Children are best served in families. We know this, yet in Guatemala, as many as 80 percent of children in orphanages are not true orphans.
When most people they think of an orphanage, they think of a home filled with children who have lost their parents. Yet in many developing countries, orphanages and children’s homes provide placement for children who have been abandoned, abused, neglected or are simply delinquent.
The true reason why they are placed in an orphanage, is not because they are orphaned, but because of the brokenness that exists in their homes. A brokenness, we believe, that can only be healed through a proper understanding of the Gospel.
James 1:27 calls us as Christians to serve the orphaned but that service has to be melded with wisdom, knowledge and excellence, as 2 Corinthians 8:7 implores us to “excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you”.
Despite 15 years of working in orphan care. We are still learning, we constantly challenge our assumptions and the reasons behind what we are doing and how we are doing it. We don’t just want to love the kids we serve, we want to love and serve them well.
This has led us on a journey of evaluation over the past few years as we have done our best to educate ourselves in our profession. If we are going to serve vulnerable children that are hurting, then we want to make sure that we are doing so in the best way possible. Simply having good intentions and wanting to help kids is not enough. We have to be certain that what we are doing for them is right.
Seven years ago we branched out from primarily serving children in orphanages to serving the children in the communities where they live. We were led to work in one of the more dangerous, at-risk communities of the capital, a place where many of the 5000 children in orphanages in Guatemala come from.
We weren’t entirely sure what the outcome of our work would be, but we knew that we had to start working in the communities where these kids came from, if we were going to help stem the flow of children into orphanages.
What started out as simple Bible classes for children in a small school has grown to a fully-fledged community center serving over 100 of the most vulnerable, at-risk children in the city.
Our goals are simple. We want to come alongside the parents and help them meet the needs of their children. We want to assist the parents in educating their children and teaching them about God. We want to minister to the parents, support, encourage and uplift them in the important task they have of raising their children. We want to see them become better parents through a better understanding of the Gospel. We want to see God glorified in the hearts and lives of people who come to know Him and better understand the love that He has for us.
Like I said, simple goals. So just how do we do this?
In evaluating how to have an impact with the limited resources we have, we looked at the responsibilities of the parents, and worked to develop our programs to complement it.
A parent’s job breaks down into four categories: protection, preparation, emotional well-being and moral framework.
The programs in our community center work to enhance and support the work the parents are doing in these areas, and, in so doing, help the parents be successful in raising their children.
Here is what that looks like:
Protection: We provide a safe place for children to learn. By coming in three afternoons a week for three hours, the children are protected from the drugs, gangs and violence by which they are surrounded in their communities.
Preparation: Through our educational programs we help to augment and reinforce what they learn in school. Our job is not to replace the job of their teachers in school, but give the children extra assistance in math, language and reading that will help them excel in school. Many of the children’s parents never finished school and they work full time, so they either have a lack of understanding for what the kids need to learn, or aren’t there to help them. For children growing up in a country with limited employment opportunities, our computer, programming and English classes can provide the key to successful careers that help to break the cycle of poverty.
Emotional Well Being: Every child is just one caring person away from becoming a statistic! Along with our teachers we work to build relationships with the children to become someone they can confide in. The children we serve face incredible hardships on a daily basis that most people can’t even imagine. Having someone to talk to when your uncle is shot and killed, or you are placed with a relative you don’t know so both your parents can work, plays an important part in the emotional stability of the children.
Moral Framework: For us this means teaching the children a proper understanding of who God is and what He wants for their lives. It means understanding morality based on Christian principles. It means memorizing verses with the children so they have Gods word firmly stored away in their hearts and it means teaching them the teachings of Christ in the hope that they will one day choose to follow Him as his disciples.
In none of these things do we take the place of a parent, but in all of them we assist the parents in their job of raising their children in their home.
But our ministry doesn’t stop with the children.
One of the things I have found about grassroots community ministry is that it is different from church ministry. In church, we reach children through their parents, most children are in church because their parents are believers and they want the same for their kids.
In our ministry we reach the parents through the kids.
After doing a survey of the parents of the children who attend our community center, we found that 60% of them do not attend church regularly. These children and their families are largely unchurched and unreached with the true Gospel.
In all likelihood, probably many of these parents would not send their children to us three days a week for Bible classes, but by offering educational assistance, something that they knew they needed help with, they are eager to have their children participate. With time, and by seeing the love and concern we demonstrate for their children, we are building relationships with the parents, and that gives us the opportunity to share the Gospel with them.
We are still very much committed to serving orphans, and we continue to run our vocational and educational training programs for children living in an orphanage. As always, we will continue to walk alongside them as they leave the orphanage, just as we have done for numerous other children over the years. Yet we strongly believe that when the gospel changes the hearts of the parents, in the communities where they live, then they will better love their children and this will stem the flow of children ending up in orphanages and keep them at home with families where God intended them to be.