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. 

  • Clifton Shipway
    Posted at 09:04h, 28 January

    Great post John, you captured the emotions we were feeling very well. That was a hard experience but, like most things in life, can be used to teach us/shape us/grow us.

  • Kirsten Elstner
    Posted at 09:58h, 28 January

    Thank you for sharing the smile of this beautiful girl, John.

  • Bill Rapier
    Posted at 10:03h, 28 January

    Hi John! We have had this conversation about our kids in Africa. You have hit the nail on the head in this story. Our hearts need the “expansion” and the kids will be different because we have loved them. Thanks for all you do. God’s blessings!

  • Heather Myers
    Posted at 14:07h, 28 January

    Whoooooooosh, that was a very emotional read! My daughter Ally had a similar experience in South Africa teaching under-privileged youth to surf. She was 18 and did not have the wisdom to handle the experience. She had only ever volunteered at The Good Shepherd Agricultural Mission which is a safe welcoming large family atmosphere. It has been a long four years since her experience in Africa and she still has not fully come around to seeing the big picture. You have a massive heart John, not many people have the compassion, empathy, drive and determination to make the world a better place. I am thankful for your guidance and inspiration in navigating the complexities of bridging the gap between the kids that have and the kids that need.

  • Meredith Jordan
    Posted at 19:58h, 28 January

    Oh, John. No words. Well, maybe one sentence: I wish I could win the lottery for these kids.

  • Betsy Pearson
    Posted at 20:01h, 28 January

    Thanks, John, for so beautifully sharing a heart wrenching story. Thanks, too, for opening my heart a little wider. You and the love-filled work you do are in my prayers.

  • Natalie Graham
    Posted at 00:03h, 29 January

    I always like reading your perspective,, John. This post brings dimension to a very heartbreaking reality. There are a million more Govindamma stories in the world, and it ties my heart into a knot. But on the other hand I know there are stories like Sheetal’s at GSAM. That helps to unknot my heart a little and let me know that it is worth the time and effort to look for ways to help.

    Thank you for another illuminating post, John. 🙂 Peace to you.

    • John Marshall
      Posted at 02:58h, 29 January

      You are so right, Natalie. Life is a process of tying and untying your heart. Everytime I can help even one of these kids in a positive way…the knots loosen up a bit. Thanks for writing and caring.

  • Susan L Miller
    Posted at 17:47h, 30 January

    Namaste’ John. With all the horror of Trump’s actions filling me, your article gave perspective on how to keep my heart open to what is clearly even more terrible for others. I was wondering if you might consider setting up some way to become pen pals with these kids? A real letter, maybe with some stickers or other small gifts that can be mailed to a child, and let them know they are seen and heard, would be something I’d love to do.
    Your thoughts?

  • Ana Katsuya
    Posted at 09:07h, 01 February

    Dear John,
    Govindamaa is beautiful! And so are all those children around her. They all deserve to grow up feeling loved, cared for and cherished. I wonder how we can help, what are their most immediate needs. I’ll try to contact Mr. Anil Patrick. Thank you for sharing and for bringing love to those children, even if just for a day.
    Take care,

  • Anil Patrick Gudipudi
    Posted at 09:44h, 04 February

    Thank You John..Glad to have you with us..I appreciate your love for the kids round the globe.It’s a divine gift I feel.