“Be brave, be fierce, be visionary. Mend the parts of the world that are within your reach. To live this way is the most dramatic gift you can ever give to the world. Consider yourselves assigned.” ~Your Assignment by Clarissa Pinkola Estes
Even without reading her words, many impassioned young people have taken the poet’s assignment to heart. When these individuals are confronted with the brokenness of the world, seldom are they content to ignore it. There comes a deep desire to restore what is broken. For many, Christians in particular, this desire is manifested in a calling to care for orphans. We hear statistics that there are 132 million orphans* in the developing world. We read verses like James 1:27 and are inspired to act. The solution seems simple to some: For those children who are abandoned, abused, and unloved, we can construct an orphanage.
But what if our solution to care for orphans is actually exacerbating the orphan crisis rather than mending it? What if our perceptions of a child’s reality are incorrect? What if we, by building an orphanage, are actually creating more orphans?
Brittany Merrill Underwood and Kate van Doore are two women, one from the United States and the other from Australia, who were forced to pause and answer these questions. They each began with the best of intentions to care for orphans by opening up an orphanage. They were passionate, educated young women fueled by their Christian faith and good intentions, yet unaware of the true reality of the children they were seeking to help.
Brittany’s passion was ignited while on a trip to Uganda as a college student during a meeting with Sarah, a young Ugandan woman caring for 24 orphans in her own home.
Inspired by the young woman’s selflessness, Brittany returned to the States committed to easing the burden of women like Sarah by building an orphanage.
However, in 2007, while visiting with families living in rural villages, Brittany began to realize that many of the children she had initially thought were orphans actually had a living parent or relative who loved them, but who was unable to provide for their needs due to poverty and lack of support. As for the true orphans, many women, like Sarah, were willing to bring them into their homes, but they were also in need of support. Therefore, Brittany’s initial response began to transform into a vision that would allow children to grow up in a family, rather than an orphanage. This vision developed into Akola Project, a nonprofit enterprise that empowers women to become agents of transformation in their families and communities through economic development. Akola has since provided hundreds of Ugandan women with training and employment in creating high-end jewelry, accessories, and other products that can be purchased by individuals in the United States.
Reflecting back on her journey, Brittany realized that one of the biggest obstacles in the development of Akola was finding the courage to admit there was a better way. She had to confess that her solution to the brokenness was well intentioned, but misguided. Brittany started afresh and developed a solution that not only provided for orphans and vulnerable children, but also created economic empowerment for their families and restoration for the brokenness in their communities.
Kate’s story began in Brisbane, Australia, at the invitation of a friend who had recently returned from Nepal with a plan to build an orphanage. Their organization was registered under the name Forget Me Not in 2005, and a year later the first children moved into the Forget Me Not Children’s Home in Kathmandu.
Unlike Brittany’s experience, it would take several years for Kate and her colleagues at Forget Me Not to uncover the ineffectiveness of and corruption within many orphanages. In 2011, at a Ugandan orphanage Forget Me Not had agreed to support, fraudulent activity at the hands of an orphanage director was uncovered. Hoping to cover her tracks, the director kidnapped the children and moved them to an unknown location. Fortunately, the children were recovered. Soon after, Kate and a colleague learned that the children had been trafficked from their families into the orphanage.
Around the same time, Forget Me Not’s newly hired country director in Nepal discovered that the children living in their orphanage were not, in fact, orphans. Once gaining her trust, many of the children revealed to the director that they had families living throughout the country.
In both Uganda and Nepal, parents desperate for their children to receive an education had often paid recruiters to take their children to school in the capital city, expecting them to return home on school holidays. However, instead of attending school, the children became a means for the orphanage to raise funds through international fundraising and volunteer programs.
After their discoveries in Nepal and Uganda, Forget Me Not made the decision to transition away from supporting orphanages to working to reunify the children back with their families and to support families staying together.
“When you know better, you do better” is a phrase that has become a sort of mantra for Kate and Forget Me Not. Now that they know better, they are doing better through protecting and providing for children, keeping families together, and bringing children home.
Though their journeys are unique, Brittany and Kate each courageously acknowledged their misguided efforts and allowed their fierce commitment to their faith and calling to drive a new vision. Admitting mistakes did not mean abandoning their passions. Instead, it expanded their visions from rescuing a child to empowering a family and embracing God’s desire to restore brokenness within communities.
Brittany and Kate willingly share their stories not to dissuade the next generation of world changers from responding, but to encourage us to embrace the lessons learned, openly share experiences, and seek advice from those who have gone before us, because as the poet so wisely implores:
Mend the parts of the world that are within your reach.
To live this way is the most dramatic gift you can ever give to the world.
One way to begin to know better so you can do better is to take advantage of the many resources found on the Faith to Action Initiative’s website, including A Continuum of Care for Orphans and Vulnerable Children. Another great place to start is From Faith to Action, which will provide an introduction to family and community-based care.
*UNICEF and global partners define an orphan as a child who has lost one or both parents.
Jessica Johnson has lived and worked in Africa for several years, most recently in Uganda with Bright Hope International helping to implement the Orphan to Family Initiative. She is currently a fellow with HOPE International, writes for Faith to Action, and resides in Fort Worth, Texas. She holds an MA in Justice and Mission from Denver Seminary.