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How can your church help orphans?

Partnering with SEND Relief to care for children in community

Ten years ago, I was visiting Shelter Yetu, an orphanage in Naivasha, Kenya. 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 how long he had been at the orphanage. “One year,” he told me. Quietly, I asked him the last time he saw his family. I didn’t know—perhaps both his parents had passed away. “Last weekend,” he said with a smile. Boniface proceeded to tell me that his mother worked at a nearby farm and often came to visit him and his brother on the weekends.

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 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 as many as 80% of children living in orphanages around the world have at least one living parent, and the vast majority have other family members who could be able to care for them if given the support to do so. The underlying reason children end up in orphanages is not because they are orphans—it is poverty. When a family is unable to meet the needs of their children, like education in Boniface’s case, an orphanage is considered a possible solution. 

Setting orphans in families

Does your church support an orphanage? Have you ever taken a short-term mission trip to serve at an orphanage? Does your family sponsor an orphan? If not, have you ever wondered how you or your church could help orphans? 

There is a clear biblical mandate for churches and believers to care for widows and orphans. James 1:27 says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” However, our generous and sacrificial efforts to support children through orphanages and children’s homes is not producing the kind of results we have hoped for.

A growing body of research shows that orphanages are not the best place for children. 

  • Research shows orphanages harm children’s social, emotional, and cognitive development.
  • Institutionalization of very young children has a similar impact on early brain development to severe malnutrition or maternal drug use during pregnancy.
  • Young adults raised in institutions are 10 times more likely to fall into sex work than their peers and 500 times more likely to take their own lives.
  • Placing a child in an orphanage quadruples the risk of sexual violence.

Families are vital for the development of children. They need the connection, belonging, and identity of a family to thrive into adulthood. Research shows significant improved outcomes for children who are cared for in their families, foster families, or adoptive families, compared to orphanages and children’s homes.

For these reasons, many countries and organizations are moving away from traditional institutional care (orphanages) to family and community-based care.  Organizations are working to strengthen families so they never need to consider an orphanage as a solution to their challenges. When a child is unable to be cared for in their own families, a foster or adoptive family allows children the opportunity stay in the community and receive the individualized support of a family.

Psalm 68 tells us that “God sets the lonely in families.” Orphans don’t just need food, shelter and education. Orphans need a safe, loving family. 

Today, Boniface and his brother are at home with their family, and Shelter Yetu is no longer an orphanage. Instead, it serves as a rescue center, helping children living on the streets, providing them with rehabilitation services reuniting them with safe, loving families and then working to empower their families. Shelter Yetu is also helping other orphanages transition to a family-based care model, resulting in more children going home. 

As part of my work as the International Orphan Care Consultant for Send Relief, one of my primary objectives is to help advise local churches in the United States on how to best care for orphans and vulnerable children based on biblical principles and emerging research in the field. We want to provide Southern Baptist churches with the tools, training, and advice needed to help you care for orphans in their affliction. Together, we can labor to see more orphans and vulnerable children know Christ’s love through placement in safe, loving families.



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