When someone envisions orphan care and adoption, it is likely that images of babies and toddlers come to mind. However, across the globe, the group that most often remains overlooked and largely at risk are the adolescents who are on the verge of aging out of orphanages or foster care. These youth are at risk of never having the opportunity to experience the importance of being part of a family.

For nearly 12 years my context has been the government-run orphanages of Ukraine and the former Soviet Union. Upon moving to Ukraine in 2004, I visited several large government orphanages that left my heart aching for these older kids who had seemingly been overlooked. Although I quickly became an advocate for adopting older children (children 12 and older), I knew that adoption would not be possible for all of the kids I was meeting. I could see the clock ticking and knew that within a few short years most of these kids would be left to navigate life without the love and support of a family to call their own.

In the past 10 years I’ve seen a growing trend toward Ukrainian national adoption, but despite this increase, the number of older children being adopted remains low, and thousands of youth graduate from institutions each year without a safety net of stable and caring adults. It was with this understanding that Orphan’s Promise launched a project in 2005 to reach out to graduating orphans to protect them from the risks of sexual exploitation, conflict with the law, and other challenges these youth may face. It was in developing the Life Skills Curriculum for youth and implementing training centers for graduated orphans in Ukraine that the ministry of Orphan’s Promise was birthed. Since the inception of our ministry, reaching vulnerable teens has remained one of our primary focuses.

Since this work began we have witnessed firsthand how providing education through the context of mentoring relationships can transform lives. Currently we have training centers for at-risk youth operating in over 25 locations in Ukraine and surrounding nations and have trained over 1,300 volunteers from churches and other NGOs to teach the curriculum to teens in this part of the world.

Our focus remains providing competitive skills in English and computers as well as utilizing the curriculum that we’ve developed in life skills, which covers topics like identity, health and hygiene, time and money management, dating and marriage, and much more. The goal of the lessons is to help provide support in practical areas of life that usually develop in a family environment but were missed while youth were growing up in an orphanage. The curriculum seeks to cultivate these life skills from a Christian perspective.

Though the curriculum is excellent and the training centers are attractive places for teens to hang out, I cannot overemphasize the relationship factor of our programs. Orphans and vulnerable youth lack stable relationships with adults. No program in and of itself can fill that void. But the right people using the right program can truly make a lasting impact.

Sveta is a girl whom we met and interviewed over 10 years ago, and to this day one thing she said echoes in my mind. At the time Sveta was 17 and had just graduated from an orphanage and had begun studying at a technical college. With tears in her eyes she shared how on the first day of school she saw other teens being supported by their parents, and in that moment she felt so alone and just longed for someone to be there with her, holding her hand.

I have heard these words repeated in the stories of many youth since first hearing them from Sveta. No matter how tough a teen can look on the outside, the reality is that most are still longing for the healthy family relationships they likely have never had.

Two weeks ago I sat in a church service in Moldova where we are partnering with a mentoring ministry. Five different women stood and gave their testimony about how frightened they had been to work with teens in the mentoring program, but after going through a bit of training, they now can’t imagine not being involved. One woman shared how by meeting with her mentee weekly she had seen the young girl begin to open up and transform before her eyes. Trust was being built with each meeting, whether it was through cooking together or taking walks in the park. Thanks to one woman stepping out of her comfort zone this recent graduate now has a friend who is committed to walking with her through her postorphanage life. For many of these youth, their mentor’s family will become the one that they consider their own.

What encourages me about this need is that the body of Christ has an amazing opportunity to respond, and it isn’t complicated! It really just takes stepping out and looking for the need around you. Though there may be barriers preventing individuals from fostering or adopting, mentoring a teen is something that is possible. And no matter where you are currently located, I know there is a young person who is struggling and longing for someone to take his or her hand as he or she navigates the ups and downs of life.

To learn more about the Life Skills Curriculum for youth from Orphan’s Promise (available in English, Spanish, Ukrainian, and Russian) you can email Karen.Springs@cbn-cis.org.

You can hear more of the voices of graduating teens by watching this video.

Karen has worked in Kiev, Ukraine, with CBN and Orphan’s Promise since 2004. A native of Seattle, she moved to Ukraine after graduating from Seattle Pacific University in search of adventure and for a place to serve for a short time. Once in Ukraine she found that her heart was captured by the needs surrounding older orphans, and a “short time” soon turned into much longer! With a heart for seeing children mentored and in families, today Karen lives in Ukraine and oversees the work of Orphan’s Promise projects in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. These projects include a campaign for promoting adoption among Ukrainian nationals, post-adoption support and consulting, life skills training for older orphans and programs to provide assistance to vulnerable families. Karen enjoys writing and photography and any opportunity to travel and capture the work of Orphan’s Promise through her lens.