In her work with orphans around the world, Amanda Howard has heard a lot of stories, but she says one in particular sums it all up. It’s about a baby who really needed some love and a young woman who really wanted to help.
The woman went on a volunteer trip to serve at an orphanage, and the workers there asked her if she could help get a new baby on a schedule. The baby was eight months old and had only been at the orphanage for a couple of days.
She said yes. And while the usual caregivers were doing all the other day-to-day tasks of keeping the orphanage running — cleaning, preparing meals and caring for the older children — she focused on giving that baby the best start she could.
“This woman poured her heart and soul into that baby for the three weeks that she was there,” Howard said.
But when she left, something happened. The baby lost its stability.
“That baby was so dysregulated that they ended up having to take it to urgent care,” Howard said. “It took three months to get that baby back on a schedule, but not only that — it threw off the equilibrium for the entire baby home.”
It’s a common problem, and one that’s easy to create without meaning to, said Howard, a developmental psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at Samford University in Birmingham.
Heart for orphans
People have a heart for orphans, and they volunteer in orphanages because they want to help. But experts now say there’s research to support the idea that not every volunteer orphan-care trip is created equal.
Sometimes the best way to love children in need isn’t to love them directly — it’s to offer support to the caregivers who have an ongoing presence in the kids’ lives, Howard said. That principle can cut down on the problem of children developing attachment issues.
“The CEO of that organization (with the dysregulated baby) said looking back, he realized the young woman would’ve had just as much of a fulfilling experience supporting the caregiver [while] the caregiver took care of the baby,” she said.
Howard said she’s not advocating for volunteers to stop going — in fact, she said she would love to see more and more people involved in orphan care. What she’s suggesting is a better model, one that helps the children develop healthy attachments to the caregivers who are a constant in their lives.
Howard recently worked with the Christian Alliance for Orphans Research Initiative to develop a free curriculum for those interested in learning more about how to care well for orphans. The curriculum will be available online Sept. 1.
In the meantime, here are some guidelines Howard suggested for those with a heart to help orphanages care for children:
- Support the caregiver instead of being the caregiver.
Rocking a baby may seem like the most direct way to love an orphan, but that dysregulated baby would have likely had a different outcome if the volunteer had instead taken care of the primary caregivers’ other jobs so they would have time to invest in the baby.
“Attachment is something that happens in someone’s arms,” Howard said.
In a typical primary caregiver relationship, the caregiver is rocking the baby to sleep, changing its clothes and giving it baths — doing all the day-to-day tasks.
Those tasks should stay with the caregiver, Howard said. It doesn’t mean a volunteer can’t interact with a child at all. For example, if a child were to fall and hurt himself, a volunteer could pick him up and brush him off, of course — but send him back to the primary caregiver to be the main comforter.
“One way to think about it is this — would you be comfortable with a new stranger coming into your house every week and feeding and rocking your babies and giving them baths? Our hope is that a consistent caregiver would do those things and volunteers could do other tasks to support them,” Howard said.
She told the story of one young girl from Eastern Europe who was adopted at age 8. Though she’s well-adjusted and older now, following her adoption she had trouble attaching to her new mom. At the same time, she treated everyone like a caregiver. She would go up to random people in the mall and hug them or hold their hand.
“Before she was adopted, she had 30 women every year come in and rock her to sleep, and many would say things like, ‘We’re going to get you taken care of,’ or ‘I’m going to come back and get you,’” Howard said. “It was hard for her to grasp that her new parents were her ‘forever’ people.”
- Let the caregiver distribute any gifts you have to give.
When teams go in and give out gifts to the children, they can sometimes inadvertently sabotage the caregiver, Howard said. She told the story of one orphanage where volunteers kept giving gifts to the kids, and they were developing bad habits like asking volunteers for money or their rings.
“The caregivers are trying to have this balance of structure, and asking volunteers for gifts doesn’t help the caregiver build a long-term relationship,” she said. “If you have gifts to give, leave them with the caregiver so she can give them to the children instead.”
- Invest in the whole community.
In some parts of the world — especially Africa — the children who end up in orphan care sometimes aren’t actually orphans. They have living parents who feel their child will have a better opportunity at getting an education and other resources if they send them to an orphanage, Howard said.
“People often don’t realize that,” she said. “But if you pour into the community rather than just into the orphanage, it helps break the cycle.”
When volunteers go and work in these areas, they should think about focusing on family preservation by doing things like hosting parenting classes at a local church.
“Our goal is for these kids to go home,” Howard said. “We want families to reunify.”
- Use your skills creatively.
While orphans might not need a changing stream of primary caregivers, they still need the investment of people who love them, Howard said. “If you have a team with a certain skill set, use that skill set.”
That could mean hosting a sports camp or Vacation Bible School for the children, or it could mean hosting an education conference in the community.
“I went on a trip once with a team that had a hairdresser on it, and one day he just spent an hour doing the hair of the caregivers and loving on them,” she said. “That was a treat for them.”
Howard recommends asking the organization or orphanage what their needs are.
“Many times they are afraid to ask, but if you ask them, they are open to those conversations,” she said.
Stephani Duff with Back2Back Ministries said her organization relies heavily on volunteer help but has seen similar ideas work well with their ministry.
“You can have short-term guests effectively serve when they come alongside workers who are doing work 365 days,” she said. “We do not ask visiting missions guests to do work that is best suited for a caregiver — they are helping us in what’s already being done on the ground year-round.”
‘Goal in mind’
Before volunteers assist at Back2Back, which has eight orphan-care sites in six countries, the organization trains them in trauma-informed care, Duff said. They are also clear about the volunteers’ schedules and what work will be done while they’re there.
“We do a lot of building projects with our teams — pouring concrete, building bunk beds for the homes. We have them participate in play with a purpose,” she said. “A lot of the work they do is to benefit what’s already happening in the homes and with the children. We do give them time to connect with the kids, but it is always planned and with a goal in mind.”
All of those things are intended to build up the children’s faith and confidence while reinforcing their relationships with their primary caregivers, Duff said.
“Our goal is always to look to the people who are with the kids the most, who know them the best — those are the safe adults who are trustworthy,” she said. “Anything we’re doing is with the intent of helping what’s already happening.”
Wondering how to care better for orphans and their caregivers?
Christian Alliance for Orphans will offer two free online courses starting Sept. 1 — one for hosts/coordinators and one for volunteers. You can access them here:
Hosting Wise Short-Term Missions resources.cafo.org/courses/receiving-short-term-missions
Short-Term Volunteering: The Good, The Bad, and the Better Way resources.cafo.org/courses/wise-short-term-missions