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Empowering families by reimagining missions

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After more than 20 trips to Africa to work primarily with vulnerable children who often lived in orphanages, Laura Horvath and her work with Healing Children Worldwide, has determined that centuries’ old wisdom about caring for underserved areas may need reimagining. Laura shares how the lessons she learned while working with communities across the globe have led her to engage in a radical initiative to unite and empower families.

Laura Horvath

  • Learn more about Helping Children Worldwide, where Laura serves as Director of Program Development
    and Global Engagement.
  • Discover how you and your congregation can be involved with the Strong Family for Every Child campaign.
  • Read more about the launch of the new campaign at Church of the Resurrection's Leadership Institute.

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This episode posted on October 21, 2022.

Transcript

Prologue

Crystal Caviness, host: After more than 20 trips to Africa to work primarily with vulnerable children who often lived in orphanages, Laura Horvath and her work with Healing Children Worldwide, has determined that centuries’ old wisdom about caring for underserved areas may need reimagining. Laura shares how the lessons she learned while working with communities across the globe have led her to engage in a radical initiative to unite and empower families.

Conversation

Crystal: Welcome, Laura, to "Get Your Spirit in Shape."

Laura:  Thank you for having me. I am delighted to be here.

Crystal:  I’m excited to talk to you today. We’re going to talk about a new initiative called “A Strong Family for Every Child.” But there’s a lot to talk about. You have a long history of mission work across the world and really concentrated in Africa. And I want to talk to you about all of that. But before we get started, why is it that this intersection of vulnerable children and underserved communities…why has that captured your heart?

Laura: I think the short answer is I don’t really know. I went to a mission presentation at my home church (oh, my gosh) probably 20 years ago. And they were talking about an orphanage ministry in a country in Africa that I could not have found on the map at that time. And I don’t know why, but it just grabbed my heart. I was a teacher at the time. There was a picture of kids in a classroom that I still remember very vividly. And I remember raising my hand and asking what could I do to help support this effort without ever, ever, ever going to Africa ‘cause I’m never doing that. And the pastor said, You’re gonna be sorry you asked that question. And I told him many times since then I have never been sorry, not once. And I have traveled to Africa more than 20 times, and other places as well. And it has transformed my life.

Crystal:   Let's go ahead and start talking about this organization that you’re involved with, helping children worldwide. As I read about the information, I read your story. What intrigued me was that the lessons you’ve learned were built on things that you felt like you did incorrectly. I want to hear some of those stories because I think in the United Methodist Church, in the greater church, we want to help but sometimes we just get it wrong. So, can you share with us some of the things you did out of your heart and then you, like, oh, that was not the right way to do this.

Laura: Yeah. Yeah. I do think we learn as much from non-example as we do from example. And one of my favorite things about helping children worldwide and being on staff here is we’re what I call a ‘know better, do better’ organization. And what I mean by that is we get into the work that we do with all of the very best intentions. And with everything we know best how to do at the time. But we’re always open to new information. We’re always open to best practices. We’re always striving to be better, to do better. And when we find a better way, when we find out something that we’re doing is maybe not the best approach, but there’s a better approach, then we try to do that. And that’s not to say that we just flit from one thing to another. We’re always well-researched and very thoughtful. I mean, they could change, but we’re not reluctant to make a change that needs to be made. And I think that’s a testament to why Helping To ??? programs have been so successful—because we are willing to learn from our mistakes. And we made a lot. And I think in this field especially, in orphan ministries especially, you get people who feel that call to care for the orphan and the widow, you know, down to the depths of their soul. And they want to respond to that call, which is absolutely the right thing to do. But they don’t always have the expertise and the knowledge that it takes to work with extremely vulnerable children who’ve been separated from family and friends who care. And so, you know, lots of times you’ll get orphanages that start with, you know, a Christian couple or a Christian organization that wants to take care of kids that are living on the street or that are coming out of refugee camps after a war, like we did. And you start to think through the processes of, well, they need to be safe, and they need to be fed. And they need access to healthcare. They need access to education. And all that is true. But they don’t necessarily have a background in how to treat children who have suffered trauma, and why those kids act differently and how they need to be cared for a little bit differently than kids who haven’t. And so, as we have grown as an organization, we have been willing to recognize what we don’t know as much as what we do, and to seek out the knowledge and the expertise that we need in order to care our very best for the children and the families that are placed in our care because ethically and morally that’s our obligation to do so.

Crystal:   What is that kind of high-level initiatives of helping children worldwide?

Laura:  We have a number of missions that we’re focused on. We’re still based locally, you know, kind of primarily in Sierra Leone, Africa. But we have lived into our kind of occupational name of helping children worldwide in ways that I didn’t anticipate when we first got started. I think we thought we’d have an orphanage and it’d be a great orphanage in Sierra Leone and then we would plant another one in another location and another one, you know, and so on and so on. Sort of prove a model and then replicate it. That didn’t happen. That wasn’t apparently God’s plan for us. What’s happened instead is that the lessons that we learned in having set up an orphanage and then realizing the orphanage is actually not really a great place to raise kids, and then transitioning to a family-care model and all the lessons that we learned that went along with that, we’ve been able to share those both regionally in Sierra Leone and teach other orphanages and childcare institutions how they, too, can transition their model to family-based care. We also are working with organizations in Liberia, Nigeria, Mozambique. We have trauma-informed curriculum for non-literate caregivers on how they can heal the trauma of their own children and ??? with the attachments after they’ve been separated for long periods of time. And that curriculum is going all over the world. It’s in Haiti. It’s in Uganda. It’s in Kenya. We’re developing it for several different countries so that other organizations can benefit from the things that we’ve learned—both the mistakes that we made and the things that we learned along the way.  Care for children well in their own context.

Crystal:  What are the challenges with an orphanage? That seems like a very logical way to help a community.

Laura:  Yes. It does seem really logical. And at the time when we built it, we were coming out of an eleven-year civil war. Families had been just obliterated. They were just blown apart. They got separated because of the unrest. Essential services of the country were destroyed and there was really no way to reunited children who had been separated from families back with their parents in those early days. And so, the first 40 kids we pulled into the orphanage were kids that were living on the street or in refugee camps. And they didn’t have anyone to care for them that we could find. And so, I think in a crisis situation like that a residential center is not a bad solution to stabilize that situation, to make sure the child is safe, to get them the healthcare that they need, to get them back enrolled in school, and things like that. What we didn’t realize at the time is that for all of the things we could provide for, shelter and safety and healthcare and education—all those things that we could easily do—there’s one thing we never were ever be able to do and that was give the children a sense of belonging and family. So, I have friends that work for “Strengthening Families and Children” out of the UK. And they’ll talk about…if you list the priorities, what every child needs in their life and you name a list of say 8 or 10 of those things, you would list things like access to education, a spiritual life, a spiritual connection with God, healthcare, enough food, shelter, all those things. But they tell me is that you put those priorities in almost any order you want. It doesn’t matter. Those are all things that kids need with the exception of the first two. And the first two are: safety and belonging. The top two things every child needs are to feel safe and to belong to someone. And children need to belong to a family, not an institution. An institution, as good as it is, and we think ours was very good, we were never gonna be able to do that. Only a family can.

Crystal:  And so, those learnings have led to this new initiative which is called “A Strong Family for Every Child.” Tell me about that.

Laura:  We are so excited about this campaign for a couple of reasons. There is the obvious angle where, you know, we look at the UN’s convention on the rights of a child. We’ve known for 30 years that children have a right to and deserve to grow up in a family—all children everywhere. We’ve known that. We all have ?? the conventional rights of the child. And I think we just haven’t known how to do that. We now know how to do that. And we know how to teach other organizations how to do that. We’ve also expanded our conception of what a family is. So, you know, we know that 80-90% of kids that live in orphanages actually have a living parent that could care for them. And the only reason why they’re in the orphanage is poverty, or the leading reason. Sometimes it’s poverty and a disability, or poverty and an illness or something like that. But, poverty shouldn’t be the reason why kids are in an orphanage if they have someone who cares about them. What we should be doing instead is focusing on how do we help that person care for them? But we’re starting to think, you know, and our partnership ??? Powers, who’s also engaged in this campaign, is we can think of family in different ways. So, family doesn’t necessarily have to be a mother and a father and a brother and a sister. A grandmother can care for her grandchildren. An auntie can care for her niece and nephew. Even in the Zoe example you can have youth-headed households where there’s an older sibling that’s caring for their younger sibling. And they can be empowered to do that. And so, I think if we expand our definition of what family is, then we can realize a world where every child has a family. And we can strengthen all of those families so that they can care for their kids and care for them well. So, I’m excited about that ‘cause it’s obviously good for kids and families. But the other thing that we realized is that when churches engage in orphan missions in any way, even in very small ways, it sort of enlivens their congregation. It inspires people. I think in this current climate, in the world that we live in, people long to belong to something that feels like it’s making the world a better place. I left the church as a young adult, as many young adults do, and came back to the Methodist Church because of this orphan mission, because when I couldn’t kind of make sense of some of the hypocrisy that I saw in the church, what did make sense to me was engaging in a mission that was making children’s lives better. And I wanted to be a part of that. And I came back to church and back to God because of that mission. And I think that is something that would resonate with a lot of people who have become, maybe, disillusioned with church or who have walked away. I think if you feel like you can plug into something that’s improving the lives of children, who doesn’t want to be a part of that?

Crystal:  How can United Methodists get involved with this new campaign?

Laura:  So, what I would like to say is that if your church is engaged in orphan missions already, find out more about what that engagement looks like. And what I want to make really clear is that we’re not out here bashing churches that are supporting orphanages. But we would like to talk to you about maybe a better way. I’ll tell you honestly, we transitioned an orphanage where we cared for 40 kids ‘cause that’s how many fit in the building. And as soon as we transformed, we now care for over 500 children and their families in a community. And they get to stay with their families. So, you can broaden your impact if that’s the way you’re currently engaged in orphan mission. If you are sponsoring children, if you have traveled over on orphanage mission trips and things like that, we’d love to talk to you about how you can engage in a much healthier way that has a bigger impact. If you’re not engaged in orphan missions at all, there are lots of ways to get involved. And I think the main message is get involved and specifically in programs that are either transitioning to family care models or are already family care models. You want to look for programs that are strengthening families, that are reuniting children with families or keeping families intact so that they can grow up with the love and connection that they need to thrive.

Crystal:  Laura, what are some of those best practices that people should be looking for when they’re involved in a mission or in orphanage or in ministry that cares for vulnerable children?

Laura:  So, I look for a couple of things. I look for organizations that promote family for all children, that strengthen those families, that build the capacity of families to care for their own children. We started in the orphanage model by building the capacity of the orphanage staff, recognizing that local problems need local solutions and local leadership, and then building the capacity of those folks on the ground to actually do that. And that includes the caregivers. Like I said, I mentioned we do this trauma-informed treatment training with caregivers that are receiving kids that have been traumatized by the separation from family. We teach the parents how to heal that trauma. We don’t have people come in and heal the trauma and then deliver the children. We teach the parents how to do that. This is gonna sound counterintuitive, but mission trips that involve short-term missionaries traveling over to engage directly with children in orphanages, we actually don’t recommend. Children that live in orphanages are already suffering the trauma of separation. And what we know happens when short-term mission teams engage with kids in orphanage settings for short periods of time and then leave, is that these children form attachments to those visitors, and when the visitors leave they’re traumatized by the breaking of that attachment. And so, that was a hard thing for us to transition from. I traveled over and got to know those kids and love those kids for years and years. And so, breaking that cycle was difficult. But what it’s done is give me the opportunity to get to know their parents and their family and get to appreciate them, to get to appreciate the social workers that work with those families and get to develop relationships with them. And so, there are ways you can get engaged that support children and families in healthy ways. So, you don’t have to feel like you’re cut off from them, but that don’t put at-risk children even more at risk.

Crystal:    You're really talking about a re-imagining of how we do ministry overseas, it sounds like, or even locally—not just overseas, but locally. It’s just this kind of turning it inside out.

Laura:  Yeah. Yeah. I think so. And I think that was a big part of our transition. I think when we started with the orphanage, we did a lot of running it from here, telling folks on the ground in Sierra Leone how they ought to be doing, what they ought to be doing—all of that. We had to recalibrate our relationship with our partners in Sierra Leone when we did the transition. We had to recognize that, while we had access to resources…financial certainly, but sometimes also research or best practice, and we had an obligation and a responsibility to share those resources with our partners. So, it's really up to our partners to define how best to implement those things on the ground. And we really had to take a backseat and let them lead in their own communities. They know what the people in their communities need. They know, you know, what the families that they serve need better than I could. And I only get over there, you know, 2 weeks at a time. So, recognizing that and taking more of a role in the wings and making the local staff and the families of these children the champions of their stories, that’s been a really good, instructive lesson for us, both as an organization, but I think just from a mission mindset. It feels to me much more in keeping with how mission ought to be done.

Crystal:  It really sounds like what you’re doing is community building.

Laura:  We believe so. I mean, I think, you know, when we had kids in the orphanage, we were very focused on the children and on the child, the individual child, and meeting that child’s needs—3 meals a day and access to computer lab and a library and healthcare when they got sick and school, all of those things. Very child focused. Thinking outside the walls and putting kids back in the families enabled us to think now of the family as a unit because one of the things we realized is, you know, you can be focused on the welfare of this one particular child, but if mom is seriously ill and not getting medical care, the child then is not performing well in school. But if all we do is address the child and making do her homework or whatever, that’s not gonna solve the problem. What we really need to do is take care of mom. So, we started to think of the family as this kind of unit together where everything that happens to the family affects everyone else in the family. And then what we realized is that if you build the capacity of an entire family, you’re strengthening community. These strong families live in a community, and they become strong families and strong leaders in their community. So, the impact that you have once you start thinking outside the box and literally outside the orphanage walls is affect those ripple effects when you throw a stone in the pond. They just ripple out, you know, further and further and further. And I don’t have, in my work, direct interaction with those members of the community and where those ripples are happening, but I shouldn’t and I don’t need to because the mission that we’re sort of focused in on is rippling out and capturing more and more people.

Crystal: When I hear you talking about this, you know, what you’re teaching and what you’re focused on, this is not unique to Sierra Leone, to continents outside of North America. I mean, these are building our communities, building our families can happen just next door. So, how can congregations become involved in this work in their own communities?

Laura:  Well, I think the key for us is partnership. And so, we here at HCW we talk about…we have an ethos around radical courage, radical honesty, and radical collaboration. And that means being open-handed with the people that we partner with, and a recognition and humility that we don’t know it all. We don’t, you know, necessarily know the best way, that 2 heads are better than one. You know, all of those cliches. But recognizing the sort of value and gifts that your partner brings even when they’re located in the global south and located in the inner city and from outward appearances it looks like they don’t have…. I think we’re always focused on what do they need and not as focused as we should be on the strengths that they may have that aren’t just immediately apparent. One in Sierra Leone, that I’ve learned, is that families in Sierra Leone have deep faith, deep connections to their faith. And that’s a strength that they can really draw on. But, you know, you might need to help a family understand how to draw on that strength and that that is a strength that can draw on. So, I think having a humility to truly partner with the people you’re trying to serve and mission WITH and serving and mission WITH and not TO is a key piece of that. And that can happen in your neighborhood. It can happen overseas.

Crystal:   As we finish up today, Laura, what is something that you had hoped that we’d talk about, and I didn’t ask you yet. Just kind of one last thought.

Laura:  I’m like Br’er Rabbit on this topic. I literally could talk for 5 days on this topic. You know, as a mom I think about what I would want for my own kids. If something happened to me, if something happened to my husband, what would I want for my own children. And as beautiful as the Children's Center was when it was an orphanage, that’s not where I would have wanted them. I would want them with my sister or my girlfriend or my sister-in-law. You know. I would want them to know family. I would want them to know someone who loves them for who they are and who knows them for who they are. I think what people want deep down, what they long for is to be seen, to be really seen. And we get that from family. That comes from family. So, yeah, I’m all about getting kids back.

Crystal:  That’s really beautiful and so important. It’s so important. Well, there’s one question we always ask our guests on get your spirit in shape and that question is: how do you keep your own spirit in shape?

Laura:  I thought about this for a long time. There are a lot of things I could say. And prayer is a big part of my life. But, you know, probably everybody says prayer. But recently my daughter has started teaching me how to knit. And I’m terrible. I’m terrible at it. I’m on my second blanket, on the 5th attempt on my second blanket because right now all I can manage is rectangles. But what I’m finding is that there’s something about knitting that I think probably is true of like washing dishes or ironing or gardening which is that I’m bad enough at it that I need to pay close enough attention that I have to shut out the distractions and the noise in my head that’s trying to solve all the problems of the day that I didn’t solve at work or the problems of tomorrow that I know are waiting for me. It grounds me and it sort of forces me to be in that present moment. Maybe I’ll get better, and it won’t work anymore. It’s really helping quiet my soul. And I think that’s really important—something that’s really hard in our culture today.

Crystal:  Absolutely. Now you’re making me want to take up knitting so I could have that quietness of soul.

Laura, thank you for being here. Thank you for telling us and sharing with us about helping children worldwide and the new initiative “A Strong Family for Every Child.” We’ll have those website links on our landing page so, that our audience can go and learn more about it and get involved. And I’m just so excited. We’re going to have you back soon to talk about how it’s going because it’s such an interesting and important way to partner with the people in other parts of the world or even our neighbors next door. So, thank you so much for sharing that.

Laura:  Thank you so much for having me.  I would love to come back.

Epilogue

Crystal: That was Dr. Laura Horvath, director of program development and global engagement for Healing Children Worldwide. To learn more about Laura and her work on “A Strong Family for Every Child” campaign, go to UMC.org/podcasts and look for this episode. In addition to the helpful links and a transcript of our conversation, you’ll find my email address so you can talk with me about Get Your Spirit in Shape. Thank you so much for joining us for today’s episode of “Get Your Spirit in Shape.” I look forward to the next time that we’re together. I’m Crystal Caviness.