28 Jan Govindamaa
Don’t volunteer at orphanages!
It’s a sentiment that’s been gaining popularity in orphan circles lately and usually I argue against it. I’ve had and seen too many good volunteer experiences to back any blanket condemnation of the practice. But I do understand the logic behind the idea.
For one thing: Not all orphanages are good. Some gather children the way zoos gather animals, using them as props for sympathetic supporters to visit. Running an orphanage is a job in places where jobs are scarce; so get yourself some kids, open for business, and start collecting donations. Clearly, this is not a model anyone would want to support with their time or their money. I get that.
Volunteering can also create and amplify abandonment issues. Many orphaned children are hungry for physical contact and emotional affection, so they can be quick to glom onto volunteers who arrive eager to hug kids and love them up. It’s impossible for a small staff to give the kind of one-on-one attention children thrive on, so volunteers often find themselves pitching in, bonding deeply with children in a short period of time. Then, inevitably, when the volunteer says goodbye in a day or a week or a month, the orphaned child is abandoned yet again. Repeat this cycle over and over for maximum childhood heartache.
I was thinking a lot about this recently as my friend Clifton Shipway and I toured orphanages in South India. Our last stop was at the Sharon Children’s Home in the tiny town of Mangalagiri, and it was not a feel-good visit.
Believe it or not, this is the entire orphanage facility but only half the kids.
Sharon Children’s Home is a small place, maybe 25 feet by 120 feet, with fifty children packed together. There are no beds, no chairs, no toys, no proper walls even. Just a partially covered courtyard with a kitchen and bathroom area in the back. The kids essentially live outdoors.
Worst of all is the need that waits inside the gate.
One little girl latched on to me right away. Her name is Govindamaa and she’s 8 years old. When her father left the family, her mother could not care for her, so she and her sister were brought to Sharon. Her head is now shaved because of lice and she has the small stunted frame of a child malnourished at the critical start of her life.
Govindamaa is on the right.
But Govindamaa has a fire in her eyes, and she was hungry to be seen. “Uncle. Picture!” she demanded, posing by a courtyard rose, one of the only beautiful props in site. Lots of kids were clamoring for attention, pulling on my arms, posing, shouting. But it was hard for me to look away from Govindamaa. As soon as I would snap her picture, she would demand another one, pushing her small body into the frame if I turned the camera away. Her eyes flashed from sweet to fierce, shoving other equally sweet/fierce children out of the way, working like a drowning child to keep her eyes on me, as if my attention was a kind of lifeline.
“I see you, sweetie,” I told her time and again, cupping her beautiful face in my hands. And for a moment or two she’d relax, closing her eyes, soaking up the full attention like a dry flower in the rain.
Then I’d move my hands away and Govindamaa’s eyes would snap open, her mind would race. I could see the calculations all over her face. Where should I move to next? How should I act? What is the quickest route back into view?
“Uncle! Picture!” she’d shout. Or she’d simply beg, the way she probably learned on the street. Exaggerated, miserable, imploring need. “Pleeeeeese. Pleeeeeease. Pleeeeeease!”
This was my first picture with the Sharon kids. Govindamaa is smiling on my left.
I can take a lot of this. It is my super power in a way. Surround me with a tangle of amped-up children, all with simultaneous questions and overlapping demands, and I can function just fine. I like it. Most of the time.
But with Govindamaa and her under-stimulated, under-loved orphanage brothers and sisters, I can honestly say I reached my limit. At times I fought back tears. I found myself choking up, getting impatient. And when I snapped at Govindamaa for grabbing my camera lens, I knew it was time to go.
“Tomorrow,” she said to me as I stood at the gate. She wanted to know when I would be back. “Tomorrow!” she repeated, her eyes fixed on mine, her dirty fingernails digging tiny crescents into my forearm.
“No,” I said gently; though what I knew I meant was: Not today or the next day or any day after that. In all probability, I will never be back.
Govindama and her sister as I was preparing to go.
In spite of all that, as I drove away from that little shaved-head girl waving to me from her small bare courtyard home, I had a thought.
We should volunteer at orphanages.
Yes, we should know all the potential dangers beforehand, the separation anxiety and the abandonment issues. And we should be discerning and research the good orphanages from the bad ones whenever possible. And when we find trustworthy, kid-centered organizations, we should offer them our time and talents and money to the degree that we feel called. But that’s not why we should volunteer with these kids.
We should volunteer at orphanages because of how these children can change us.
Meeting Govindamaa, knowing who she is, opens my heart a little wider. She fans the flames of my compassion, my conviction. How else do we fight for these kids unless we meet them? Unless we love them? Unless we have their blazing eyes seared into our memories as they shout for the millions of other orphaned children worldwide:
See me! See me! SEE ME!
I see you, Sweetie. I see you.
Note: Sharon Children’s Home is run by Mr. Anil Patrick. You can find him on Facebook here. Anil is currently looking for supporters to buy land and build a bigger home for these kids. Should anyone wish to undertake this project or get involved, please feel free to contact him directly and do your own research.