By Laura McKillip Wood
Gentleness isn’t a concept many of the children Orphan Helpers works with have experienced. Raised in difficult family environments, surrounded by drug abuse, poverty, and violence, many of the children and teenagers in El Salvador and Honduras that Orphan Helpers reaches are incarcerated in juvenile detention centers or have been placed in protective custody of the governments. They grew up facing hunger and abuse in communities controlled by gang violence. Most suffered the loss of one or both parents through death or abandonment.
“Many youth are forced into these gangs with threats of harm to their families or as a place to belong when no one else cares for them. But we are being granted access to these incarcerated youth to love and care for them, to provide programs and activities, and to bring hope and the transforming message of the gospel,” said Orphan Helpers Director of Strategic Partnerships, Ron Goodman.
Orphan Helpers (www.orphanhelpers.org) began in 2000 when Greg Garrett, its founder, started searching for what God wanted him to do beyond his career in real estate. He felt led by God to seek out hurting children on the margins of society. After some investigation, he discovered that many of the institutions dealing with children in government custody in El Salvador suffered serious understaffing and lacked resources. He convinced children’s social services to allow him access to the government center with the greatest needs, and Orphan Helpers was born. Now Orphan Helpers works in 10 government-run centers in El Salvador and Honduras.
The 4-S Strategy
According to Orphan Helpers, they reach an overlooked population of the biological and social orphan crisis in the world. “Amidst all the orphanages, schools, and other interventions for vulnerable children and youth, very little attention is paid to those who are in government institutional care, especially those in juvenile detention centers,” stated Greg Harris, Executive Director. “Incarcerated youth from 12 to 18 and sometimes younger are living in overcrowded centers with unhealthy conditions and often with very few resources and activities.” Besides a few people from local churches, no one visits or cares for these children other than overburdened government officials. Orphan Helpers works to remedy this issue. To do so, they have experienced businessmen on their board of directors and a staff of local people devoted to improving the lives of the children in these centers through their 4-S Strategy: Seek, Serve, Surround, and Succeed.
• Orphan Helpers seeks to bring the gospel to the youth in the centers where they work by building a relationship with each of the children who respond.
• They serve the youth in the programs with workshops on practical topics like art, barbering, and cosmetology. They provide them with libraries and computer labs and have started Success Academies for those who desire to grow in Christ. These Success Academies give participants in-depth discipleship and training for success upon their release from the system.
• When children do leave the system, they often have no support, no families. They face a hopeless future in violent, gang-ridden areas. Because of that, Orphan Helpers created their third goal: to surround them with support from local churches, businesses, and individuals, ensuring that they have housing, jobs, and education. To help them reach this goal, Orphan Helpers has hired coaches to coordinate support for their participants.
• “Ultimately, we want each youth we reach to succeed—in their walk with Christ, holding jobs, and not returning to crime or destructive life patterns,” Ron said.
In order to create a healthy environment for those involved, Orphan Helpers strives to incorporate sound ministry practices. They enable and mobilize churches in Central America and work in conjunction with these Central American churches, supporting them as they carry out the ministry with the children. They do allow North Americans to visit their work on site, but they ensure that those going on the short-term Vision Trips do so to learn from and support the national staff and local churches. This allows participants to see the work and the impact it has. Vision Trips are exclusively for those interested in being partners and investing long-term in the work being done. They train participants how to avoid revictimizing these children who have lost so much already.
Their attention to good missions strategy and approach to ministry seems to work. Today children in Orphan Helpers programs receive the care, support, and follow-up they need to succeed. Their work reaches 1,057 children in two countries.
Laura McKillip Wood formerly taught missionary children in Ukraine and now works in the academic office of Nebraska Christian College. She and her husband, Andrew, have three children (lauramckillipwood.com).