Blogging about life in Minnesota, raising our five kids with Down syndrome while battling Breast Cancer.

Be the kind of woman that when your feet hit the floor in the morning the devil says, "Oh shit! She's up!"

Saturday, July 05, 2014

So you want to visit an orphanage...

Today someone sent me a link to this Huffington Post submission about Voluntourism. I'd like to talk about this a bit.

Several years ago I had the opportunity to visit an institution in Serbia and share my love with some kids who were lacking in that department. I was so excited!!!! We traveled, we hugged kids, we showered them with affection, I fell in love with a couple. It was a very rewarding experience! FOR ME!

But what about those kids? Did they benefit from our exchanges?  They sure seemed to enjoy my affections. In fact, they LOVED our interactions. Most latched onto me with a death grip, refusing to let go. I remember four kids from one room fighting like mad for the prime spot in my lap. They WANTED my attention.

Now, lets look at this from a different perspective; that of a child raised in an institutional setting with numerous caregivers. I will use my Asher as the example child.

Here is what I wrote during Asher's adoption 2 1/2 years ago:

Asher stands in the middle of the room or lays on the floor, eyes cold and distant, unfocused, lost in his own world. His world, the one in the institution, has nothing for him so he has disconnected to find somewhere better in his mind. He doesn't rock like many of his roommates. Instead he stands frozen as if a statue. If he lays on the floor he is still. Silent. Sometimes he finds a thread from someone's clothes, or a stuffed animal that still has it's tag, and dangles it before his eyes, occasionally using his other hand to give it a twirl. This is Asher's day....every day....for every waking moment.
And then this woman the caregivers call "Mama" comes. Me. I appear in the door of his room. He has learned that my appearance means a change of environment. He runs to me with a half grin, his head turned away but watching where he's going out of the corner of his eye. He wraps his arms around my neck for a hug as I pick him up, then squirms to get down again, taking my hand to guide me down the hall to the playroom.
But don't be fooled by his eagerness! Asher isn't connecting to me yet. I am but a tool to get him out of that prison of monotony. He will gladly take the hand of any caregiver if it will get him the same thing. He's indiscriminate.

I was but a tool to Asher then. Every new caregiver who showed up to work was viewed the same, but at least they were the same faces every day. For the most part the same person got him up and out of bed in the morning, giving him breakfast and getting him dressed. Likewise, most of the time the same staff person put him to bed every night, bathing (hosing them down, really) getting pajamas on and throwing a blanket over each child. The staffing was consistent and usually predictable for him save for the occasional staffing shuffle that happened between rooms to cover when someone was out sick or on vacation. Children build trust when their lives and caregivers are predictable.

But what about the volunteers who came to visit the children?

Every year hundreds of volunteers from the US raise money and board planes, traveling to countries around the world to care for their orphans. They attend trainings to learn how to conduct themselves on the trip as well as things they might see and do while there. They're told this will be a life-changing experience. So rewarding. So fulfilling. Yes, it absolutely will be…for the volunteer.

They arrive at their target facility, eager to shower the wanting children with love and affection, sometimes including candy or trinkets to win the child's trust. "I'm safe. See? I bring you good things!" They spend a week or two helping with various tasks around the facility while intermittently interacting with the kids. On their blogs and social media websites they post pictures of their favorites. "Look at Lily! Isn't she sweet? She and I have really bonded this week. It's going to be so hard to say goodbye. I hope I can come back next year!"

And then they leave.

The very children who they formed "bonds" with are now left wondering, "Where did that good person go? Every day for a week he was here. I sat on his lap. Now he is gone. I will never trust another person again."

At some point the children are no longer able to form bonds with anyone, including the the families who come to adopt them. 

Asher has been home 2 1/2 years now. He is still 100% indiscriminate with his affections. He will walk away with an absolute stranger. He will climb into the laps of people he's never seen before and snuggle up just like a baby monkey.  Last night at our 4th of July celebration before we could blink he was in the lap of my friend whom he had never met, arms around her neck, emotionally looking like a newborn. We're exhausted from the constant correcting. And it IS constant!! We've had three incidents with strangers just in one trip to the grocery store today. Two and a half years and probably a lifetime ahead of us.

In Asher's life prior to having a family he learned that people come and go. It is not safe to attach to any one person. There will be a staff person or volunteer to come shower their affections, and when they leave another will appear.

 If you feel you must volunteer your talents to orphan children, please do so in tangible ways. Do you have a skill set that is needed? Being able to love children is not a skill set! Can you build something? Are you a doctor who can treat their medical needs? Are you an occupational therapist who can train facility staff without having to handle the children yourself? Do you have something REAL to offer? If not, if all you have is time and money, please spend it more appropriately. Don't use "We're going to visit an orphanage and play with the orphans!" as a way to see other parts of the world. Take that money and find out the material needs of the facility, satisfying those needs without interfering with the lives of children who don't need to meet you.





10 comments:

Hevel Cohen said...

Better yet: If you want to go on a vacation, do so. Spend your money to boost the local economy and don't be under foot of local staff.

Amy said...

This. So, so much. I won't share what I've been called for suggesting that people avoid the "let's go cuddle disabled babies" tour. There are so many ways to help children in institutions around the world, but I am firmly against this one. Thank you for this. I will be sharing it with everyone who wants to do one of these trips...

Leah Spring said...

Good point Hevel!

Jane J said...

Sadly, the Peace Corps is pretty much the same things -- there's a huge gap between people with the sorts of skills that would actually be useful to the locals (eg experienced farmers, civil engineers who do low-tech, low-maintenance irrigation, etc) and the sorts of people who sign up for the Peace Corps (21 yo me, with a newly-minted degree in astrophysics). I had a great 2.5 yrs, it was a truly eye-opening experience but there was precious little I did that was helpful. I was supposed to teach high school math/science but there was no high school in "my" town.

I subsequently worked for a large NGO and ran head first into the Law of Unintended Consequences. I managed a project that aimed to improve healthcare delivery in a remote, rural region with basically no doctors but quite a few RNs. Getting doctors to move to the region was a non-starter, so we coordinated training the RNs to the Bachelor of Nursing level -- it worked great, the quality of healthcare in the region improved in a statistically significant way.

So we decided to train the BS nurses to Master of Nursing level (the local equivalent of a nurse practitioner), in the hope that they'd eventually be able to train midwives too. The NGO was pretty excited and I really felt this was going to make a BIG difference.

It did. Approximately one nanosecond after the Master of Nursing degrees were awarded, pretty much all the nurses quit their remote, rural nurse jobs in order to move to the capital, as they got fabulous jobs laying 5x what they were currently making at various Embassies.

My five-year, two phase nurse education project succeeded only in removing pretty much all the nurses from a renote area desperately in need of healthcare. THAT is what around $400k + good intentions accomplished. We made things MUCH worse!

The potential to do way more harm than good looms large.

Bobbie said...

Hello! Thank you for your article. What kinds of things do you tell Asher to help him understand? We have had our 5 1/2 year old home for 3 years and he often will hug (and sometimes even kiss) strangers. If someone is nice to him or gives him something (happens often because he is friendly and cute!), he will exclaim that this person is his friend. I don't want to discourage him from being outgoing and friendly, but it scares me how easily he gets close to strangers. I have talked about someone trying to take him and how he can kick, scream, bite - but he probably wouldn't recognize that someone is a "bad guy" if they acted nice. Thanks!!

Melissa said...

This is the thing that has been in the back of my mind for a few years now. Every time I would read about someones experience visiting an orphanage and playing with the kids...Years and years ago now I went to our local animal shelter to look at a dog. He was a big dog and I had young children, so I 'visited' with him a few times, to see what I could see. Anyway the person in charge got mad at me because she said I was leading him on, and getting his hopes up! At the time I thought;"Hmm, he's a dog,lady!" However how much worse would it be for a CHILD to have this experience? Not once or twice, but repeatedly?As for the talent thing, I can sew. There is a charity that distributes dresses made out of pillowcases for kiddos with sans clothing. Right up my alley. You can get a vintage pillowcase used for .25-50. We all have Something we can contribute.

Tigger (aka Karyn) said...

My daughter went to Estonia last l year along with a couple of other teenagers from our church. They spent 3 months working in a summer camp - washing dishes, serving food and helping with activities for the kids. The kids were from a variety of places. Some were orphans, some with disabilities, others just kids on summer camp. Those kids knew that the camp was only going to go for a week so they didn't have any hopes that our kids would stick around for them. I think this is a good, practical way to help. It certainly changed our kids lives. It was hard work but very rewarding because they provided such practical help. If someone wants to volunteer, helping out at a summer camp is a good way to do it.

Leah Spring said...

Bobbie, we have a family mantra, "Hugs are for family, handshakes are for friends." Our general rule is if the don't live in our house they do not get hugs. We used to carry around a little ring with pictures of each household member. Before enter an event/store/etc I would take out the ring of pictures and remind him these are the people who are allowed hugs. All others are fist bumps, handshakes and high 5's. I think it was beyond him at the time though and we need to revisit this. Really, it drives me crazy. When we are out and about, if I'm pushing a cart his hand must be ON IT, no exceptions. (same rule applies for Abel and Audrey) If no cart then they're holding my hand, and yes, I have gotten adept at holding 3 hands at once!

Fatcat said...

There's a book on amazon called "Parenting Your Internationally Adopted Child" that might help with the bonding. I read it a few years ago in preparation for an adoption that fell through so I am not experienced and have not walked in your shoes, but thought maybe that would help.

Very eye opening piece about volunteering. My facebook feed is full, right now, of kids coming back from those kinds of trips saying exactly those kinds of things.

Arizona mom to eight said...

I agree with you, there are better ways to support them, training staff first in my mind. Teach them how to be truly there for the kids and to respond to their cries. I have spent 6 weeks visiting an orphanage when we adopted Kara and I saw many lazy caregivers (and some wonderful ones) who could have responded to a child's cry, but chose not to. If they just cared for them, their little brains would continue to develop normally and they would not have a lifetime of attachment issues as a result.