I’m privileged to have recently joined Faith to Action as the Director of Engagement, eager to step into a critical role of equipping churches, organizations, and individuals with information about the importance of family-based care. As I reflect on all that has prepared me for this role, I’m honored to tell the story of how I began my journey of caring about vulnerable children.

In 2006, fresh out of college, feeling called to “do more” and utilize my time and (limited) talent to care for vulnerable children, I packed my bags for South Africa, where I would attend a training school on the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The school was connected to an orphanage, where I met Jacob.* He was placed in the orphanage and separated from his family, and I tried to spend as much time with him as I could, hoping the love I had to give would help him know that he was valuable and worthy of love.

This photo is from the day I left. I was so sad about the impending goodbye as I approached the cottage where my new friends lived. I cried as I explained my departure, yet I was thankful for the impact these children had on my life, what I had learned from them, and the time I had enjoyed playing with them over the months. I embraced these last moments with the children, hoping to remember them forever.

However, what I didn’t consider was how Jacob felt as I said goodbye. Would he remember our time together, and what feelings might be associated with those memories? Was he confused and hurt, as yet another visitor from America who told him that she cared about him left?

A growing evidence base is showing that short-term visitors coming in and going out of orphanages exacerbates the existing insecure attachment of the children who live there. Faith to Action’s Short-Term Missions: Guidance to Support Orphans and Vulnerable Children examines the challenges in recognizing this potential negative impact:

A volunteer’s experience of receiving affection from children often feels rewarding and may lead to the assumption that the volunteer is providing an important benefit for children. This can result in children forming premature bonds with volunteers, only to have those bonds broken when the volunteers leave. This cycle of insecure attachment repeats with each new STM team, aggravating an already fragile sense of connection, eventually contributing to a child’s distrust of others or an inability to invest in relationships.

In my desire to do good, I likely caused harm to an already vulnerable child.

However, the story of Beautiful Gate, the organization who hosted me 13 years ago, did not end here. I experienced only a moment in the journey they took to discover the importance of family-based care.

Beautiful Gate (Acts 3:2) began in the townships of Cape Town with doors open to children infected or affected by HIV — a revolutionary move in 1994. Care workers were committed to ensuring access to medication and adhering to the treatment plan to extend each child’s life. Because medication was hard to access and treatment plans challenging to administer, children with HIV were placed in the residential care center, assuming that their health and well-being might be better served.

However, several years later, challenging questions began percolating in the minds of care-givers . . .

Vaughan Stannard was on medical staff at the time. In 2000, when treatment for HIV in South Africa was limited, Beautiful Gate lost 27 children to chicken pox and other diseases as a result of HIV. Vaughan and his team began to consider whether quality of life is as important as the quantity of life, and that being in a place of belonging is potentially as important as being kept alive.

Vaughan shared, “We wanted to try to keep the children healthy, so we kept them in the children’s home to ensure access to HIV medication.” Though the staff’s intentions for those children and their health were good, those children were separated from family. When those children passed, the staff continued to ask critical questions about the model of care they were providing, recognizing the critical need for familial relationships, especially within the context of end-of-life care. “Would it not have been better for those children to die with their mom or their dad or grandparents?” he asked.

Shortly after these questions arose, a mother without permanent housing brought her child to the orphanage. Vaughan’s thoughts began to raise questions: “So the government is going to give us money to care for this child, instead of giving the money to the mother so she can care for her child?”

In 2007, these critical questions began Beautiful Gate’s journey to transition into a family-strengthening program. “Often, we need to interrogate the systems that we operate under. It leads to difficult but crucial conversations. Do we want children in a children’s home? Or shouldn’t they be with their families?” They began reintegrating children into families, while simultaneously working in the community to promote and support family-based care. Vaughan and his team flipped their model on its head and asked, “What support and resources does a vulnerable parent or relative need so that they can provide care for the child in their home and in the community?”

Vaughan now serves as the Executive Director, and the current mission states that Beautiful Gate South Africa cares for and protects children, empowers and preserves families, and mobilizes our community. Beautiful Gate has strategic community programming focused on family strengthening, child health, and education. Their family-strengthening programs include a pediatric HIV clinic, teen HIV clubs, parenting programs, community family support, and education support through tutoring and career guidance.

One of the first family-strengthening programs Beautiful Gate provided was a weekly meeting for parents to learn how to improve their parenting skills and be connected with resources. Staff were surprised when members of the community who had taken on roles as safety parents, or guardians, in the community regularly attended. They would open their homes to children who needed a safe place, protect children who were being bullied and abused, or provide a meal for a child who might go without that day. Beautiful Gate was able to train and employ some of those caregivers to screen and support vulnerable children and families in high-risk areas. They grew to support over 1,000 vulnerable children and check on the most vulnerable children daily to ensure that they are going to school and are safe. Child care workers are able to report severe cases to the Beautiful Gate social worker if further support is needed. In this way, many children have remained in families, having support for themselves or their families right in their neighborhoods.

In addition to his role at Beautiful Gate, Vaughan now also coaches other organizations in transitioning from orphanages and into family-based care and believes “Family is God’s design so the best way to respond to vulnerable children in the name of Christ is to support family.”

I celebrate that I get to be a part of sharing the message of God’s design for children — in families — through my role at Faith to Action. I look forward to learning more stories like Beautiful Gate’s and sharing them with you as, together, we work toward seeing all children in loving, safe families.

*Name changed for child’s privacy

Megan serves as the Director of Engagement for Faith to Action, working to equip churches, individuals, and organizations with our important message of family-based care. Prior to her current role, Megan served as the National Director for World Vision US’s Child Ambassador Team, training and resourcing donors as brand ambassadors who advocate and fundraise for vulnerable children. She was privileged to lead Vision Trips trips to witness transformational international development work in Cambodia, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, and Bangladesh. Her passion and experience stem from her time living in South Africa, studying the AIDS pandemic and its impact on children and communities, which resulted in joining World Vision as a part of the Hope Initiative, raising awareness about the HIV/AIDS crisis and mobilizing the Church to respond. Megan has a B.A in Communication and a Master’s Degree in International Development from Northwest University.