"When I first walked through the gates of the orphanage, a flood of children ran to me - I stepped forward, my feet cascaded in the red dirt, my arms open wide. I have never felt more loved or needed as I did in that moment. This...this is where God wanted me. Each one of his children clamoring for attention, for just an ounce of love. I saw them with His eyes: pure and faultless. I held, loved on, kissed, and laughed with them. These few short hours felt like a lifetime. My cup is full and I am forever changed. These precious little ones, who laugh in the face of much trial, who choose joy despite their circumstances, inspire me - and should inspire us all.”
Sound a little too familiar? This vernacular has become the norm for Christian missions, specifically regarding the orphan care field. The reason we are able to hit the nail on head with Barbie Savior is because we were her. Not in every sense - we did not have a pet lion and no we never thought Africa was a country. However some posts hit a little too close to home.
So many of us start out by volunteering in orphanages. We believe in the biblical and humanitarian call to look after orphans. It starts with our innate desire to do good, so how did we get it so wrong? How did the first line of defense for orphan care become so harmful? When did we decide it was the healthy, proper thing to do to visit orphanages and “experience” the African orphan? This industry, "orphanage tourism”, is detrimental in countless ways.
Children who are in care have experienced the most traumatic separation: the loss of a family. This is a loss they will carry the rest of their lives. Further exposing these children to separation by allowing a rotating door of volunteers can result in additional harm and unhealthy attachment. When Barbie Savior walks into an orphanage, the children run into her arms. How many of us have been there? It makes us feel loved and needed and like our visit has a purpose. But do we stop and ask ourselves if this normal behavior for children? If you walked into a daycare center back home would the children run into your arms or would they be apprehensive about a stranger in their midst?
Healthy children do not jump into a stranger’s arms. If we truly want children in care to thrive, we must do better.
Unless you are willing to commit to the child you are holding, cuddling, photographing, and forming attachments with for not mere hours or days - but an entire lifetime - the best way you could truly love them is to not visit in the first place. Children in orphanages are vulnerable and deserve our utmost protection, sensitivity, and respect. They have already experienced loss and abandonment, and to perpetuate this cycle by allowing volunteers to come and go has been proven to be detrimental.
In any circumstance, the benefits of the volunteer do not outweigh the harms of the child. To truly love these children is to advocate for them - to fight for them to have a family, to have permanence. In Barbie Savior's above narrative, she does not focus on the child's needs or experience. It focuses on her experience of the child. She forgets that it is not normal to hug strangers, to become attached so quickly. She does not realize that this attachment is superficial. We are hard wired to nurture others. Our nurturing desire to hold and care for these children often trumps the logical side. We must have a paradigm shift, and begin putting children's needs above our own desire to feel needed.
For these children do not need your arms to hold them for a few short moments - they need the arms of a loving family, forever.
What you can do to help:
The “Stop Orphanage Volunteering” Blogging Blitz organized by Better Volunteering Better Care. has been running throughout May, during the run-up to International Children’s Day on 1st June. As well as the aim of stopping orphanage volunteering the blitz wants to show that children should not be treated as tourist attractions. Please help spread the word by sharing this and other articles from the campaign across social media with the hashtag #stoporphantrips.
Sign the Avaaz petition
The petition is calling for travel operators to remove orphanage volunteering placements from their websites by the next Responsible Tourism day at World Travel Market in London in November 2016. To sign the petition to put a stop to orphanage volunteering, click here.
To see more blog posts in this program, please search #stoporphantrips on social media.
Better Volunteering Better Care is a cross-sector global working group made up of individuals and organisations campaigning against international volunteering in orphanages, and supporting responsible volunteering alternatives. Throughout May, leading up to International Children’s Day on June 1st, Better Volunteering Better Care members and bloggers from around the world are working together to raise awareness of the problems surrounding volunteering in orphanages, and calling on volunteer travel providers to stop orphanage placements.
To learn more about Better Volunteering Better Care, click here.