I recently returned from leading a group to work at an orphanage in Mexico. I know it sounds noble, but in fact, it’s rather selfish– we have a blast. Our group of 14 ranged from 12 to 70 and included families, couples, and singles. Our primary goal is to support the workers by doing all the little (and sometimes not so little) projects that they do not have the time to do but would improve their lives and the lives of the children they care for. We worked at two orphanages doing projects such as laying concrete pavers, installing toilets, and sewing 20 bedspreads and matching curtains. In the afternoons, we did craft projects and played games with the kids, which gave the workers some much needed time off.
We have developed a reputation as the “Easter Egg Hunt” group. Yes, I know it isn’t Easter, but we usually go over Easter, and we’ve become quite popular for importing this distinctly American tradition. And let’s face it—the religious significance of hiding and finding plastic candy-filled eggs is limited at best. We all know deep down that it’s about the candy and the hunt. From my perspective, stuffing and hiding 900 eggs is a small price to pay for popularity.
These are well-run orphanages. They have adequate numbers of workers and the children are well cared for. The children go to school—a few even go to an outstanding private school and have volunteers to help with homework each afternoon. Most importantly, these orphanages are grounded in their community. The orphanage “system” was founded and run exclusively by Mexicans. Local vendors donate most of the food. A local Mexican church provides support and volunteers. Church members bring the children into their homes one weekend a month and offer support and rehabilitation services to their parents.
Orphanages such as these are held up by those who oppose international adoption. These kids are being raised in their culture by their community. They are well-fed, clothed, and educated. They don’t need to be “rescued” by Americans and Europeans, thank you very much.
[sws_blue_box box_size="515"] Considering the Changes in the Christian Orphan Care Movement. [/sws_blue_box]
True enough, but consider these two incidents that happened a few hours apart. At one orphanage, the house parents have a beautiful 18-month-old son named Pablo. Our project at this orphanage was to lay concrete pavers under the clotheslines so that the kids and workers wouldn’t be standing in the dirt or mud while hanging clothes. (For the record, I’d liked to point out that the verb “lay” is way too passive to describe a process that includes a pick ax, shovels, rakes, wheelbarrows, levels, mallets, and tons of filthy fill dirt.) Pablo* was a constant presence as we worked. At one point, a paver standing on end toppled onto his finger. He burst into tears, and his father, who was working nearby, came running. After sufficient cuddling, he calmed down until his mother appeared. Even though he had been quiet for about five minutes, as soon as he saw her, he held up his finger and started crying again. As should be the birthright of all toddlers, she scooped him up and kissed the finger properly until it was all better.
Later that day we went to the “baby house” for their Easter Egg hunt. Sixteen children ranging in age from one to six live at this “house”, and on this day three caregivers were present. The playroom was bright and clean, the children well dressed, and the little girls’ hair cutely styled in braids or ponytails. Before the hunt, we sat the children down at the table to decorate their “Easter baskets” (otherwise known as paper bags). Carlos*, age two, started to cry softly the moment he was plopped into the chair. He continued to cry while the others were happily decorating their bags. I tried to comfort him and divert his attention, but he wasn’t buying it. Finally, I asked one of the workers what was wrong and should we do something. She looked over and replied that he was just crying because he wasn’t sitting near his friend. No big deal, he’d get over it. She took him away to sit in the time-out chair until he stopped crying.
Carlos was clearly well-fed, clean, and cute as a button. The caregiver’s treatment wasn’t harsh–it was simply matter-of-fact. Fifteen other kids needed attention, and his condition wasn’t critical. I doubt she even realized he was crying, but when she saw, she knew the reason and knew that he’d get over it. But the contrast between Carlos and Pablo was striking. Pablo was special; he was the apple of someone’s eye. Carlos was not.
It’s hard to be special when you are one of 16. By international standards, this orphanage is one of the best. It is fairly small; has a sufficient number of caregivers with low turn over; plenty of space, toys, and food; and is supported by the surrounding community. This best, however, isn’t good enough. Children need more; children need parents.
I don’t deny the potential problems with international adoption — too much money entering poor countries serving as an enticement to pull children from families that would otherwise stay together, the difficulty of preparing parents for the potential of a traumatized child, the money paid by international adoptions overriding the preference to find domestic adoptive families, and on and on. But despite these problems, because of kids like Carlos, I remain a fervent supporter of adoption. Yes, family reunification should be the primary goal. If that is not possible, adoptive families in the country should be sought, but if not found, then the needs of the child for a family should trump everything else, and parents should be found elsewhere. The Carlos-es of the world deserve to be the apple of someone’s eye.
Postscript: This was first published in 2010. Carlos is still at the orphanage and has been moved to the middle house with 40 other kids ages 6 to 12. He has not had any contact, that I know of, with his biological family since he arrived at 1 year of age. My husband and I continue to lead groups to this same orphanage. We are now in our 14th year. Carlos is still cute as a button and Pablo has grown into a handsome, kind child.
*Names have been changed.
Image credit: Pratham Books