How to Help Orphans without Hurting Them (Part 2)

Posted by Natul Middlebrook on

Maya Angelou said it well….

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

Have you ever heard a hard truth that you secretly wished you hadn’t heard?

Suddenly, you’re responsible for that bit of information.

And it weighs heavily in your mind.

Off the top of my head I think of plastic bottles in the ocean, high fructose corn syrup in our bodies and an important one for me is fashion and people.

Picture from

I remember speaking to a high school audience and seeing the girls cringe when I questioned Forever 21’s sourcing practices. I mean--come on--$12 crop tops don’t grow on trees. They are made by actual people whose wages are determined by how cheap you can buy that crop top. #truth #ouch #coveryourears

That is how I feel some people responded to my last post. It was unsettling. We want to keep doing what we are doing because it is better than not doing anything at all--but aren’t we responsible for doing better if we know better?

Before I write about how to DO BETTER when it comes to cross-cultural orphan care, I think it’s important that you know there are THREE Main Stances concerning Orphan Care in countries like Haiti.

1.Camp Anti-Orphanage--Generally speaking, people who take this stance are people who work and live inthese countries. They are on-the-ground professionals or ministry leaders who see the realities associated with institutionalized children, orphan tourism and the commercialization of adoptions.

From this camp, I’ve heard stories of children being kept in near-starvation mode so that visitors will donate money and fill the pockets of the directors. They have seen this and other atrocities like child prostitution and severe neglect take place at the expense of children and they are sick of it. Can you blame these fierce advocates for wanting to shut them all down?

100 million dollars pour into Haitian orphanages each year and yet Anti-Orphanage advocates or family preservationists wonder where the money is going exactly. Their claim is that it would be less expensive and far more effective to shift to family-based care.  

Sadly, this movement is still new and concentrated in small pockets. Family preservation sounds great in theory--but how can existing orphanages make the transition? I have personally reached out to two leading organizations for help on making this transition and one of them, Changing the Way We Care is still in a testing phase in Haiti. The other has not yet responded to my emails.

My experience with these advocates is that some of them have fallen prey to extremism, cynicism and some have taken a black and white stance on a very complicated issue. Instead of attacking all orphanages, they would do well to collaborate with the ones that are genuinely trying to do what is best.  

Picture from Inspired Adventures

2. Reformists--

Caring leaders who actively engage in running homes for children agree that thingscould be better. If the foster system in the states is a broken system full of overworkedagents--can you imagine working in the poorest country in the Western Hemispherewhere over half of the population makes less than $2 a day? It is tough work and takes heaps of discernment, love, and resources to meet even the basic needs of children, not to mention trying to meet their spiritual and emotional needs!

Reformists recognize that the orphanage in-take process needs vast improvement and resources need to be available to equip, train and empower struggling parents to keep their children. Of course family preservation should be a priority!! Reformists believe in family preservation as well, but lack the tools and resources to implement it in their intake process.

In addition, many reformists believe that local churches should be inspired, educated and equipped to meet the needs of vulnerable children and their parents. It would be far more beneficial and effective to recruit the help of local church members than host a mission team from another part of the world that doesn’t speak the language nor understand the culture.

But reformists need First-World churches here to focus less on sending teams to love on the children and more on sending them to build local leaders and provide services that don’t hurt communities.

Reformists understand that until there are effective ways and support to sustain new efforts towards family preservation and orphan prevention, orphanages must remain a safe place for vulnerable children.

Read this excellent article on smart approaches to orphan care in impoverished communities.

3.Camp Pro-Orphanage-- 

These are the people who have found success with their models, flawed as they may be, but have settled for the status quo, at best, and exploitation, at worst.

The Global approach to orphan care has evolved over the last decade and these institutions have failed to adapt to new research and findings. Even Christian Alliance for Orphans, one of the Church’s leading advocates for orphan care, has changed their verbiage when it comes to effective orphan care. In their Global Care description, you find words like “church-based” , “family preservation”, and “ locally-licensed NGOS”.The old model of traditional orphanages is fading and failure to adapt may lead to failing the kids we seek to take care of.

I know of an orphanage whose policy is not to expose their children to foreign volunteer groups because they recognize that this comes at a cost to the children. However, they realized that they would lose donors so they send their teams to a local, less fortunate orphanage to host their groups so visitors can have their “orphan experience” and love on the children.

I wonder if somehow we have contributed to this broken system. Our search for the ultimate mission experience pressures these organizations to keep perpetuating their broken model.

Exposing children to hundreds of strangers a year is better than having them go back to the streets, they reason. 

Making money off of mission trips is white-washed as a viable way to care for orphans.

To be pro-orphanage, is to be anti-progress. There is a reason there are no longer orphanages in the U.S. It is arrogant to cling to this antiquated model without recognizing that it NEEDS TO CHANGE.

Ironically, pro-orphanage people appear to have the most successful programs. They market straight to the heart of well-meaning Christians who genuinely want to help, but in the end, their impact is small compared to the dollars donated.

I am guilty of all the above. I went from the unaware visitor trying to do good to the cynical critic judging those who did it differently to a reformist who just wants to DO IT BETTER because I KNOW BETTER.

Frederick Buechner referred to grace without cost or discipleship as “cheap grace.” I believe orphan care without research or commitment is “cheap love” and many of these outdated institutions practice this kind of love daily.

But it is orphan tourism, friends. It may feel spiritually uplifting, but at the end of the day it is more self-serving than sacrifice.

I leave you with this sobering reminder--Jesus came to this earth for 33 years to spill out his life for our BEST. It wasn’t about a spiritual high for him. It wasn’t about an incredible experience. It was pure, selfless sacrifice.

That is the way we should approach orphan care. It should cost us something --something sacred. Believe me, it costs these children everything. It is their lives that we are talking about. 

So how do we DO IT BETTER? Check out this Sunday’s post for answers.

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