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How to manage an orphanage well

I was intrigued when I learned that we would be visiting an orphanage in Kerala State. For many years I have organized groups of students to work at an orphanage near Antigua, Guatemala, so I was curious about the differences and similarities between orphanages in these two countries. I was mostly struck by the similarities. In both cases, the orphanage housed a little over 100 children, each placed into houses of six to twelve with a house mother for each. Children were delighted to have strangers visit them and they warmed quickly to anyone willing to give them some attention. In both facilities, children were well taken care of and were models for others to emulate. The house mothers in each clearly loved the children. There was not an impression that children were "institutionalized" in the negative sense of the word.

There were some interesting differences, however. In India we were asked not to take photos of the children to respect their privacy. In Guatemala, we were encouraged to take photos, share them with the children, and show them to others back home. The idea was that seeing the children would elicit more support and donations. The children in Guatemala certainly seemed to enjoy being photographed. I suspect the funding model (government vs. private) dictated this policy. Also, in India, visitors from the outside were welcomed but not encouraged to visit so that children would not feel that they were on exhibit. In Guatemala, the funding model was to have a steady stream of visitors helping support the orphanage by making contributions of time, supplies and labor.

In India, children of either gender up to 12 were housed together, based on their religion (Hindu or Christian), and they ate in the house as a family. Indian children were not eligible for adoption once they entered the orphanage. The Guatemalan model housed children based on age and gender (except for infants), and all were assumed to be Christian. All children ate together in a cafeteria. Children could be adopted out of the orphanage to Guatemalan parents, or returned to their biological families if situations improved.

In Guatemala, giving of gifts was encouraged. In India, gifts were not permitted and children were given a regular allowance to purchase what they needed.

Both models seemed to be working well as the children appeared to be happy and well cared for. Of course, managers of both facilities have to be concerned about separation anxiety from frequent but transient visitors, paying for education, and transitioning from the protected environment of the orphanage into the real world. India had the further complication of arranging marriages in some cases. Regardless, we should all celebrate and commend efforts of any private entity or government institution to assist, nurture and provide an environment of love for those who have been abandoned early in life.

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