Family-based, alternative care for orphans and vulnerable children is on the rise in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Alison Atkinson and her husband Narel joined Australian Christian Churches International Relief (ACCI) 10 years ago, as field workers in Colombo. They established the HelpKids Centre, a local, community-based organization that strengthens local families living in slums and severe poverty. It functions as a community center, providing early childhood education, daycare support, counseling for parents, and medical assistance, supports women in accessing vocational training, and coordinates women’s and children’s clubs.

The Atkinson’s approach to care for vulnerable children has changed over the years. After the 2007 tsunami, they found themselves managing a partner organization’s children’s home, which they renamed Home of Hope. In 2011, ACCI provided resources and training to the HelpKids Centre staff on alternative care approaches, counseling them in models of family-based care and deinstitutionalization methods through its Kinnected program. Despite having devoted a great amount of energy, time, and love to the children, Alison and Narel’s perspective began to shift through the training on the effects of institutionalized care on children. Alison says, “… in regards to my orphanage, I thought, we only have 23 kids. We can love them, we can mother them, but the truth is, I can’t give every one of those 23 children the love of a mother and a father, I can’t do that. I now realize that the most effective thing I can do is come alongside their whole family, and stay connected to the children by supporting their family.” While Alison recognizes that short-term, temporary care in children’s homes may be an appropriate option in extreme cases, she now believes they are not the best long-term solution.

After reflecting on specific cases of children in the Home of Hope, Alison came to believe that the focus of their work should not be on how she and her husband can be the ones to provide love, care, and support to vulnerable children, but how they can be advocates who help reconnect children with the people that God has entrusted them to — their parents. Preserving and strengthening families has continued to become more critical to Alison and Narel’s vision for HelpKids Centre in the last several years, since the Sri Lankan Government committed to the Alternative Care Guidelines that accompany the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Alison is now dedicated to this approach, saying, “Our hearts have really changed. Our future for the Home of Hope is not to take many more children now; we’re looking at turning the home into a vocational training centre.” This transformed approach is in line with the Centre’s ongoing daycare support, and with the newly formed Women’s and Children’s Clubs.

Families receive daycare support at the HelpKids Centre, which is particularly beneficial to those who live outside, as it prevents children from spending all day on the streets while their parents are at work. The Centre’s support in this capacity not only helps protect children from harm and potential abuse, but also builds on their education and provides for their physical, material, and psychosocial needs with a warm and caring environment. This modeling of love, grounded in faith, is a critical aspect of the care the children receive from Centre staff. Further, the government has mandated that children on the streets be placed in government orphanages, which means daycare support is not merely a convenience to families, but also helps prevent children from getting picked up off the streets by the authorities and placed in institutions. This supports families in remaining intact, where children learn to receive and give love, shaping their identities as valued and loved by God.

Recently, the local government asked the HelpKids Centre to assist them in creating Women’s and Children’s Clubs in their district to encourage grassroots community initiatives that aid in preventing family separation. The Centre’s relationships with local families helped greatly in establishing the groups and seeing them flourish. The clubs interact with local child protection groups, which are the community gatekeepers, ensuring meaningful community representation. The groups ensure that the voices of children and their families are counted, listened to, and valued. This allows for issues to be identified and addressed so that awareness creation and capacity building can then take place.

The first project implemented by a Women’s Club was a cervical cancer screening, available to all women of the community. Alison sees the ground level sustainability of the clubs, noting, “They are empowering women and children to be a part of uplifting their own community.” This point echoes Alison’s sentiments of the importance of families remaining together with their own unique family identities, which directly supports child identity development and purpose, within the family unit. The Clubs are a space where people are meant to use their voices, which affirms their identities as image bearers of Christ. No matter how much care, love, and resources organizations and compassionate people can provide, nothing can replace the love of one’s own family and the support of one’s own community.