It kept me up nights and made my head ache…not to mention my heart and my belly. I couldn’t wrap my head around the staggering numbers–millions of children who had been orphaned and made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS and other causes. My heart was drawn again and again to Sub-Saharan Africa – the epicenter of the crisis – even though I had never been there. I began to dig deeper and the stories, as Kay Warren often says, were “seriously disturbing.”
I was moved to action. I began to join forums, attend meetings and to educate myself. I prayed a lot. The more I learned the more I felt a calling and a shift in my ideas about my life’s work going forward. This was in 1999–the year that my husband and I had an opportunity to start a non-profit foundation focused on a cause we cared deeply about. For me there was no question (though a steep learning curve and a lot of outreach and inquiry). I wanted to do something that would make a difference for children impacted by poverty and HIV and AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa. So with my husband’s support and blessing, Firelight Foundation was born.
Things moved fast, but purposefully. Within two years we had an amazing and experienced African Advisory Board, a dedicated and informed staff, and a growing reputation as a grant-maker with an effective model for getting needed resources to the community level, where so much of the response to children and families in need takes place. In the 13 years since starting Firelight, much has happened. We have made over 1,000 grants to community organizations serving hundreds of thousands of children. It has been an amazing and humbling journey to see the power of the work on the ground—and to witness the role of faith through so much of this life-saving work.
But I’ve jumped ahead. Because somewhere along the way, I think it was in 2001, I had an “aha” moment that shifted my thinking in a profound way. This shift planted the seed that eventually led to the writing of From Faith to Action and to my increased focus on working within the faith community to raise awareness about the importance of family-based care.
Up until that time, Firelight funded mostly community-based organizations, as we continue to do now. We also funded a few orphanages. This had become increasingly troublesome to me as I became more aware of the limitations of institutional care in meeting the needs of children. I had learned that a great many of the children in orphanages are placed there by parents and extended family members who are unable to provide for their basic needs due to poverty. I remember sitting with our staff to review a proposal for an orphanage that was struggling with the huge numbers of children being brought in by impoverished relatives. And in a moment of unexpected clarity, two things came to my awareness. It was my double-pronged “aha” moment…
“What if??” My beautiful daughter is grown now, but I allowed myself to imagine…what if the only way I could provide my little girl with an education, shelter, and food was to place her in an orphanage? What kind of a heart-breaking, soul-wrenching choice is that? Images of the horrific moment of a mother being forced to chose between her two children in “Sophie’s Choice” came to mind. These are not the kind of choices any parent should have to make. And while I am not trying to over-simplify a complicated reality, the very fact that this happens as often as it does needs to give us serious pause. It compels us to think of the alternatives, to search for a different and more socially just and morally sound solution.
“If you build it they will come.” This thought came to mind as another sobering realization (once again popular film serving as a source of social insight). From all that I had heard and was learning, this quant but memorable baseball film adage could be said to be true of the building of orphanages, but not in a good way. As long as orphanages are built as the “solution,” they are likely to remain the solution, with all the fall-out and collateral damage that this entails. Families seeking to meet their children’s basic needs will make this sacrifice and children will be separated from a vital source of love, attachment, and sense of belonging that no institution, no matter how well appointed, can replace. Children who remain for long periods in orphanages will largely place out of them as youth who lack the connection to community and first-hand experience of family life that are vital to their social well being as adults.
It’s not that residential care is never needed as a temporary response in emergency situations for children with no other means of support. It would be naïve to claim easy answers or to pretend that there are not many different contexts and situations to consider. God’s grace is not barred from any context. But the fact remains: Children grow best in families. Strengthening families is the best way to ensure that children both survive and thrive.