I had been living in Kenya for five years, and the Lord had clearly called me to care for street children. I had the calling and the passion, but not the means to care for the more than three hundred thousand children living on the streets in Kenya. So, I did the best I could with the resources I had. For me, that meant mattresses rolled out in the living room and usually between one and five boys using our home as a temporary shelter.
I was visiting Naivasha Children’s Shelter, in hopes of getting involved and having a more significant means of helping the children I had met on the streets. A young boy stood alone at the chalkboard, wiping away the day’s lessons with an old rag. The child—an orphan, I was told—sang quietly as he worked. I watched him from the doorway for a few minutes, before greeting him in Swahili.
After some small talk about the day’s activities, I asked Boniface, age eleven, how long he had been at the orphanage. “One year,” he told me. Quietly, I asked him when was the last time he saw his family. I didn’t know—perhaps both his parents had passed away. “Last weekend,” he said. Boniface proceeded to tell me that his mother worked at a nearby farm, and often came to visit him on the weekends.
“According to a 2009 report from Save the Children, at least four out of five children in institutional care have one or both parents alive.”
So why was Boniface, who was obviously not an orphan, at an orphanage? I learned later that Boniface is the sixth of eight children. His family was displaced during Kenya’s 2008 post-election violence. They spent two years living in an IDP (internally displaced persons) camp before his father left. Eventually, Boniface’s mother found work at a local flower farm, but couldn’t afford to send all of her children to school. So she found help the only way she could—she placed them in orphanages.
I wish I could say Boniface’s story is uncommon. But I’ve seen it enough times to know better. According to a 2009 report from Save the Children, at least four out of five children in institutional care have one or both parents alive.
Sadly, these are often stories of fraud. Desperate mothers hope that giving up their children to an orphanage will lead to a better life. But traffickers promising these parents education for their children really intend to sell them through a corrupt adoption agency. Children living on the streets are convinced the only way they can receive help is to pretend they don’t have any family. Then greedy entrepreneurs gather up the neighborhood children to act as orphans when Western donors come to visit.
There has to be a better way.
There is a better way.
As a first-time expectant mother, it’s difficult for me to imagine giving up my child willingly. I can’t imagine the desperation that might cause me to give my child to a stranger, and pray they could provide what I couldn’t. No parent should have to make such a choice.
“I can’t imagine the desperation that might cause me to give my child to a stranger, and pray they could provide what I couldn’t.”
But I’ve been on the other side, too. I’ve seen firsthand children living in terrible poverty. I’ve brought children off the streets into my home, hoping to give them a better life. I’ve loved them and wanted to give them the best the world has to offer. And in the process, sometimes I’ve forgotten that I’m not the Savior. By God’s grace (and the wisdom of many), I learned early in my journey that children belong in families. That as much as I might love this child in my care, they belong with their family—when at all possible.
I’ve struggled through this one. Isn’t the church called to look after orphans in their distress? Aren’t we supposed to help the fatherless? Yes—a thousand times yes. But I don’t think we want to be the reason a mother weeps at night, missing her lost child. We don’t want to create orphans with our donations to dubious orphanages. We want to help with our eyes open. We want our good intentions to translate to good results.
“Isn’t the church called to look after orphans in their distress? Aren’t we supposed to help the fatherless?”
A Better Way to Help Orphans
As I’ve worked through this problem, I’ve found myself coming back to a couple of ways the church can truly help orphans.
- Invest in organizations that support family-based care.
Use your time, talents, mission trips, money, and skills to support organizations that are helping families. We must learn to change our focus from the emotional satisfaction we might receive from helping orphans, to the actual needs of the children we are helping. Care for Aids is a phenomenal organization in Kenya that helps parents living with HIV to extend their lifespan so they can care for their children in the long term.
- Invest in community development.
Some call this “orphan prevention.” Many organizations work with families to help them gain financial stability through livestock and agriculture projects or small business grants. By investing in organizations like Baptist Global Response that work to empower communities and families, you can have a part in giving children a chance of a better life without being separated from their families. Naivasha Children’s Shelter works to rescue children from the streets and reunite them with their families. The organization also helps families become financially stable so they can care for their children.
Through the work of Naivasha Children’s Shelter, Boniface is now at home with his mother. The Shelter helps the family with school fees and works with the mother to help her find better employment so she can raise her family with confidence.
Kristen Lowry worked as a photojournalist for seven years in Sub-Saharan Africa. She now resides in Kentucky and is co-director of Naivasha Children’s Shelter, a rescue and rehabilitation center for street boys in Naivasha, Kenya.