In Kenya, a movement of remarkable new leaders is working to assist young adults who have aged out of institutions and are trying to find their way in life. This network of people is the Kenya Society of Careleavers (KESCA) organization, “by and for adults (18+ years), who spent all or part of their childhood in children homes, orphanages, and/or rehabilitation centers.” The systems that “raised” them often provide no mechanisms for navigating life after they leave the institution, and with no familial support network, life can be devastatingly bleak. Magnifying this is a culture in which family and community ties are intimately bonded with an individual’s identity and worldview.

Faith to Action’s Children, Orphanages, and Families: A Summary of Research to Help Guide Faith-Based Action highlights the impending risks to adults who have left institutions (called are leavers), compared with children raised in families who will never “age out” of care and whose support systems continue beyond age 18:

These youth (care leavers) are frequently unprepared for independent life. This can result in unemployment, homelessness, conflict with the law, sexual exploitation, and poor parenting. Examples of deinstitutionalization efforts have shown that a minimum package of support is needed for successful transition (pp. 14–15).

KESCA members recognize the severe barriers to success they and their peers face, namely, how to live in the world outside institution walls, as some have interacted outside those walls only minimally during childhood.

KESCA exists so that care leavers can find solidarity with others who share similar experiences and can learn to navigate life outside an institution. The organization’s mission is “to promote the well-being of Careleavers and lobby for the rights of institutionalized children.” It was established in 2009 to help care leavers cope with their new reality and process the traumas of an institutionalized childhood. Among its services are life-skills training, empowerment programming, advocacy, and socioemotional support, which is “an essential component of . . . leaving residential care that is often overlooked” (p. 15).

To get a sense of what it is like to be raised in an institution in Kenya, where 50,000 Kenyan children find themselves today, take 15 minutes and bear witness to the personal story of KESCA founder Stephen Ucembe, speaking at the Christian Alliance for Orphans Summit IX. The institution he grew up in failed to meet his basic social, emotional, and spiritual needs for building a healthy foundation in life—a foundation needed to simply be a whole person. And yet through the obstacles after leaving care, he was able to become a man who knows how to love others and receive love. He can now recognize the loving arms of God around him and seeks to reach out to others with similar experiences to remind them of the valuable contributions they can make to their communities.

Today, Stephen brings care and love to other orphaned people, out of his own life experience. He is proof that it is never too late for a caring adult to make a difference in a young person’s life. For more on this, see the blog post The Importance of Caring for Adolescents by Tanya Medrano, a member of Faith to Action’s Leadership Council. She shares why strengthening vulnerable adolescents (and arguably young adults who are often still in adolescence) is critical for healthy societies:

The investments made and the gains achieved during childhood can be lost if proper support is not provided during adolescence. Also, young people who are adequately prepared to become healthy and productive adults can break the cycle of poverty, hopelessness and dependence, which often strains communities and nations.

Stephen is committed to ensuring that young adults with stories similar to his have a chance at a hopeful future. He believes that “children are not numbers. Children are individuals. We need to call them by their names, just like our God knows us by our names.” Part of his work is to support care leavers as they emerge from being a number and grow into becoming the person God has created them to be, complete with a name and the identity as child of God.

People like Stephen and his fellow KESCA members are the leaders we need to be learning from when it comes to supporting people coming out of orphanages, children homes, and residential care. These people who have worked against every obstacle imaginable deserve our attention and support. They know the nightmare of a life without parental care. They have the empathy to meet orphaned children in ways that outside interventions can never replicate. Stephen knows the experience of an orphan—he can look into an orphan’s eyes and understand the pain he or she is going through. It is this depth of wisdom, an outcome of tragedy, that is a gift to the children and care leavers he leads. Even so, as Stephen and his peers continue in this work, hope persists that family care for orphaned children instead becomes the standard, so that no child ever has to age out of an institution, but rather ages into adult life with the loving support of and connection to a family.

The author has worked in international development for five years in East Africa and the Middle East. She is currently living in the Middle East with her adventurous husband, where she supports communications and programming for reconciliation, peace building, and interfaith efforts. She holds an MA in Cross-Cultural Studies from Fuller Graduate School of Intercultural Studies.