Orphanages have a bad rap these days.

It’s almost become a negative term. When I type the word “orphanage” into Google just now, many of the stories I find highlight the darker side of orphanage life. One of the first sites that comes up,, portrays orphan children as puppets used in orphanage scams worldwide. Two listings down: “Orphanage on Trial” in Russia. A few listings below that: a TED talk entitled “The Tragedy of Orphanages.” And the list goes on and on.

Not that some of this coverage is unjustified. Children have been taken from their families, promised education and a better life, then placed in grim fake orphanages for the sole purpose of convincing foreign visitors to give money to the nefarious orphanage founders. Perhaps a special grim chamber is waiting for these criminals in the afterlife. But for now, they’re getting a lot of media coverage.

The problem is: evil orphanages are more fun to write about than happy ones. That’s true with most all reporting. Just watch the evening news any day of the week. Fires, shootings, abductions, deaths, celebrities behaving badly…it’s all on an endless loop night after night. See enough bombs explode on TV and you might think the whole world is at war. See enough children exploited and you might start to believe that all orphanages are bad. “Orphanage, No!” as the website proclaims—though that’s a little like throwing the baby out with the bathwater…and the tub…and the house that the baby lives in.

During my time here at the Good Shepherd Agricultural Mission, I’ve been privy to many emails and posts that arrive each day, the vast majority of which are positive…but a few of which are negative. This later group echo the concerns they’ve heard in the media. They question the Shipways’ motives and believe they are advocating for children by being suspicious.

But here’s the thing…

The one constant in all of this is the children who need help, which is where all the outrage should be directed. Yes, scams should be exposed and criminals punished. But more than this, good orphanages should be identified and encouraged. Their efforts magnified. New models should be created that can be replicated. Because the children of the world need our compassion, our money, our big hearts, our full and unified attention. They need thousands of champions and continents of love. In fact, for the millions of children worldwide who, right now, are uncared for, unwanted, frightened, hopeless, trapped…they don’t need our outrage or suspicion at all. They need our action.

I am reminded of this every day at the Mission.

Santoshi's not big on smiling at the moment, as she's lost her two font teeth.

Santoshi’s not big on smiling at the moment, as she’s lost her two front teeth.

One of my favorite kids here is named Santoshi. She’s six, strong, athletic, smart as a tack…and she runs to me with as much speed as she can generate, launching herself into my arms in a death-grip greeting each time we meet. Her parents were both lepers in the nearby town of Bareilley, and, at just three months old, little Santoshi was given up for adoption to a neighbor, another leper woman at the ashram where they all lived. Three years after that, the neighbor fell on hard times, as lepers often do, and brought Santoshi to be with her older sister Rina (another of my favorites) who was already here at the Mission.

Now ten and six, Rina and Santoshi are so beautiful and thriving they are—all by themselves—more than enough justification for this place’s existence, as far as I’m concerned.

Clean breaks of both bones. Hurts me just to look at this x-ray.

Clean breaks of both bones. Hurts me just to look at this x-ray.

Yesterday, Santoshi broke her arm; her left radius and ulna both snapped near the wrist. She was climbing on the monkey bars when another child pulled her off. Nothing malicious, just a playground accident. Today she had her cast put on and was granted—as many sick children are—a pampered, lazy day. When asked if she wanted to have some children join her and watch a movie, she said no. She wanted Uncle John…which felt to me like a far greater honor than any award I have ever received.

So this afternoon, on a 103 degree day, in Rick’s air conditioned room, I watched the animated film Frozen for the third time with this tough little girl, remembering watching movies with my own sick kids, where my only goal was to make them comfortable, happy, well. I got Santoshi juice. We held hands. And as the star of the film sang, “Love is an open door!” , I thought about what orphanages really are.

All orphanages are not scams. Many caring people like the Shipways have sold everything they have, traded a comfortable life in the first world for a life of rewarding struggle so that a few lucky children can find a home. Like all homes, orphanages are places to grow; where accidents happen; where someone cares enough to get you a cast if your arm breaks; where you’re given a pampered lazy day when you are hurting.

None of this will make the evening news. Villains always steal the spotlight. But quietly, one glass of juice, one cast, one child, one hand hold at a time, the good orphanages, the real heroes I’ve been privileged to live with, keep working, keep welcoming.

Because after all: Love is an open door.

Santoshi and her big sister Rina: six and ten years old.

Santoshi and her big sister Rina: six and ten years old.

  • Rick Shipway , Banbasa, India
    Posted at 15:54h, 29 April

    A great ‘write’ John, it’s awesome having you here, you are a tremendous encouragement to us all! Thanks for the hours and hours you put into the lives of our children! Bless you!

    • John Marshall
      Posted at 16:00h, 29 April

      Rick. It is a great pleasure of mine to be here. I can’t thank you enough for your hospitality and friendship. Truly, I am inspired by the work you are doing. And grateful for the hours and hours the kids are putting into my life.

  • Lynn M. MacDonald
    Posted at 16:43h, 29 April

    Thanks for sharing John! Insightful, truthful, open and loving! I wish I were there to help Santoshi decorate her cast : ) Blessings!

    • John Marshall
      Posted at 01:41h, 30 April

      If there’s room on the cast, I’ll put your initials. 🙂

  • Chris Bicknell Marden
    Posted at 16:58h, 29 April

    John – As usual I love your blog. As someone who works in the fundraising world, I have followed this campaign with great interest. People’s desire to make a difference is at the heart of philanthropy and it is hard to imagine a campaign that would have more of a direct and positive impact than the one you all have run.

    The negativity you write about reminds me of when people, after getting their hearts broken, proclaim that they will never fall in love again as a way to ward off future heartbreak and disappointment. I think we have some sort of cultural collective broken place when it comes to really trusting that people can care for one another, especially when it involves vulnerable populations like children. And because religion through the millennia has been a tool of
    oppression as often as it has been a tool of salvation – that is another soft spot in our collective consciousness. People want to believe and they don’t want to get hurt or disappointed – this duality is not always possible. Plus since we don’t deal with our shadow in these areas I think they get reflected back larger than life.

    Those are my thoughts. I, for my part, am soaking up this amazing story and am storing it in my heart as an antidote for future sad
    stories that appear in the news the way Mainers soak up the July sun in an attempt to ward off the February blues.Thanks for taking us all along on your amazing journey.

    Chris (Deb’s sister and Ruby’s mother)

    PS. I would love to imagine the high school age kids at the orphanage writing “ripple effect” reports in the coming year about how this campaign has changed their local community. I think that would speak very powerfully about how good begets good.

    • John Marshall
      Posted at 01:40h, 30 April

      I love this comment, Chris. I read it to Clifton, the Mission Deputy Director just now. So beautifully written. I love what you say about the broken places within us. I think that’s very true. Thanks for adding to the story.

      • Chris Bicknell Marden
        Posted at 12:45h, 30 April

        My pleasure John – I am glad you liked it. Keep those beautiful photos of the kids coming. Cheers.

  • Wade Johnson
    Posted at 18:10h, 29 April

    Could not agree with you more John. From following your Blog, it sounds like the kids are just as much a blessing to you as you are to them.

    • John Marshall
      Posted at 01:44h, 30 April

      No question about it, Wade. I feel very lucky.

  • Joe Olesik
    Posted at 08:48h, 30 April

    Could a child have a better life than at an orphanage? Of course, if adopted! But for the vast majority of the children that never happens, especially if they are over 2 years old, or not perfect in every way, or trapped by their government..
    So if you feel a child should have a better life, adopt! Otherwise donate instead of complaining.
    We adopted two quite a few years ago and are forever grateful they had good homes in their orphanages before we found them.

    • John Marshall
      Posted at 09:00h, 30 April

      Hey Joe. It’s extremely difficult to adopt a child out of India. Officially, it is allowed. But in practice, it rarely happens. I heard rumors that even Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt abandoned their attempt to adopt an Indian baby on account of the adoption difficulties. In any case, at 22 million, India has the largest population of orphans of any country, so good orphanages or some solution is desperately needed. Thanks for the reply. John

  • Brian Powell
    Posted at 14:58h, 01 May

    Thank you so much for bringing the lives and stories of this community into my life and heart.

    Given the negative elements you write about, is there not a certification organization/process for orphanages to vet the good and warn of the bad?

    I will keep reading with great interest, my friend!

    • John Marshall
      Posted at 15:02h, 01 May

      Hey Brian. Great to hear from you. Hi to Leza and the kiddos. In India, all orphanages need to be certified and need a board of directors to operate. Even so, there is a great deal of corruption in the country, or so I’m told, with many orphanages skimming money away from the kids and into their pockets. Finding good ones you can trust takes getting to know them, which is something I’d like to do. I know the Shipways are trustworthy. They’ve already put all of their life savings, several hundred thousand dollars into the Mission and they take no salary. I wish all orphanages were as scrupulous as the Good Shepherd Agricultural Mission. Glad to have you following along. All the best.

  • Ralph
    Posted at 19:54h, 01 May

    John, This orphanage is blessed to have you as you are blessed to have them. What, I wonder, will be your feeling when the time comes to leave for the U.S.A. I don’t say “home” because I think, in a far deeper way, you have found “home” at the orphanage in India. And the children there. When Uncle John has left he will also have left a life-long memory of what love looks like!

    I love you John, as does my whole family of children and grandchildren!

    • John Marshall
      Posted at 02:16h, 02 May

      Thanks so much, Ralph. Those are such beautiful sentiments. Yes, leaving will be tough. I left for a three days last week for a trip north and I missed the little buggers. Who knows what the future holds. Life is nothing if not unpredictable. I’ve certainly learned that lesson in the past few years. Love back to you and your own beautiful family.

  • Rebecca Robinson
    Posted at 19:24h, 03 May

    I love this story, John. You have a real gift for expressing the goodness and sweetness that children bring us. I want to visit the Good Shepherd orphanage in about 9 months, so will be avidly learning and reading everything I can about it.