There’s a lot of debate right now about short-term tripping to an orphanage. Some commentators have advocated for a complete halt, referencing a “waste of money” and labelling the entire exchange a brand of “tourism.”
Still, millions of Christians are travelling every year on evangelical trips, many of which include some type of orphanage outreach or interaction. So what’s the deal? Is it helpful or harmful?
Well, the answer depends largely on you and your team! You want to leave knowing that you’ve helped in some way. The last thing any missions group wants is to be harmful to a host culture or orphanage!
So, if you, your church or social work team are planning a trip this year to an orphanage, great! Here are the 5 things you should know to make a real impact in the lives of abandoned children:
1. Yes, you can make a difference.
The myth that short-term trips have no lasting impact, let’s just dismiss that out the gate. For kids living in an orphanage, there is so much energy and excitement surrounding a group of visitors that will play with them, tell them stories, share a meal and show them love. To say you leave an impression is an understatement. Many of our kids have no problem remembering the names, what they did with or what they learned from their “favorites” (those they made a connection with) on any given team.
This fact is exponentially true if you come back and make the visit yearly or biennial, building a relationship. Knowing this, you have the opportunity to be absolutely intentional and forward-thinking, because the things you say and do on your short trip will be remembered. Be fully present!
2. Your goal is to be a friend.
You probably aren’t moving there, so your relationship cannot be paternal. If your trip is a week or two, that’s not enough time to gain the respect of a “mentor,” (nor the knowledge of the child and their history to be so). You can, however, become a friend, and you should not underestimate the potential there!
As a friend, you build relationship through play. Kids connect readily through tactile activities, sports and imagination. Whether it’s a lively game of soccer or telling a story together through crayon and paper, this is where you begin. If you meet them in this place, you can earn their trust, as with any good friend, to briefly speak kind and important truths into their lives. And this is important because, sometimes, we have to hear the truth from a friend to believe it.
3. Healthy attachment is critical.
Many people who have visited an orphanage will remark on the amount of hugs and affection the children lavish on the visitors. It’s easy to react, thinking, “I want to fill this child’s apparent need to be loved.” However, the unfortunate fact is that this show of affection from a child in an orphanage is often due to a lack of healthy parenting, attention, cradling, etc., resulting in an “attachment disorder.”
A child who has not been taught what a healthy relationship looks like with a parent, let alone a stranger (you), is in desperate need of consistent, instructive boundaries more than anything. Immediate and excessive physical affection with a stranger is not healthy! And as the staff caregivers work to daily offer the child parental love, your help is needed to reinforce appropriate attachment with friendly figures.
So, what does that look like? Give hugs! Play games! But at the same time, be ready to draw a line. If a child begins to hang on you affectionately or want to be alone with you, this is the time to playfully redirect their attention to a more appropriate interaction. Remember, your role is to be a friend, not a parent. Teach them how to be a good friend!
4. Stay humble!
It is important to know that humility will leave the greatest impact. Avoid making assumptions about what an orphanage or its children need, and instead, ask the home director. Avoid making judgement calls regarding parenting techniques – all countries are different! (Unless you see blatant, physical abuse taking place, obviously). A better entrance is to make yourself humbly available to whatever is needed, and be faithful to advocate for those needs.
5. The staff need love, too.
Lastly, love on those staff members! Being a caregiver at an orphanage is a unique burden. While it is a highly rewarding and fulfilling job, the number of children they care for with varying emotional, physical and mental needs is inevitably overwhelming at times. Yet, more often than not, orphanage workers are under-paid and overlooked.
You can’t imagine the impact of taking the caregivers to dinner, purchasing them a massage at a local spa, or any other creative pampering you can think of. Simply remind them that they are loved and seen as well.
Spending a week or two of your time and money to visit an orphanage internationally is an unforgettable experience, not just for you, but most importantly to the kids that will remember what you say and do. It is NOT a waste of time, it is an incredible opportunity – if you use it wisely, humbly and purposefully!