When Orphans Aren't Orphans (Chronicles of Belizean Adventures)

9:37 AMHeather

Rarely, in fact nearly never, is life like a scene from a movie.  Complete with sound track and profound moments of epiphany.  You know, those movie moments where the main character is so impacted in an instant that the plot twists and the conflicts come into focus.

But, I had such a moment as my third day in Belize began with the bright sunshine of a new day.  A sabbath day, in fact.  While we ate breakfast with the kids before heading to church.

We were all gathered in the screened, second story dining hall.  I was still shaking off the long day before and praying for a better attitude...better coping skills...a better day.

I got up to grab more water, with the music playlist of another team member playing on the blue tooth speaker.  In my morning fog, I looked across the room, and my eyes connected with Shauna*, the oldest of the girls at Hopewell.  Shauna.  Nearly fourteen, she is half-child, half-woman.  When I had met her two days prior, the first thing she told me was her age and that she didn't want to grow up.  She had no desire to be an adult.  It was said with great defiance, a tough "I don't care" demeanor.  

But, in the end, her joy and laughter and her wicked sense of humor and good nature win out, despite her best efforts to the contrary.  She's been wounded and abused by adults who seem to have sparked her cynicism about anything good coming in adulthood.  I think her mind tells her to be callous.  But her heart says she just can't completely succumb to that.

And so, as our eyes met, there was that hard look on her face.  A tough, distant look.  I offered her a smile and her face suddenly lit up with that gorgeous smile of hers at the exact moment that the song playing offered these lyrics:

Girls will be queens
Wrapped in Your majesty
When we love, when we love the least of these
Then they will be brave and free
Shout your name in victory
When we love when we love the least of these


It's a moment hard to convey.  Because it was like the veil of heaven was slipped back ever so slightly and I saw this song coming to life.  I saw a young lady, striving to be brave and free and to shout Jesus' name in victory, weighed down by all that she has endured.  Teetering on the fence between her past and a hope for a better future.  And I saw that these moments in Belize were precious.  They were the stuff of heaven.  That I would be given the opportunity to love these kids.  To know these kids.  To be part of what God wants to do in their lives, to claim them as his kings and his queens and his dearly loved children--redeeming them from their past.

I thought I was going to an orphanage.  I knew it wasn't exactly that...I struggled to describe it before I left, and even more so since.

Because the truth is that not one of the eleven kids is a true orphan.  Not a single child at Hopewell has lost both parents to death.  The more complicated reality is that these children have been brought to Hopewell because of abuse and neglect and parents who are very much alive but unable to care for them. That is why I cannot share their names or their faces.  Or their beautiful smiles with you.

So, what do we do then?  What is the best way to help when orphans aren't orphans?  Why is there not a word for that?

There should be a word for that.  

Here I was, meeting these children whose smiles and demeanor and friendliness and all appearances of being normal kids--it all belies the trauma and unimaginable history they've survived.  Because they are survivors.  From the youngest to the oldest.  Surviving being harmed by their parents.  Or at the very least, being harmed by others while their parents did nothing.  Found begging on the streets as the breadwinners at age 8.  Trying desperately to care for their parents.  Victims of the lack of resources when their families could not afford to feed them. 

Children whose parents have left them true orphans have endured great loss.  Children whose parents are living and have abused and neglected them and failed to protect them leave a wake of confusion and pain and a lack of closure.  How can a small child reconcile that they actually do have parents...at whose hand many of them have suffered?  What then?  

There's not even a word for that. 

Because they aren't really orphans.  They are just displaced.  And my eyes were open in Belize to this reality.  Because I wonder of the estimated 127 million orphans in the world, how many fall into these complicated categories?  I know speculation projects many of them are not actually true orphans.  Many have parents who are so bound by poverty and lack of opportunity that they cannot provide for their children.  Many of them have parents who came from abuse and carry on that horrible legacy.  Many of them have extended family who wish they could parent.

So what then?  

Places like Hopewell are trying to fill this gap.  To shape and rewire these hard places by offering loving house parents, food, education, warm beds, safety, and normalcy.  A pseudo family.  It can be easy to forget why these kids live here at all.  Because their resiliency shines when they grab your hands and form a circle and play a dancing game.  Or spent hours playing with Legos.  Or dive into their assigned chore with a polite, "Yes, m'am."  Or run off down the road to try to round up the escaping cows. (True story!)

But still, throughout my time at Hopewell, the scars became visible.  When I was tasked with helping the kids fill out new forms about themselves for their files.  And the young man who used to beg on the streets to try to care for his mother is asked, "What would your 'someday' wish be?"  And he says, "that my mom would come," as he fights back tears.  Or another young man, who has lived on his own in the city, dabbling in gang activity says that he knows God loves him because he's still alive.

My heart breaks to see the dichotomy of a child trying to enjoy care-free childhood days while working to heal from burdens no adult should endure. 

My heart broke further as the team learned more about the kids' histories.  And then it shattered when I heard that while international adoption is possible in Belize, the adoptive parents would have to live in Belize for twelve months with the child before their case could be considered.  

There you have it.  The harsh reality that is coming to light more and more.  We are told that an estimated 127 million orphans live around the world.  However, many of those children are not true orphans.  And many countries around the world have such complicated adoption processes that even if adoption were the solution, it's pretty much impossible.

So what are we going to do?  Something is better than nothing.  And one child helped could be the start of a ripple effect.  Eleven children raised at Hopewell could grow up to help eleven more each and so on and so forth. So we can't be intimidated by the sheer volume of the problem.  We gotta figure out where to dive in with our unique gifts, talents and resources.  So we can do something.

There needs to be serious concern and conversation about this global problem.  Families in crisis need to be supported and equipped so that their children can move from being vulnerable to being healthy and avoid being labeled "orphan."  Places like Hopewell and Abide Family Center in Uganda are doing amazing work, teaching struggling parents how to be great parents and giving them life and job skills so that they can always care for their children.  Places like Hopewell, or the private house in Ethiopia where 13 former street boys now reside with house parents--these are the places that need to become the trend.

Because God says in James 1:27 that pure religion is caring for the widows and orphans.  And we, the church, need to start thinking globally and outside the box.  

Here is the international trend as I see it.  International adoptions, complicated by the Hague Treaty and political struggles, are becoming more difficult.  Meanwhile, children remain at risk.

If we are looking at a generation of children who are labeled "orphans" and will never be adopted, then I believe passionately that we need to respond better.  We need to be part of a trend of finding better solutions than overcrowded, dirty, inhumane government orphanages.  We need to be part of places like Hopewell, where non-orphaned orphans can find a home and security and ultimately hope.  


We need to be part of avoiding toxic charity.  We need to be part of equipping and raising up nationals to care for their own children, within the context of their own culture, and aimed at the best opportunities that their country can provide. We can't have the superhero complex.  We can't throw money at the problem if we even acknowledge it in the first place.  Instead we need to be part of efforts to help local organizations be empowered to become self-sustaining as they care for the children of their own country.

That.  All of that.  That is what happened when I looked across the room during breakfast one hot Sunday morning in Belize, and I saw a girl with a tough exterior melt into a huge hopeful smile.  

I saw that girl become a queen.  Oh, yes, Lord, wrap her in your majesty.  Help her become brave and free and shout your name in victory.

Because she is so much more than the least of these. 

She is the future of Belize.

*Names changed to protect the identity of the children.     

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