Wrtitten by Cameron Talbot
Working with abandoned children, like being a parent of your own kids, means your job description often looks more like a expansive list, than a tidy and simple explanation. “Parenting” is its own, unique word, because the ‘how’ is never defined, and you’re left with just an umbrella of overarching relationship status. Even in an orphanage, where distinctive roles are given to each category of work within the organization, it’s never black and white.
I asked an international group of orphanage workers recently what their job description was, and gave a list of broad options—administrator, caregiver, director, teacher, volunteer, etc. The majority chose a combination of multiple options to describe the various roles they have filled.
Truthfully, though, figuring out the obvious job descriptions is not the main objective when working with abandoned children. Because even if you fill every position well, firmly structure operational function, and provide every natural recourse imaginable, you can still miss the overarching, spiritual goal—Searching for Lost Coins.
Jesus was in the habit of spending time with the socially neglected and the marginalized. One day, a group of prominent religious leaders see the dynamic between this great rabbi and those “…gathering around to hear him.” They instantly become embittered and begin to self-righteously gossip about the scandal. Jesus overhears them, and says,
“…suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?” (Luke 15:8)
Jesus relates the socially neglected and abandoned to lost coins. I never understood the significance of the metaphor, though, until I heard Christine Cane speak on the passage. The Australian activist, in her message entitled, “Lostologist”, says,
“…the coin didn’t get lost on its own. The woman was careless…We have a world that has been very careless with a generation. Those that have been entrusted with the generation haven’t been great stewards…Some of you, perhaps, like me, know what it was like when somebody should have looked after you, and they were careless with your life. And so I was left in a hospital unnamed, and unwanted. I was sexually abused for 12 years. I was broken, because people that should have been protecting me were careless with me…and I ended up lost.”
The woman lost the coin out of carelessness. It never should have been lost. It’s an element to the parable I had never heard voiced, only obvious once shown to you.
The practical application of Jesus’ parable, of course, is that lost coins have to be sought out. They won’t find themselves. They must be seen, lovingly picked up, brushed off, and placed back where they belong. In the same way, people, broken by those they should have been able to trust, must be carefully sought out and recovered. That’s exactly what Jesus was doing.
And as I processed this revelation, I had just begun working at an orphanage myself. I was trying to unpack the occupational question, “What exactly is my job description here?” I was operating as a teacher, caregiver, volunteer, maintenance help, advocate, writer, etc. But upon considering the lost coins, my intentions immediately shifted. Just as the crowds of abandoned people “gathered to hear [Jesus]”, so these children were physically and spiritually gathering around me, begging to be found.
What is the job description of orphan care? Above all else, it is to engage in spiritual and existential “hide and seek” with a child’s inner soul.
We understand through developmental trauma research that children who have experienced intense abuse and neglect have significant, life altering differences in function. Common side effects are—sensorial disorders, post-traumatic stress, increased levels of cortisol and overdeveloped amygdalas, resulting in an almost perpetual state of “fight or flight” thinking.
These combined symptoms create an inner world for the child that prevents them from properly connecting and socially functioning as they continue to grow. The principal trauma may be in the past, but the inability to think clearly, understand “common” scenarios in life, and form meaningful connections results in a lifestyle of trauma. More and more, the child’s overwhelming experience of the world becomes jaded and their subconscious further develops self-protecting techniques.
The final layer takes place in the heart, wherein the pattern of negative experiences becomes internalized. Children of trauma inevitably carry misconceptions about their own identity, manifesting in feelings of guilt, shame, self-hatred, and confusion. Like a proverbial “nail in the coffin”, the spiral of dysfunction is concreted in a silent, internal insistence that they are the problem, and always will be.
And under the weight of their present reality, abandoned and neglected children become lost.
What does it mean to work in orphan care? Whether you enter an orphanage to be a math teacher, a staff director, a paper filer, a cook, or a caregiver, your job description is to search for lost coins. Practically, your job entails three main things—pursue connections of trust, reveal the essence of each child, and reinstate their understanding of their own value.
To find a lost coin, we must first decide to look. To recover a lost child, we must first pursue a connection of trust. This means we are actively relating with the child in the hunt for who they are.
Connections of trust are made, not simply by being in proximity of one another, but by continuously demonstrating our intentions. We want our children to know we can be trusted to protect them and take care of their needs. One of the main methods of doing so, is to be purposeful in our interaction when a need or problem is expressed.
Purposeful interaction looks like leveled eye contact, and physical touch where appropriate. It also means finding ways to offer a ‘yes’ when the child voices a desire or need. This isn’t to say we always give them what they want, but it does require us to employ language that shows the child they have been heard.
For example, if a child asks for a snack, but it is time for dinner, our natural inclination would be to say ‘no’. It isn’t a wrong response, but ‘no’ is a disconnecting word. Instead, we can say, “Yes! You must be hungry. Take the snack you want, and you can hold it until after dinner!” In this way, we connect to the child’s needs, and show that we can be trusted to fulfill them.
Reveal Their Essence
Once a coin is found, it must be picked up and brought back out into the light. Once connection has been made with a child, we must help them bring out their God-given essence. This means bridging the disconnect between the child and the world around them.
The reason children of trauma do not know who they are, is that their identities are hidden beneath a mountain of disconnect. Their inability to self-regulate, think critically and express themselves appropriately, works directly against their process of self-actualization.
We help fix this disconnect by bridging the gap ourselves. A common phrase in therapeutic orphan care is, “let them borrow your brain and your body.” When a child of trauma is encountering a scenario that triggers fear, frustration or confusion, a disconnect occurs. Their body and brain do not possess the capability of resolving the problem on their own.
In those moments, it is our job to help them physically regulate, then verbally provide critical options for them to overcome the problem, and then celebrate their victory. It is a process that will be repeated thousands of times, but will actively encourage the restructuring of healthy, brain pathways.
Reinstate Their Value
Finally, we reinstate their understanding of their own value. The lost coin never decreased in value. It was always and continues to remain objectively worth what it was created to be worth. A lost child does not know that. The conversations taking place within themselves involve shame, guilt and worthlessness.
Jesus parable continues,
“And when she finds [the lost coin], she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’” (Luke 15:9)
We help our children understand their value by finding moments to celebrate them. We celebrate who they are. We celebrate their victories, big or small. We celebrate their likes and dislikes. We engage all of our creative abilities, daily finding new ways to instill a framework of personal value to replace an impoverished spirit. We remind them that they are precious beyond comprehension, even in midst of their anger, disobedience and confusion. And in doing so, we reshape their expectations for the future. Because when you know you are valued by God, your identity becomes grounded in victory and hope.
The moment you decide to work in orphan care, you will begin to wear many hats and play many roles. You might fundraise, or clean, organize activities, or run social media. When people ask you, “What exactly do you do?”, or “What does your day to day look like?”, you might find it difficult to pinpoint your specific job description.
Because your real job is just to search for lost coins, reveal them to a connected world, and remind them that they are wholly and entirely loved by a Father who always saw them, and never truly lost them.