“I’d rather work in the fields of my village with my own family than live in an orphanage,” explained a Burmese girl to Philip Barker, Director of Heaven’s Family UK. She was the very first child Philip met in Myanmar (Burma) eight years ago when he visited orphanages as a child sponsor through the organization’s Orphan’s Tear Ministry. Her sentiment—along with the ever-expanding body of research on family-based care—is what compelled Heaven’s Family to radically change their approach to caring for vulnerable children.
Heaven’s Family, a Christian missions organization with offices in the United States and the United Kingdom, is among those groups that are courageously advocating for family-based care among their donors as well as the orphanage directors with whom they partner. The agency’s Orphan’s Tear Ministry initially responded to the needs of struggling orphanages in Myanmar by launching a child sponsorship program supported by a broad base of individuals and churches. However, a chance encounter between one of Heaven’s Family’s sponsors and Mick Pease of Substitute Families for Abandoned Children (SFAC) compelled the organization’s leaders to reconsider their approach. Mick traveled to Myanmar to share information about the adverse social and emotional effects orphanages can have on children, and about God’s intention for children to be cared for within families. Heaven’s Family decided they needed to forge a new path away from orphanage care, with child wellbeing undergirding both the end goal and the means of achieving family care.
In Philip’s experience, loss of funding is among the biggest fears that inhibit orphanages from pursuing alternative forms of care. The Orphan’s Tear Ministry is thus discovering several distinct roles donors can play to effectively support the transition of children from orphanages into families.
First, donor agencies are strategically poised to connect with a broad base of individual donors and influential change agents. The transformation of the Orphan’s Tear Ministry was rooted in a personal connection between a donor and a trainer, Mick. Mick then provided training to orphanage directors in Myanmar. Many were hesitant to alter their long-standing models of orphanage care; others were compelled to take a step of faith but didn’t know how to begin. Acknowledging their need for further support, the Orphan’s Tear Ministry then connected with ACCI’s Kinnected Program, which specializes in the transition process from residential care to family-based care. Heaven’s Family is now further using its strategic connections to educate other donors who have historically supported orphanages.
Second, donors can help orphanages develop a strong support system: a network of like-minded allies. With the help of the Kinnected Program, orphanage directors in Myanmar formed two working groups for the purpose of mutual support, on-going training, and idea sharing. A consultant from Cambodia facilitates the monthly meetings, and two local coordinators (who were former orphanage directors) were hired to provide oversight. Philip and his wife relocated to Myanmar to better facilitate strong personal connections and support systems. With a support system in place, the orphanage directors now have resources to begin making concrete, positive steps forward.
Finally, donors can help orphanages create effective action plans that allow children to move back to their home states, ideally back into their own families. To support this process, the Orphan’s Tear Ministry hired a social worker to begin conducting formal assessments of children and families. Philip explains that by helping families improve their financial sustainability, families will be able to pay for their children’s education at a school in their own community (a critical piece in regions where some families assume their children will receive a better education in an orphanage). Action plans typically require partnering with other organizations that offer family-strengthening and livelihood support, and donor agencies can support these partnerships as well.
The Faith to Action Initiative highlights the important role of donors in advocating for family-based models of care in its publication From Faith to Action: “Helping families and communities care for orphans and vulnerable children requires a thoughtful and respective approach on the part of donors.” It is recommended that donors learn as much as they can, and give through a mediating organization that is bolstering local efforts, like the Orphan’s Tear Ministry of Heaven’s Family.
Donors and support agencies have the capacity to provide much more than just financial gifts: They have personal connections to educate others about family-based care, they can boost morale and offer emotional support to orphanage directors, and they can provide (or connect orphanages to) technical support in the transition process. What an opportunity to engage in true partnership as, together, donors and social workers and churches and institutions choose to collaborate for the sake of children.