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This Women’s History Month, let’s celebrate women’s work for the orphaned and vulnerable

Thai orphans affected by AIDS watch television while resting at the Wat Phrabaht Nampu AIDS orphanage which is funded by the Dramaraksa Foundation July 15, 2004 in Nongmuang, Lopuri province, Thailand.
Thai orphans affected by AIDS watch television while resting at the Wat Phrabaht Nampu AIDS orphanage which is funded by the Dramaraksa Foundation July 15, 2004 in Nongmuang, Lopuri province, Thailand. | Getty Images/Paula Bronstein

In 1994, I traveled to Romania at 25 years old, just as the country was emerging from the shadow of a dictatorship that resulted in nearly 170,000 children living in orphanages. What I’d seen in the media — sickening images of the conditions within orphanages — failed to prepare me for the stark realities I encountered in person. Despite the sadness, each day was also a testament to the power of human resolve.

I had the privilege of working with over 50 Romanian social workers to bolster national child welfare programs and chip away at the systemic neglect that had torn families apart for decades.

Our drive was simple yet profound — we believed in the fundamental right for children to grow up in the warmth of a loving family.

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Like most vulnerable children around the world, many children in Romanian orphanages had families who wanted to care for them. However, an oppressive government, extreme poverty and the lack of available social support meant parents weren’t always able to do so. Orphanages became the solution, but it wasn’t a good one. Our efforts in Romania turned out to be the impetus for what would become the global care reform movement, bringing awareness to the detrimental effects on children living in orphanages and the benefits of a better alternative — family-based care.

The work to shift from caring for children in orphanages to caring for them in families has taken me all over the world throughout the past 30 years, and I’m motivated to keep pushing family- and community-strengthening initiatives because of what I experienced during those formative years, but also because of the many inspiring friends I’ve made along the way.

As the U.S. celebrates Women’s History Month this March, I’m reminded of the shoulders I stand on in this work — and the women I stand shoulder to shoulder with today. Their legacies will live on in the lives of the children they’ve served for generations to come, and they leave us with an opportunity to carry the torch.

Women strengthening families and communities

For decades, women have been an integral part of the care reform movement, especially when it comes to creating the necessary support structures for vulnerable children and families. Dr. Rebecca Davis is one such example.

During Romania’s dictatorship, social work had been eliminated as a profession, creating a vacuum lacking social support for struggling families. Sadly, orphanages were heavily relied on to care for vulnerable children, even though the children had families. Davis, a Fullbright scholar, lived in Romania for 10 years beginning in 1992 after the regime’s fall to teach social work and develop a curriculum for community workers. Our paths crossed on many occasions. Becky, as I knew her, provided social work training to my team, giving them the skills, knowledge and tools they needed to better serve children and families.

She went on to successfully lead pilot programs aimed at reducing the use of orphanages and increasing the capacity of local communities and family-based care. She continued working with many different countries in Eastern Europe, leading to measurable changes that allowed more and more children to grow up in families.

Women addressing what keeps families apart 

Women have also played an invaluable role in removing barriers that prevent children from growing up in a family. Kerry Olson’s work is a remarkable illustration of this.

Olson worked for more than two decades as an educator and researcher for non-profits before she and her husband, Dave Katz, founded Firelight Foundation in 1999, an organization aimed at changing the way children impacted by HIV, AIDS, and poverty were cared for in sub-Saharan Africa. Through community-based initiatives and advocacy, the foundation funded projects aimed at reducing the stigma of children living with HIV or if they had a parent who died of AIDS. When these barriers were broken, the children were placed back where they should be — into a loving family. Today, because of work like Olson’s, we know health challenges don’t have to be an immovable obstacle for families fighting to stay together.

Olson later became the founding chair of the Faith to Action Initiative, which raises awareness among U.S. Christians of the limitations of orphanages and increases support for family-based care. She also authored From Faith to Action and Journeys of Faith, two seminal resources that continue to be referenced in this work today.

Our work continues

Since the 90s, a growing number of women have made great strides in affecting family-based care. Their long, hard work has led to a seismic shift in care reform in the last decade — from countries closing orphanages to governments writing legislation promoting family strengthening.

From Anja Gaona in Paraguay to Anu Silas in India; Sarah Vargas in Brazil to Ruth Wacuka in Kenya; Sully Santos de Uclés in Guatemala to Beth Bradford in the U.S., countless women are affecting change in the lives of vulnerable children around the world.

But there’s still more work to do, and this Women’s History Month, each of us can start to be a part of it right where we are.

All of us can read and educate ourselves on the care reform movement and the impact family strengthening has on the lives of vulnerable children. If you’re in leadership roles, step into the spaces God is opening for you. If you can give to or pray for organizations that are strengthening families, do so.

My drive to continue in this work doesn’t just stem from the harsh conditions I saw. It also comes from seeing firsthand the remarkable transformations that took place when a child left an orphanage and was placed in the care of a safe and loving family. And in many cases, it was women who made it possible. It’s a privilege to do this work, and to see my incredible peers and predecessors relentlessly pursuing this transformation, too.

Their love and care have changed countless children’s lives — and mine.

Kelley Bunkers is a Senior Associate at Maestral International and Senior Technical Advisor at Changing the Way We Care.

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