Every year, millions of orphaned and vulnerable children all over the world receive Christmas presents from generous strangers. We imagine their faces lighting up as they realize that someone whom they have never met cared enough to send a gift. The presents given are generous — balls, art supplies, stuffed animals, activity books, toiletries. But as much as these gifts can be wonderful, there is a greater gift we can give to many children this Christmas — the gift of family.
For many of us, the Christmas season is filled with family. We come together with our loved ones, exchange gifts and reflect on the ultimate gift that Christ’s birth was for us. Even though they are never perfect, most of us can agree that there is nothing quite like family. Psalm 68:6 lays out the remedy for those who are without community and love: “God sets the lonely in families.” The role of family is so important that over and over we see the metaphor used as God defines his relationship to us. We are his children. He is our Father.
But many children and adolescents around the world haven’t experienced the power of being in a family.
In fact, more than 5 million children live in orphanages today even though 80% of them have living parents. Poverty, addiction and illness are roadblocks for parents who want to see their children have food on their plates, a roof over their heads and schooling to set them up for greater success. Unfortunately, research shows that children who are placed in orphanages are no better off — and in fact are often worse off — than their counterparts who stay within their own family. Additionally, residential care facilities try to provide a family-like environment, but most simply can never be a substitute for the family.
This Christmas, what if we were to set our eyes on something even better than a soccer ball or art supplies? The greatest gift that we can give to orphaned and vulnerable children is the same gift God gave to us — the gift of family.
In 2003, my wife and I started Casa Viva in Costa Rica, which seeks to expand alternatives for children who have been separated from their own biological families, through reuniting them with their families, local adoption, and short- or long-term foster care. We will shortly receive our 1000th child into a Costa Rican Christian foster family.
Since starting Casa Viva, I’ve come to understand how critical it is that we focus our efforts on ensuring orphaned and vulnerable children and youth are living in loving families. It’s where they belong.
Simply put, children and adolescents grow best in families. As adults who are concerned about the vulnerable children of the world, our most important work is creating pathways for them to experience the love, belonging, and identity that only a family can provide. This is indeed greater than any soccer ball they will receive this Christmas.
Our efforts to connect children with local families have a multitude of benefits. Studies have shown that the earlier a child is placed in a family environment, the better the cognitive-developmental outcomes will be. The more time children spend in orphanages, the more they lag in their personal development, from physical growth to emotional health. In short, children and adolescents in family settings are more likely to thrive mentally, emotionally, and physically.
Years ago, we received a call from a local hospital asking if we had a family to receive Daniel, an 18-month-old boy. His kidney function was extremely low, and doctors gave him six months to live. Wow! What family would be willing to receive a child and love him under those conditions? Francisco and Beatrice heard the story and said, “We will!” They would take Daniel and care for him while they could. But a miracle took place as Daniel responded to the love and attention from the family. Today, Daniel is eight years old and is being adopted by Francisco and Beatrice.
Here’s the good news: we can all be a part of the solution to help orphaned and vulnerable children and youth live in families. The holidays are a time when Christians are eager to give to people in need. There are countless organizations around the world that are strengthening families and building up communities so every child can grow up in a family that loves and cares for them.
Family is the gift that keeps on giving. We have the opportunity to give this gift to children who deserve a place to grow, thrive, and call “home” — a place where the welcome never ends. We can give them the physical space of our home, the emotional space of our heart, and the spiritual space to allow God to work.
We know of dozens of ministries supporting family-based solutions for children and youth in Latin America. To learn more, here is a list of a few of them:
Paraguay - Little Neighbors
Honduras - Family Life Missions
Peru - New Hope
Costa Rica - Casa Viva
Philip Aspegren is Executive Director of Casa Viva, which helps create personalized sustainability plans for children’s projects in Latin America and beyond.