Mother Teresa once said, “The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.” The world is filled with children who are not only looking forward to their next meal, but also for a home and a family to eat every meal with. According to UNICEF, there are 140 million orphans worldwide with at least one deceased parent, and 15.1 million of these children have lost both parents. These numbers don’t take into account children who are in orphanages for other reasons. In fact, 4 out of 5 children residing in orphanages worldwide aren’t considered orphans at all. Many still have living relatives. Kinship fostering and adoption are often encouraged in many countries. Not only is it a better option financially, but children also do much better when they are raised in a family setting rather than in an institution. UNICEF is working to reduce the number of orphans so that more children are raised in a family environment. Even so, orphanages are spread far and wide, and there are many children waiting for a loving family and a forever home. If you are contemplating a visit to an orphanage, there are a few things to keep in mind.
- What Is an Orphanage?
An orphanage is a residential institution which exists to care for orphans and children who have been separated from their biological families. This can occur when parents pass away, when children are removed from an abusive situation, or when substance abuse or mental illness causes the home to become unsafe and unstable for a child. Occasionally, children come to orphanages when their parents relocate for work and are unable or unwilling to bring their children with them. A vast majority of children are housed in orphanages due to extreme poverty.
- Where Are Orphanages?
While orphanages used to be prevalent in America, they have since been replaced by an improved foster care system, private adoption agencies, and in certain cases, group homes. There are still many children in America who are waiting to be adopted, however, American orphanages are a thing of the past. Government-run orphanages have also been phased out in Canada, the United Kingdom, and EU member states.
The orphanages that do remain in Europe are mostly state-funded. However, most other orphanages worldwide are privately funded and are not run by any state or local government. Churches and charities often help to fund these homes for children, and others depend solely upon donations and upon fees paid by families hoping to adopt a child or children.
Internationally, orphanages are still very common. The Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute estimates that approximately 18 million orphans worldwide are living in orphanages or on the streets. However, not all of these children are currently available for adoption. Sometimes, children come to orphanages temporarily while their parents are attempting to overcome financial hardships or other areas of difficulty.
Families adopting internationally from China, Ethiopia, Haiti, and Russia commonly adopt from orphanages located there. There are approximately 700 orphanages in Mexico as well. In many countries, such as Romania, the number of orphans is decreasing at a steady rate.
- What Should I Keep in Mind During a Visit?
Some people visit and volunteer at orphanages on mission trips with their churches or other organizations. Some people choose to visit an orphanage while they are on vacation in a foreign country. It can be tricky for volunteers and visitors. Most visitors can’t speak the native language, don’t have formal training, and can’t stay for an extended period of time.
It is best to avoid orphanage tours while on vacation. Orphans and underprivileged children are not tourist attractions. Giving money to begging children may seem like a kind gesture, but it can actually serve to lock children into a cycle of poverty.
While many people believe that all visits to orphanages exploit the children and cause more harm than good, there are some instances when visits can be beneficial. Visitors can be a blessing to some of the world’s most vulnerable children.
When considering a visit, ask yourself why. Do you plan to become a lifelong advocate for orphans? If so, this can be rewarding to you and to the children in need. If you are visiting just to see underprivileged children or gain a new experience, perhaps you should think twice about visiting. While playing with kids for a few hours may be fun, it unfortunately won’t make a huge difference. Spending several hours a day with the same children for a few months or even years can make a bigger difference. Devoting your time and resources as you are able over an extended period of time may be difficult, but it can be very helpful. Perhaps the question shouldn’t be CAN I visit an orphanage, but SHOULD I? Your intentions make all the difference.
For some visitors and volunteers, a long term trip isn’t feasible. That’s okay. If you are able to donate your time and talent in meeting the needs of a facility, that’s great! If you have experience in the medical field, the construction industry, or in education or social work, your skills are needed. If you can provide a commitment to helping over an extended period of time (even if it’s in multiple trips or through donations), that’s even better.
Bring with you good intentions. If you have donations of toys, food or water, clothing, or other useful items, by all means, feel free to bring them. Volunteer your time to make a difference in the lives of the community. Remember that these kids are human beings. This is not a zoo, and they aren’t here for your social media photo ops. These children may see plenty of fancy white westerners who stop by to snap pics and show their friends, but when they leave, they often haven’t left anything for these children to benefit from–financially OR emotionally. Don’t visit just to make yourself feel better or to knock an item off your bucket list. Go expecting to change lives for the better and expect to have your life altered as well.
- How Do I Know If an Orphanage Is Reputable?
While many orphanages are legitimately run, it’s important to be aware that scams exist as well. Some “orphanages” are only set up for a day or so, preying upon the emotions (and the finances) of foreigners. There are also “orphanages” set up as a means to extort foreign visitors for school fees and other donations that do not go to the children at all. Instead, these children are sent to work rather than school. Some orphanages sell and traffic children into the slave trade and the sex industry. According to travelscams.org, from 2005-2017 the number of orphanages in Cambodia alone had increased by as much as 75%, many of them renting children for as little as $25 per month in order to get donations from unsuspecting and good-hearted people. The families are promised that the children will receive food and an education while in the orphanage, but the children are mainly used as props. Children in some orphanages are bought from their families at a low cost and are essentially sold for a profit to westerners who are willing to pay expensive adoption fees. In many countries, orphanages are run as businesses which can make the owners considerably rich. However, keeping the conditions poor can result in more donations for the facility (which equals more profit for the owners). Voluntourism is a lucrative business that doesn’t help children, even when it is disguised as a charity. With so many scams like this in practice around the world, how can you be certain that the orphanage you are dealing with is reputable?
The truth is, it can be difficult to tell the difference. Research can be quite helpful. How long has this orphanage been in business? Does it have positive reviews and feedback? Are there regulations? There should be! Orphanages should not cater to the tourists; they should keep the best interests of the children first. There should be policies in place to protect the children in their care. If an orphanage lets anyone in that can include those with less than desirable intentions as well. Check with well-known organizations to find orphanages that are genuinely in need of assistance and not just used as a for-profit business. Before making a donation, you can ask for a break down of program fees and funding allocation.
- How Can I Prepare Myself Mentally to Visit an Orphanage?
It is important to remember that standards of care, cleanliness, and financial means differ widely in still developing countries. Many nations lack the resources to adequately fund the child welfare system. In some countries, the main focus is given more to surviving and less to thriving. Unfortunately, some orphans may become subject to neglect and exploitation.
In more developed nations, more emphasis is placed upon securing a successful future for the children. What you can expect to experience at an orphanage may vary widely based upon the country or area you choose to visit.
While the surroundings may be foreign to you, do your best to smile and show respect to those around you, to both the workers and the children. Even if you are caught off guard by sights, smells, and conditions that you may not be used to, remember that this is their daily reality. Hold back your tears and your judgment. These children need to know that they are loved and accepted, not pitied or looked down upon.
It is best not to visit an orphanage while visiting a country on vacation as a tourist. Plan to make a trip specifically to visit an orphanage. What you experience on your visit may be outside of what feels normal for you personally. Even in orphanages where the caretakers do their best to provide for the children in their care, the facilities may be small, understaffed, and underfunded. You may meet children who are severely ill, malnourished, and starved for attention. If you have a compassionate heart, your first instinct may be to adopt them all. Because this is not an option for most people, remember that while you can’t take every child home with you, you can show them love and kindness while you are there. Give them hugs, sing them songs, smile, and let them know that they matter and that they are important. Even seemingly small gestures can make a big difference in the lives of children who are starving for love. While many children may rush to sit by your side, make a point to approach those who seem a bit wary. Speak softly and genuinely, letting them know that you aren’t threatening and reassuring them that they are important and special. With this being said, remember that while you are going home to your comfortable style of living, these children are staying where they are. They need to build an attachment and bond with their permanent caregivers, and they don’t need to see you as their mom or dad if you aren’t actually adopting them. While it is natural to love every child you meet, make sure that they don’t see you as their primary giver of affection. They may become devastated when you leave and struggle to connect with those who care for them on a daily basis. Don’t visit to fill a space in your own heart. Visit to make a positive difference in the lives of others.
Having to leave after these children have made an impact on you can be quite difficult. You may have an image of them emblazoned in your mind for the rest of your days.
- Are There Barriers to Adopting from an Orphanage?
According to the Immigration and Nationality Act, the definition of the word orphan means a child who has lost both parents due to disappearance or death, abandonment or desertion, or has experienced separation or loss from the parents. If the child in question does not meet these criteria, adopting him or her may become more difficult because of immigration laws. It’s best to research the laws in your country (and in your state) and speak with an attorney or an adoption agency when deciding to adopt internationally.
- How Can I Help Children Living in Orphanages?
Donating to reputable organizations such as UNICEF or The Intrepid Foundation is one of the best ways to make a difference. These organizations have extensive experience in dealing with specific situations and needs that arise in orphanages. They are able to direct the money and the professional help where it is needed. Good intentions are backed by proven, positive change.
While navigating the orphanage system can be tricky, with proper research and a genuine desire to make a lasting difference, it can be a rewarding experience that changes you and the world for the better.
Leslie Bolin is a happily married mama of 3 amazing kids. She is also the birth mother to an adult son. She is just beginning the reunion process, which makes her nervous and excited at the same time. Leslie enjoys educating others about adoption and has done her fair share of outreach, writing, and public speaking on the subject. She has an Associate of Arts degree in Social Work and plans to continue her education. Leslie enjoys spending time with her family, finding peace in the beauty of nature, and laughing as much as possible. She believes that smiling is contagious and that music is good for the soul. She is a firm believer that even the most difficult moments can be turned into something beautiful when we use our stories to help others.