Causes

Orphan care: Around the world, in a pandemic, and after

Matt Hedspeth says his newsletter is going to have the same theme as every other orphan-care organization during this time. The pandemic brought isolation, and when people have to stay home, domestic violence, drug use, and sexual abuse all increase. “There’s gonna be a huge surge in kids that need a home in the U.S.,” he says.

But the ministry Matt serves is not in the U.S. Matt is the founder and director of Hearts Cry, which runs the first special-needs orphanage and therapy center in the country of Panama: Casa Providencia. Matt and his wife Misty (an attorney specializing in international adoption law) worked to change the minds and the laws of that country about 11 years ago.

Over the last four years, they’ve worked to turn an empty 40,000-square-foot building into a place where special-needs orphans would receive therapy instead of being isolated or even chained in a corner, as they had been prior to Casa Providencia’s founding. Now, with the orphanage up and running since March of 2018, more orphans would get a chance at a good life and the opportunity to know Jesus.

Then the pandemic hit.

Now, with parts of Panama raging with coronavirus – and Matt and Misty at home on furlough in North Carolina – there is a whole new set of challenges. They’re running the orphanage remotely and feel the pain of not being able to reach out themselves to help more kids.

“Every aspect of [the pandemic] is worse in the third world,” Matt says. When family courts are open, domestic violence cases are usually addressed very quickly. But with everything shut down and little movement in most of the country, the system can’t deal with any of the cases, so many kids remain in homes that are unsafe.

“Panama is not unique,” Misty says. Many Latin American countries have responded to the coronavirus with military-style lockdowns. Police with machine guns enforce stay-at-home orders and curfews. But, Misty says, “These are paycheck-to-paycheck people. These aren’t people with salaries,” and some families don’t have enough time out of their homes to pay their bills (at the bank), let alone get food for their families. This increases the anxiety level in already stressed families.

Matt’s concern for the orphans in Panama that he and Misty serve is that “the far-outreaching hands of charity in the U.S. are getting drawn back to focus inward.” Matt wouldn’t mind if this meant they were reaching back to support other orphans. He’s just concerned about a loss of generosity, in general, that’s caused by fear.

The good news for their ministry, Misty points out, is that some of their supporters reached out with extra giving in anticipation of the effects of the pandemic. “We had to pay extra overtime and a fee for staff that had to stay on site.” These were extra costs they hadn’t planned on.

But, “literally, before we sent out the emails, God laid it on some hearts to help us cover extra amounts,” she says.

God has provided for them in surprising ways before. Matt says that living in Panama, where their daily dependence on God is so much more obvious, they know how to cry out to God for their needs. And they are glad for the “massive blessing” that has come along with the pandemic, “to shake up the church” and remind us that all of us need that kind of dependence.

Matt and Misty Hedspeth with their four kids

But, right now, trusting him ought to mean we become “even more sacrificial and even more selfless,” Matt says. “What are we doing all this for? Let’s live a dynamic, generous, crazy life for Jesus, because, if you’re concerned about legacy, that’s the legacy you want to leave, and that’s the stuff you wanna teach your kids.”

Let’s live a dynamic, generous, crazy life for Jesus, because, if you want to leave a legacy, that’s the legacy we want to leave ….

Matt and Misty are thrilled to be doing the work God has called them to do in Panama, where they experience the love and power of Jesus regularly. Along with their own four children, they’ll return to Panama as soon as they’re able.

In other parts of the world …

Gary Ringger is a food-business guy from rural Illinois. He’s grandpa to 15 kids, nine of whom are adopted. The kids come from Guatemala, China, Uganda, Zambia, and the U.S. He remembers the day when one of them told another she was adopted. The kids laughed and laughed. Even though their family lives in a mostly all-Caucasian small town, these kids hadn’t noticed any differences. They are family. “Kids don’t see race,” he says, “and we’re supposed to become like children.”

Gary knows a lot about children. The ministry he started 18 years ago, Lifesong for Orphans, now connects with indigenous leaders in 14 countries around the world, bringing holistic, Christ-centered care and education to orphans and vulnerable children. Lifesong also helped to found the Christian Alliance for Orphans (CAFO) which aligns and offers support to 190 orphan-care organizations and 650 adoption- and orphan-minded churches around the U.S.

In other parts of the world, Gary uses the kinds of businesses he understands – mostly agricultural – to both support the ministries and train older orphans in professions that will allow them to become gainfully employed when they age out of the various countries’ systems.

What impact has the coronavirus had on the work of Lifesong’s indigenous orphan-care teams?  “I’ll use Uganda as an example,” Gary says. “Two weeks ago, there had been zero COVID-19 cases in Uganda, but that was because everything shut down.”

“They were so quarantined,” Gary says, “that they couldn’t go out and get food.” Ugandans live day-to-day, buying food for one day’s meals at a time. And when Uganda shut down, the school programs Lifesong runs in Uganda were no exception. The vulnerable kids they were feeding daily went home to situations even more dire than they had been.

Gary worried about impending famine in that country, real famine, and “starvation, then hunger, and then anger.”

But then givers sent in donations earmarked for COVID-19 relief. One giver included a note with the gift:

“We are giving as a defiant act of worship. With confidence that what the enemy intends for evil God will use for GOOD. Thank you for your part in that!”

“God redeemed that situation!” Gary says. And immediately the teachers and leaders from the school were able to go out and talk with the families in the homes, meeting needs and caring for whole families.

In Uganda, Lifesong distributed essential food to 289 vulnerable children and 240 vulnerable adults, including elderly and those living with HIV/AIDS.

In almost every situation where Lifesong works, they serve orphans and highly vulnerable children. They call them “single orphans” or “double orphans,” depending on how many parents the kids have lost. Others come from homes that struggle to give their children proper care. The ministry was able to help these families.

At Lifesong School in Zambia, the toughest time is the beginning of each school year. The indigenous Zambian leaders have the difficult task of determining which kids will attend. Those who are orphans, highly vulnerable, or show signs of abuse or neglect, go to the top of the list.

Many of Lifesong’s ministries in countries like Zambia and Uganda, are truly evangelistic, intentionally planted among Muslim communities or where witchcraft and voodoo are prominent. Lifesong wants to be light and bring the gospel, but there is often resistance. However, when the pandemic hit those parts of the world, and Lifesong’s indigenous staff showed up to meet needs, something changed.

They told the families, “We’re doing this because of Jesus,” Gary says. And that opened up a lot of conversations.

“…This food means that entire families won’t starve.  But even more, this will prove to many of the often-resistant Muslim households that we are truly there to serve them with the love of Christ. In a land that is very familiar with corruption…this public display of significant relief without regard to religion or clan is noteworthy.  This witness of provision in an unprecedented time of hunger will be spoken of for generations.”
– Ugandan Staff

Lifesong’s mission to “bring joy and purpose to orphans” is fulfilled through a four-part pledge. They know the pledge is full of very challenging goals, but they commit to it in faith that God will equip and enable them to keep it. First is to make sure kids’ physical needs are met. Second is to help them receive a quality education. Third, and the ultimate goal, is to disciple them in Christ.

The fourth part of their pledge sets them apart. “As kids age out, we want to help them break the orphan cycle,” Gary says. “By God’s grace, we want them to be future leaders,” and they can’t do that if they’re starving now. Full circle back to the first goal in the pledge. Bringing food to these Zambian families is part of a much-bigger strategy.

Because of his business background, Gary thinks strategically. He uses NCF’s solutions (like a supporting organization he set up through NCF 18 years ago), to help fund administrative and overhead costs, making it possible for 100 percent of donations to go directly to orphan-care work locally and globally. Lifesong has created businesses in many of the countries they work in, which provides vocational skills training, creates jobs, and generates revenue. Some of the orphan-care ministries are sustained by these business initiatives.

Back in the U.S. …

There is both a “front door” and a “back door” to foster care in the U.S., says George Tyndall, senior vice president of operations for Bethany Christian Services, a large Christian foster-care organization that works in 30 U.S. states.

The front door is how kids are reported. Teachers, social workers, and other mandatory reporters advise state child welfare systems about children who may be in dangerous situations, says Cheri Williams, Bethany’s senior vice president of domestic services. But when schools closed, most of those mandatory reporters were no longer in daily contact with kids.

The back door is kids leaving the system, either going back to homes – because the problems there have been alleviated – or being adopted out of the system. But because many courts around the country were closed, that door was also shut.

This left many kids “stuck in limbo,” George says. Now, as states are opening up and courts begin working their way through cases, the need for foster parents – which is always great – is increased.

There is another “back door” representing another at-risk group of kids – those who will have aged out of the foster-care system during the months of the pandemic. Most states across the U.S. have enacted laws and policies to offer additional support to youth after they turn 18, Cheri says. “But let’s be real. If they’ve grown up in the system, as they turn 18 and don’t have to listen to adults anymore, they’re ready to go.” The outcomes for those kids can be dreadful.

Even prior to the pandemic, the statistics were staggering. Almost 50 percent of kids aging out of foster-care end up unemployed. Fewer than 3 percent will receive a college degree. Half will end up with some sort of addiction. In the U.S., 23,000 kids age out of the system each year, and 20 percent of them become instantly homeless.

But there have been times when Bethany has experienced great success stories helping these older kids, and that’s what they hope for now. Cheri tells the story of a teen who saw this transition coming when he turned 17. He’d been in the system for years. He told the adoption worker on his birthday, “If you haven’t found a family for me by the time I’m 17 and a half, I need you to stop looking, because I’m going to need those six months to prepare myself emotionally.”

Almost 50 percent of kids aging out of foster-care in the U.S. end up unemployed. Fewer than 3 percent will receive a college degree. Half will end up with some sort of addiction [and] 20 percent of them become instantly homeless.

Within a month, two families came forward asking to adopt him. One of the families … “only the Lord could have designed” for him, Cheri says. Their life experiences and the boy’s needs were perfectly matched. He was adopted, and now – as he’s moving forward with his adult life – “he has a soft place to land, a family to come home to,” she says.

Being a foster parent requires us, as Christ did, to step into the hard places and take on the pain these youths are experiencing. And that’s really hard, George says. You have to say “I’m going to offer up my comfortable middle-class suburban life to step into this messiness, into my space,” George says. “It’s disruptive, but we know that it’s what Jesus called us to do.”

For those interested in becoming foster parents, “there is still a path,” George says, even for states that may still be closed. “One of the bright lights in these dark and difficult times is that we have been able to open up and use technology in ways we haven’t before.” They’ve seen an increase in the number of people who want to help. And through online video calls, they’ve been able to walk prospective foster parents through how the system works. Technologies like electronic document exchange helps move the process along.

Though certain points – like checking homes for safety and adequacy – couldn’t take place while families were sheltering in place, the bulk of what Bethany needed to prepare foster parents was still possible. And it still is.

“Foster families are superheroes,” George says. But it’s important for people to know they don’t need to be superheroes to step into this space. “We need folks with room in their hearts and room in their homes, but we’ll provide the training they need to develop an understanding of trauma, provide supports they need, help them develop skills. What’s needed from the foster parent is that hopeful curiosity, faith in the human spirit to rise above challenges, and adjust parenting styles to the unique needs of kids,” he says.

Cheri and George also both encourage others to get involved, even if they’re not able to bring a child into their home. They encourage people to call Bethany Christian Services (1-800-Bethany) to become mentors, tutors, short-term volunteers, backpack stuffers or wrappers of Christmas gifts. There are all kinds of ways to help.

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