I’ll never forget stepping onto Zimbabwean soil for the first time. I lugged two huge suitcases — one for clothes the other for Oreos, peanut butter, and granola bars — across the airport pavement and into the battered orphanage van that would drive me two hours into the deep village of Mutoko, Zimbabwe.
I am an international orphan care worker. I’ve worked in five countries and have assignments to four others over the course of the next two years. Essentially I travel the world about six months of the year to create marketing and lifestyle plans for orphanages and orphan care centers in critically impoverished regions.
My day-to-day life on the ground in these areas could be anything from teaching native house mothers how to handle behavioral issues without hitting/beating the children to developing a website/social media fundraising plan for an orphanage to raise enough funds for the facility’s children to eat and go to school to teaching english to a room full of dozens of wide eyed schoolchildren.
I don’t have a degree in early childhood development or marketing or teaching. Aside from a CPR certification I have no formal education for anything that I do overseas. I am currently a psychology undergrad who makes her living as a wedding and family photographer in Southern California. In other words, I’m not qualified to be doing these things. The only real qualifications that I have are the applied experiences that I’ve learned over the course of my time on the ground. If you have a degree, particularly a degree in medicine or education, I cannot express how grateful we would be to see you on the ground overseas.
I love what I do. I love it so much that I share it via social media and my blog. I write candidly about the struggles and the triumphs but more often than not orphan care, through the eyes of social media, can appear more glamorous than it actually is. Anyone can work as an orphan care worker (and I highly encourage you to do so) but there are a few things that I wish I would have known before I got started.
At least twice a week when I am abroad I get emails/direct messages/comments from people asking me how they can do what I do. I get SO excited when I hear that someone wants to work in orphan care. The need is so critical for open hands and open hearts that I practically jump at the opportunity to help people get their feet on the ground in a country that they feel passionately about. One thing that I never have the opportunity to address are the common misconceptions about living and working in countries and cities that are heavily affected by the orphan crisis.
Here are a few of the most important things a person should know before working as an orphan care worker:
- Different is not bad. Coming into a new country, especially a country of deep poverty, can be difficult to process. There are going to be so many clear differences between your westernized lifestyle and the lifestyle of people in the third world. It’s important to understand that different is not bad. Natives to the country that you will begin working in are well adjusted to their lifestyle, their culture, and their amenities (or lack thereof). You need to spend a lot of your initial energy changing YOUR perspective to fit the culture and lifestyle around you rather than feeling overwhelming sadness or confusion for how natives can be living their lives in such an alternative way. They’ve lived their entire lives without you thus far and they will continue to do so when you go home.
- Money doesn’t save anyone. There is such a critical need in orphaned nations and when you are faced with such an overwhelming sense of desperation it is easy to want to open your wallet and give free handouts. It’s important to remember that money doesn’t fix any long term issues and that by providing money to needy individuals you are creating a “savior” complex. A “savior” complex teaches natives in impoverished nations that your money/support/guidance can save them which inadvertently makes your dynamic inferior/superior rather than human-human. Education, friendship, and communication with the individuals you encounter will always be more powerful than a financial band-aid.
- You won’t be able to help everyone. When you begin your experience as an aide worker I highly encourage you to pray or meditate over the one or two people that you will encounter that will grow you as a person more than you will ever grow them. If you go into aide work feeling a responsibility to feed/educate/support everyone you are going to come out feeling defeated. If you go into aide work feeling a sense of commitment to find and develop a relationship with a person that is going to positively impact both of your lives, you’re going to feel successful. There are millions and millions of people who need help but each person matters and it is better to go the extra mile for one person than it is to go halfway for a dozen people.
- You can’t “take them all home”. I hear this a lot. It’s a hard one. As an orphan care worker I work tirelessly to ensure that orphans around the world are given the highest quality of life within their native culture and home environment despite their displaced circumstances. I don’t want to take them all home to America because they don’t all belong in America. The world is big and beautiful and full of opportunity and while there are certain circumstances when bringing a child home to America is the perfect alternative to a child living out their days unloved and uncared for, there are so many ways to help orphaned children without taking them out of their culture. As an aide worker you should be focused on doing everything in your power to help better the nation you’re working in so that you don’t have to take them all home. Just remember even though you’re not at home in their circumstances, they are and they’d love nothing more for you to come alongside them and embrace them as they are.
- You’re incredible. The fact that you’re even considering working abroad as an orphan care volunteer speaks volumes to your heart. This is a learn as you go position and you are going to learn as you go. Whenever you’re working on the field you’re going to make mistakes and that’s beautiful because that’s how you evolve. Don’t be scared to go. I know so many people that tell me that they would go but they’re too scared. Don’t be. Going somewhere foreign to you is always a scary thing but I promise that going will be the best decision of your life.
- You’re not really a world away. Planes are magic because all you have to do is sleep and then you get there — wherever there is. No rocket ships. No portals. No time machines. The world is actually much, much smaller than you think and humanity is actually alike in many universal ways. Don’t let the fear of getting somewhere keep you from going. You can get anywhere in the world from anywhere in the world in under 48 hours. So go! Explore. In a world of borders commit to meeting and embracing people without borders around your heart.