CAMERON TALBOT: Today, we want to talk about the balance that every orphanage has to find, between their available resources and the number of children they house. How do you decide your maximum capacity for children? What resources, (beds, toiletries, caregivers, fun outings, food quality, etc.) are worth stretching thin in order to receive more children?
It’s a difficult area of boundaries that every director has to navigate, but it is one of the most important.
To help us unravel this complex decision and share her own experience, we have Anabel Frutos with us. She founded Love in Action Children’s Home in Chapala, Mexico, and has been its director for almost twenty years.
Anabel, How are you today?
ANABEL FRUTOS: Good. Very Good.
CAMERON: Jumping right in, how many children does Love in Action currently house, and what is your maximum capacity?
ANABEL: Right now we have twenty-one girls. As the orphanage is, we are almost at our maximum capacity. If, in the future, we are able to fulfill the vision we have for the property, our capacity will reach sixty children at a time.
CAMERON: Wow, sixty children is a lot more than twenty-one!
ANABEL: Yes, it is! There was a time when we did have sixty children! We had three other houses to use on the property. We also had more volunteers, more dedicated people, and we were able to.
CAMERON: So then, walk us through how you found that balance between the number of children and available resources. Why that number of “twenty-one”?
ANABEL: Our set capacity right now is partly due to the property. We had to take down several buildings that were old. We can only use what’s available.
But also, that capacity limit was decided because, throughout the years, we began thinking more and more about the quality of care we were providing.
When you start a ministry like this, you begin with a huge, huge heart, and you don’t always think with your head. You might be tempted to say, “No, let two or three kids share a bed.” The thing is, we always want to help, but you have to think with your mind, not just your heart. Does that make sense?
Our orphanage is in a place where we try to find a balance, which is the difficult part for an organization.
That’s why you need people working together who have different giftings.
Because it’s hard for just me, being the visionary with a heart to help the whole world, to find that balance alone. When I made all the decisions, I filled the place with children.
But then, things grew and other people came along. In order for an organization to function efficiently, you need all of the giftings—administrators, accountants, etc.—all of them together, so the organization runs well.
CAMERON: So balancing the head and the heart is not a task for just one person.
ANABEL: Oh yeah. Big time! And that’s what I found. God brought the right people to Love in Action. Because we have to grow. And when you find balance, it will look differently than at the start, when the ministry was born out of heart alone.
One might say—”We can take more! They can share a bed!” But others who see a different perspective in the organization, they say, “No! These kids can’t share a bed. This will only cause problems.”
You will find stability in all areas of the orphanage. It has to come to that place.
Of course, this doesn’t happen overnight. I think this is a process.
CAMERON: You reference this specific example of having two or three kids in a bed together. Why is that a capacity boundary?
ANABEL: Well, the majority of these children come from sexual abuse. The negligence and extreme poverty they have experienced is often accompanied by sexual abuse. So these children come with certain problems. We do not want that cycle to continue in our homes, which can very well happen. The children often repeat what they have lived. So you have to use caution.
Sometimes, directors don’t take the extra step of thinking critically. I used to be that way. But we have to consider that the abused can become the abusers. We must realize that these children need special care, and cannot be sharing beds that way.
CAMERON: What are some other standards of care that Love in Action will absolutely not compromise?
ANABEL: I think a line we have, that we will not cross, is in regards to our quantity of staff members. Do we have enough responsible people to supervise and give care to the children? As far as material resources, those never really become an issue.
CAMERON: Like food and water?
ANABEL: Correct. When you set your orphanage up by faith, knowing that it was God’s idea and not yours, you can always know that he will provide for the children. Always! He is their Father. So material resources have never been our issue. And I don’t compromise the money for those three needs: food, water and electricity.
I’m not saying we never have shortages. We do. But, one way or another, we will find them food. In Mexico, we have a saying, “Where one eats, two eat. And where three eat, four eat.” That is the mentality of our culture.
But the place where you should say “no more” is when your staff have reached their limit. Because if you want better quality of care, even though you want to help the whole world, you can’t give your caregivers more children than they can handle.
So, I ask myself— “Do I have enough staff to care for all the children? Would adding another child mean hiring someone new?” And if I don’t have enough money to add another salary, that’s when I diminish the number of capacity.
And finally, you have to give your caregivers the right tools. One of the things we are doing to grow and better our home is to train our caregivers. Give them the tools to work with children. If you have a well-trained staff, they can handle ten kids like they do with five.
CAMERON: Having created that set of standards, have you ever been in a position where you were forced to say, “Sorry, we can’t give you shelter,” to a child or to child protective services?
CAMERON: How does it feel when you have to turn children away. Is it hard?
ANABEL: This affects me a lot. I no longer answer the phone. Because if I answer the phone, and they tell me a terribly sad story, I will say, “Yes! Bring them!” It’s better they don’t put me on the phones. So I don’t take on that role anymore.
CAMERON: You really have someone else answer the phones now!
ANABEL: Yes! Someone with more head than heart. I had to accept it. And it was very difficult for me. But through the years, I began to understand that I was putting everything into balance.
After all, what’s the difference between a child uncared for in an orphanage, and one uncared for on the streets? What’s the difference between a child being abused out there, and one being abused in our homes? All of this has to be realized. And it hurts. It hurts.
CAMERON: Turning to the topic of local standards, does the state or child protective services in Mexico have any set standards for orphanages that they strictly enforce in terms of resource availability and maximum capacity?
CAMERON: Should they?
ANABEL: Yes, because when they don’t have limits to enforce, they constantly contact us to give us more children.
CAMERON: So their main focus is simply to put all the kids into an orphanage?
ANABEL: Yes. If there is an orphanage that has thirty, forty, or fifty kids, but they don’t even have the capacity for twenty, child protective services will still try to place more there. If I were to always say yes, they would bring me more children every single day.
CAMERON: That’s not good. So then, it’s really up to the orphanages to set up limits for themselves.
ANABEL: Yes. Because the government has no limits. They are only looking for someone to fulfill the need of childcare. They never ask about our capacity. And there are many dysfunctional orphanages where the children are truly not OK.
CAMERON: Final question—for countries with fewer resources, and, perhaps, an overabundance of displaced children, what advice would you give to directors?
ANABEL: The only thing I might say to those places where the need is so great, is they should look for volunteers. Train volunteers to help you. In places of extreme poverty, a volunteer who is given a meal to eat would do the work. So the most important element, then, is to put them through good training. And if you have good staff, you can have many children.
You can do it with the help of God.
In our home, thanks to God, we can give our staff a good salary. But in the past, when we didn’t have the finances, I worked to find people who would be happy to have a meal and could work well.
It’s difficult. I want to have more help, but there aren’t many volunteers or missionaries. That’s why Jesus Christ said, “The harvest is great, but the workers are few. Pray that the Father might send workers.” If there were more workers, we would have the capacity to help more children.
CAMERON: Anabel, we appreciate your time. Thank you for sitting down with us. Do you have any final comments on this topic?
ANABEL: There are many people who strive for that balance between head and heart. It’s good to be professional. It’s good to have strategies.
But there are many who end up losing the heart along the way. And that…that should never happen [crying]. And it unfortunately happens in many orphanages. Many begin with a heart for this, and end without one. I don’t know why.
That is a big part of this work. Never lose heart.
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