I just read that JK Rowling has asked people to stop donating to, or volunteering in, orphanages. As someone who has volunteered in orphanages, I have some thoughts about this.
You can see see what Rowling said and why here, from the Huffington Post. One of the reasons cited is that orphanages drive family break-up, because most of the kids in them are not actually orphans. Orphanages being involved in trafficking is also a reason mentioned. But another reason stood out most to me, and it’s that children thrive in families, not in institutions.
And one quote in particular, from the article:
“The stream of foreigners coming in and out of children’s lives for short periods ― it has a negative effect, creates attachment issues, and doesn’t help them form long lasting relationships with caretakers that they should be forming,” Orit Strauss, founder of volunteer site Giving Way, told The Huffington Post.
It was almost 20 years ago when I gained personal experience with this. I spent several months volunteering in orphanages abroad, one in Kathmandu, Nepal, and one in Calcutta (now Kolkata), India. Both were run by the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa’s order. The one in Nepal was a home for orphaned children. The one in India was one of several MoC homes in the city, and it was the one for malnourished and/or disabled kids, and a few adults.
I would like to offer two stories to illustrate my experience, as it relates to the Huffington Post quote above.
In Calcutta, the orphanage I volunteered at was never short on volunteers. People travel from all over the world to volunteer in Calcutta, and on any given day, you’d find an international smorgasbord of volunteers. While I was there, I worked with volunteers from Italy, France, Japan, Germany, Australia, South Africa, Canada. And a few of them stayed long enough to learn the kids’ names. But most didn’t. I’d guess the average time a volunteer spends there is about a week. Many come for just a few days.
At the time, as one of the relatively longer-term volunteers, this annoyed me. Frankly, it felt like it took more energy to explain everything to the in-and-out volunteers than it would have taken to just do whatever they were there doing. While I’m sure most volunteers had only the best intentions, their week-long token trips to the orphanage were hardly beneficial to the kids they were intending to serve. The story of one little girl, who I’ll call “M”, demonstrates this.
On my first day there, I stood next to a crib with metal bars, peering down at a tiny baby with bony legs and fiery eyes. Someone told me to feed her, so I picked her up, careful to support her head and upper back, because she was so little. I looked around for a bottle to feed her, before a nun thrust a plate of rice into my hand. I thought there must be some mistake, because surely this baby wasn’t old enough to eat solid food. I asked the nun how old this baby was. She said nine months.
At nine months old, most babies can sit up right, crawl, some can even pull up into a standing position. And they can feed themselves with their hands. Not M. She couldn’t do any of those things. At first, I assumed M was so tiny and weak from malnutrition. And that probably was why she was tiny. While many of the residents at this home were there because of varying disabilities, M was one of the malnutrition kids. And little she was. But I soon learned that the reason she was so weak was not, or at least not solely, malnutrition. The reason M couldn’t sit or crawl was because she was never put down. After all, every visitor of the day to come in and volunteer wanted to hold the sweet little baby with the fiery eyes. But when a baby is never put down, they can’t learn to do the things they need to do. And when the person caring for a baby changes every day, there is no one to notices when their care is harming their development.
I, along with an Italian woman named Lucy (another long-term volunteer who I adored), worked mostly with the malnutrition kids. There were four of them, three little boys and M. Every day after breakfast, we’d take them up on the roof for some fresh air. I had formed a close bond with M, and as soon as I realized why she wasn’t sitting or crawling, I started thinking of what I could do to help. And of course, there was only one thing to do.
One day I said to Lucy, as we were walking up the stairs to the roof, that I wanted us to let M cry that day. Lucy agreed. We got up there, and I lay a blanket down on the floor. Then I gave M a big hug and set her down on her belly. She waited for a second, probably sure I would pick her up. But when she realized I wasn’t going to, she started wailing. She was mad. I sat there talking to her, encouraging her, and fending off random volunteers who came over and asked to pick her up. We did this for several days. I don’t remember how long it had been, whether it was days or weeks, but one day, M started crawling. She got big cheers for that. After a couple months, she was sitting up too.
I was proud of the progress we’d made. I was proud of her. I wasn’t surprised that she did it, because those fiery eyes came with a fiery personality. Despite her slight frame and little squeak of a cry, you could feel that she was a strong person. I sometimes wondered if she got that from her mother and whether her mother would be proud of her too. M wasn’t quite an orphan, but she was there, because her mother was in Kalighat, another home run by the Missionaries of Charity. Also known as “the home for the dying.” She had tuberculosis, and it was unlikely M would see her again. I thought about her mother often, and sometimes imagined I could feel her mother’s love for her when I looked at that sweet baby.
During my time volunteering in Calcutta, I felt conflicted about a lot of things. And discouraged by things. The constant flux of short-term volunteers was one thing that bugged me. In that regard, I thought I was one of the good ones though. After all, I was there long enough to learn the names, needs and stories of the kids, to oversee progress, to train other volunteers. Surely that was helpful.
But the day came when I left, returning home to my western life. That day, I became one of countless people who had left M during her short time on this earth. I will always be one of those people.
In Kathmandu, I had a bond with another child similar to the one I had with M. I’ll call this child “S.” On my first day there, I noticed her right away. She had a sternness on her face that to this day, I have rarely seen on a child. She didn’t laugh or even smile. It wasn’t just that she was in a bad mood. As days and weeks went on, I learned that she did not smile or laugh. She also mostly didn’t play. But similar to with M, I felt a quick and powerful bond with S.
So every day I sat with her and talked to her. I held her on my lap. I made up songs for her with the few Nepali words I had learned. I sang to her. I was there with her every day (except the one day a week that the orphanage was closed to volunteers). Over time, I guess she came to trust me and feel safe with me.
Here she is one day during my second month there:
She started smiling. This might sound like a happy ending to this story. And if it was the end, it might be happy. But just like with M, the day came when I went back to my old life. I left S there, got on a plane, and went home. This sweet little girl, who had had such a hard life that she could not laugh, who’d had so much broken trust that she could not smile. I left her. And the fact that before leaving her, I spent multiple months with her, gaining her trust? Does that make it better? Or much, much worse? I want to believe that some love is better than no love. But I think deep down, I know that what I did was probably more hurtful to her than helpful.
Kids need continuity of care to thrive. Institutions cannot replace families. All money and energy directed at orphanages is money and energy not being spent on keeping kids with their families. Many of the kids have parents or relatives who could care for them, if only they had the proper resources, support and/or education. I learned today that JK Rowling has an organization that works to keep or return kids to their families. It’s called Lumos.
Like most people who volunteer at orphanages, I had good intentions. I just wanted to help, and I wanted to help people who I thought needed it most. At first glance, volunteering at an orphanage seems like a perfect way to do that. But what JK Rowling says about this is right. If you want to serve an orphanage, volunteer at one. But if you want to serve children, find a better way.
I now remember the beautiful faces of M and S with a knot in my stomach. I carry tremendous guilt surrounding my relationships with them. I couldn’t stop crying while writing this. It’s not that I think they needed me, specifically. It’s that they needed someone, who would stay. So much of child development hinges on connection, and on trust kids form with their caregivers in those early years. I did have the best of intentions when, at 18 years old, I decided to travel to far away lands to volunteer in orphanages. And I was lucky to get to know those kids. But I will now forever be haunted by my memories of them. And by what I did to them.