Photo by Hannah Busing

It was early on in my work in Haiti that we stumbled upon an orphanage. With a sheet of tin as the door and the “#7” spray painted on it, we felt the despair of these precious children in the middle of this difficult country. Holding them, not speaking much of their native language, we made a lot of assumptions. Primarily, the biggest assumption we made was that they were true orphans as we know them: parentless, abandoned, without any family to take care of them.

Those children, with runny noses and big smiles, they stole our hearts. They stole my heart. I began, over the years, finding ways to go back and help out – even inviting the kids over for a movie day in our living room in Haiti (that’s a lot of kids!). Eventually, our local churches and friends started to support their food needs, and we got very involved in the daily life of these people. It was a blessing; I was the hero. However, it took me a few difficult years to realize that the orphan crisis I’d read about and heard about deserved a second look. Here’s why I’d encourage you to look deeper into your understanding of orphanages and how we can care for these kiddos.

01 | Poverty Is Complex
Though it is nicer for us to put things like “poverty” in a really small box, it is important for the thinkers and dreamers of this world to make sure we understand at least this one thing about poverty: It is complex. There are so many roots and reasons for poverty; there are things people feel ashamed about and don’t come right out and say. It takes a lot of intentional looking, asking, and talking to begin to chip away at the poverty boulder for each community and people group. We must understand this to understand more about orphans.

02 | Orphanages Might Be An Easier Option
I do not mean this for those who are dropping off their children. I mean this for us: for those of us who want to make a difference in a community without getting too sticky. This is certainly not a blanket statement for all orphanages, as many children’s homes work directly with parents. But, it is worth considering if the orphanage you work alongside is doing all it can to reach out to families. It is easier for us to work with children (and possibly villainize birth parents) than it is to dig deep and care for the entire family.

03 | Economic Orphans Are A Real Thing
I did not know anything about economic orphans when I was working with the kids at the orphanage I discussed. However, things became clearer over time, and I saw the horrible facts. With Haiti’s crippling poverty and lack of jobs, people feel that dropping their kids off at an orphanage is more helpful for their children. This is not because they don’t want their kids, though. A recent study says that over 80% of kids in orphanages in Haiti have families who would take care of them if they felt they could*. This statistic alone should change the way we reach out to families and “orphans.”

04 | Family-Based Care Is More Normal Than We Think
In tribal and familial communities, many of them in the developing world, it is common for families to take care of one another. This might seem strange to us from the West, but it is something we can learn from. Instead of misinterpreting what we see and creating more institutionalized care, there are many ways to encourage family-based care internationally. It is more culturally appropriate and loving in the long run!

This article, of course, is not to bash institutionalized care. Rather, it is here to get us to ask the tough questions when caring for kids at-risk. Whether it is a week or a life-long commitment, we must do better when it comes to caring for families at-risk. And, don’t we all want to keep them together? Investigate for yourself, get involved, and let’s get to work!

At Conscious, we are inspired by stories that empower us to think differently and think big-picture, and so we set out to tell stories with the help of leaders within the social good community. You can read more stories like this when you join as a member.