Orphan Care: Setting The Lonely in Families
How can we put a roof over this child’s head? How can we ensure this child eats today? How can we be confident this child receives an education? These are the questions that sparked the orphan care movement—a big-hearted, activist-packed initiative to get children off the streets and into buildings with full bellies and minds.
But the tone has shifted over the years, and after decades of work, the orphan care movement knows these kinds of questions are not enough. Questions that merely focus on what should be done after a child has been labeled an orphan will not lead to adequate answers.
One Ethiopian pastor put it bluntly when he said that “orphan care felt like standing by a stream, watching babies float down in the rush of the water. We just kept grabbing babies out of the water. But the best way to do it is to figure out how the babies got into the water in the first place. Who’s tossing the babies in?”
Orphan care begins the day a child is born, not the day a child becomes orphaned. It begins during those first few weeks of sleepless nights and when tiny toes first touch the floor. Orphan care begins before the child is even born because we cannot care for children without caring for the person to whom that child is entrusted. It begins on hard wooden pews, in tiny prayer circles, in meals delivered after someone has become sick. It’s impossible to talk about orphan care without a discussion about orphan prevention and family empowerment.
These lessons come to us on the heels of heartbreak, in the tears of a mother, and after the realization that the “orphan” is actually a mother’s baby boy.
Belnysh, a mother in Ethiopia, loved her two boys, Beniyam and Dawit. She simply never imagined facing the responsibility of raising them alone. As a widow with minimal income, she did what she believed to be the most loving act possible. She did what any mother would do without other viable options when faced with the reality that both boys can’t eat, have clothes, and go to school.
Belnysh kept her oldest, Dawit, at home, and she took four-year-old Beniyam to live at an orphanage. The love it must have taken to let go rather than cling tightly is hard to fathom. The pain of walking away from the orphanage in silence must have been debilitating.
Belnysh returned to visit as frequently as she could, but she worked long hours, and the visits were never enough for either mother or son. Beniyam eventually stopped recognizing her face—the face that planted kisses on his baby face, the face that soothed him when his head was fevered, the face that surrendered him to strangers in an effort to keep him alive. He’d forgotten his own mother’s face.
When Lafto Kale Heywet Church, a World Orphans church partner, learned about Belnysh and her dire circumstances, congregation members reached out to her. She was welcomed into a savings group offered through the church, where she began building relationships with other women while learning to save money. She was eventually able to receive a small business loan offered through the World Orphans Home Based Care Program at the church. With this loan, Belnysh started a teashop, quit her previous job, and began working for her own business six days per week. She went back to the orphanage with confidence and hope, and she took back the son she never wanted to leave.
According to Lumos, 8 million children across the globe are living in institutions, not because they are orphaned, but because they are impoverished, from an ethnic minority, or disabled. The names, countries, and story specifics vary. Sometimes loss looks like war and disease, while other times it looks like abandonment and poverty. Some children become orphaned because of well-intentioned love while others are victims of circumstance, greed, or disaster. No two stories are identical.
Thus, over the years, we have learned to ask better questions: Why is this child orphaned? How can we prevent this child from becoming orphaned? How can we ensure that this child is not abandoned or trafficked? How can we care for this child emotionally and spiritually?
While asking better questions is important, building better relationships is both the goal of our work and the foundation for excellence in orphan care. Families and caregivers that are well-connected to others in their community have more opportunities when life’s circumstances become daunting. Good relationships give vulnerable people a hand to hold when life feels hopeless.
World Orphans works through Church Partnership to care for orphaned and vulnerable children in loving families around the world. These churches facilitate care by coming alongside families that have vulnerable children or families that are caring for orphaned children. Our partnered churches work together to not only provide additional resources for these families, but to ensure that these families are well-connected to others in their community.
Psalm 68:6a says that “God sets the lonely in families,” and we frequently rest in this verse as we pursue the day every orphaned child has a home, but this isn’t just about orphans. We want to see lonely widows like Belnysh placed in families—families that look like churches, savings groups, and friends that cheer her through every victory and carry her through every defeat. We want to see lonely, tired mothers, fathers, grandmothers, and caregivers thriving in the growing family of Christ. Family—a place for belonging, healing, and growing—is the heart of orphan care.