimum standards to be a licensed childcare facility in the U.S., and yet we are somehow satisfied with sub-standard care because they are poor.

5. They are not focused on permanency planning or family reunification. I cannot tell you have many orphanages I’ve visited where the children have living parents who even visit on weekends and there is absolutely no plan in place to get the kids back home.

6. They are raising children to be ministry partners instead of psychologically healthy adults. I have often heard orphanage directors talk about how they are raising the “future generation of Christian leaders” by raising kids in an orphanage. Except that our goal for kids should be to raise them into adults with a healthy sense of self . . . and the best way to do that is in a family, not in a “future Christian leader warehouse.”

My #7 is: They aren’t engaged in preventing children from being separated from their families and relatives in the first place. Many of the problems that lead children to be placed in orphanages by their own parents or relatives can be solved (quickly or through a process) at a fraction of the cost of raising a child in the orphanage. Yet many orphanages will say that’s not their calling or role. Why not? If an orphanage can spend money to raise a child, why can’t it spend money  to hire someone equipped for that role? In time, the savings will outweigh the cost, and the “family support center” will be supporting more children and families than ever.

The sad truth is that the people behind many orphanages, even those with good intentions, are afraid of any changes that might undermine their own necessary roles. But omitting prevention work, omitting restoring families, and omitting every effort at reunification are not merely symptoms of a narrow focus: they are harmful to the long term interests of the children.

UNICEF makes a strong statement about orphanages in Cambodia

Written by on January 27, 2015 in The Blog with 0 Comments

Not that UNICEF has withheld it’s opinion until now, but this was well done. UNICEF recently published a brief, very clear statement summarizing its position on orphanages in Cambodia. If you’re looking for a succinct summary of the reasons why orphanages are – or ought to be – on the way out, look no further. I particularly like the conclusion:

UNICEF advocates strongly with relevant ministries and local authorities that no more residential institutions for children be permitted to open in Cambodia. All existing institutions must be open to regular inspection according to the minimum standards. Failure to meet the standards must result in closure of the institutions in question. No child aged 3 years or under should ever be placed in an institution. The goal is to encourage as many institutions as possible to promote family/community-based support models, which are cheaper, more effective and less damaging to children than institutions. A further goal is to undertake effective case management of all children in institutions to understand well their family status and to facilitate their reunification with their families or communities wherever possible. For those children for whom family is not a safe and loving option, to facilitate alternate community care; local adoption and inter-country adoption.

This isn’t condemning or saying that people involved with orphanages are bad or wrong. It’s just saying, let’s not expand on that, and here is a way to move forward that’s a “win” for everyone.

Wizards Win! What ordinary wizards can do to change the world

Written by on January 26, 2015 in The Blog with 0 Comments

I love this article at about “Harry Potter Activists.” An online alliance of Harry Potter fans undertook a 4-year campaign that convinced Warner Bros Entertainment to buy only UTZ certified cocoa for its line of Harry Potter inspired chocolate bars.

Why is this important? Because the cocoa industry is rife with child slavery and human trafficking, and it has been an uphill battle to convince chocolate makers to buy only from certified producers. It’s not only a big victory, it’s surprising as well, because it was accomplished relatively quickly by lots and lots of unknown people – Harry Potter fans.

The Harry Potter Alliance, a fan activist group that uses the Harry Potter series as the foundation for social justice initiatives…

“This goes beyond raising money and donating books,” Lauren Bird, a representative for Harry Potter Alliance, told Yes. “This is over four years of creative organizing, educating, collaborating and negotiating. For the HPA, this is a validation of fan activism, the idea that fans of stories can work together to effect change in the real world.”

Think about that. Fan activism. Fans of a fictional story – that is ultimately a story about justice and standing up against the institutionalized powers and the evils that infect them.

Stories are powerful. Readers are potentially powerful – enough to press for changes in the real world. Combine truth in fiction and empowerment of the readers, and maybe we’re just seeing the beginnings of what is possible.

Be my friend before you try to give me something

Written by on January 25, 2015 in The Blog with 0 Comments

I read an excellent article at The Collegian about volunteering and voluntourism.  Really nice example of storytelling to teach important lessons.

Here is my favorite moment. The writer has been experiencing development work in different parts of Africa for months, and one day she sits down to a meal with a local chief in the Saharan interior.

“Cheikh Mohammed, do your friends give you gifts?” I started in Arabic, breaking off a piece of village bread.

“Of course, it’s a friendly thing to do.” He adjusted his posture on the scratchy woven carpet.

“Now if I’m coming from America to give you gifts, am I your friend?”

His face darkened, and he chewed a great deal before he spoke.

“Heather, a donation is a very dangerous thing to give away. Your American world is filled with so many items and material goods, that you might not understand the gravity of handing something for free to someone who has never been handed anything.”

I watched him deliberately dip his bread into goat sauce and carefully chew, knowing that he would explain himself.

“Do you know what this village means? Generations of desert wanderers, learning and toiling for their bread and meat and homes. We are proud of this; we are empowered, by this. Now, give a village man a handout? You’ve just weakened him. You’ve increased his dependency; diminished his sense of self-esteem. One of the most widely-accepted notions is that Westerners are the solution to African problems. This requires portraying us as helpless and endlessly recirculating images only of abandonment and violence, or innocence and primitivism.”

I chewed on his Arabic words while he finished his bread.

“But poverty and hunger still exist, and our morality moves us to feed and clothe,” I broke into his silence.

“You asked me if my friends give me gifts,” he said. “Make sure that you are my friend. Make certain you understand me, first. Learn my strengths, my heart, my efforts. Once we are established in brotherhood, then yes, send me a present, one that won’t hurt me to open.”

“You see, Heather,” he set his meat down to look closely at me, ”We are not weak. We are not underdeveloped. If you believe we must be helped, look more closely. We are content in our hearts, affectionate to each other, and attentive to our souls. Perhaps the greater need is for us to be helping you.”

Our desire to help comes from good intentions. Probably with mixed motivations. But in our rush to “do” and “save” we can miss what is more important – relationship, respect, friendship, seeing the humanity of the other – and in so doing run a great risk of trampling on the people and communities we meant to help.