05/13/2013 04:47 pm ET Updated May 14, 2013

Orphaned Children and the Families They Can't Afford to Lose

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If you want to go far, go together. -- African Proverb

Last year, Give Well, an organization that reports on the efficacy of charities, published a long list of their own shortcomings as part of their annual report. It is now a featured tab on their website, labeled 'Mistakes' and their courage has inspired other nonprofit organizations to do the same. As someone who works in development, more specifically with poor children, I've scoured the Internet reading every 'mistake log' that I can get my hands on, looking for errors that resemble mine in the way most people Google medical symptoms. As one might expect, much of the material consists of statements like "this program was so effective that we regret having waited so long to roll it out," or "we did not give our staff enough resources and support." And so it is that I am left looking for others like me, and for a way and a place to talk about some deeply complex mistakes and their unintended consequences.

I have always wanted to work for an organization that addresses both the symptoms and the structures of poverty. At Flying Kites, I have been fortunate to have found that space. In the spirit of full disclosure, our vision was shaped in direct opposition to the status quo: warehouses of orphanages funded by foreigners that are raising 'orphans' in living conditions that most visitors would find unsuitable for livestock. The point was to challenge the 'something is better than nothing' mentality when it came to services for poor orphaned children in African countries. And so we became a better status quo. A remarkable status quo: Our staff-to-child ratio is 1:5, we take field trips all over the country, and on any given night at 7 p.m. you will find small clusters of children studying with private tutors in our dining room. We bought land, moved into a farmhouse and built a school. Our work is needed. Very badly.

In the beginning, it was easy to decide which children to admit into our home. After the death of his/her mother, a child would be brought by an extended family member who could not provide for the child's most basic needs; the majority of our community live in abject poverty. We were honored to help, and we assembled an incredible team to meet the needs of the children in our care. Anyone who steps foot on our site will tell you about the magic and love that abounds there.

Our home became a beacon to other orphanages looking to offer better services and attract more support, and we readily shared our plans and procedures, even partnering with orphanages based in the slums of Nairobi in an effort to share resources. Here, I spent a lot of time questioning our impact, wondering how to best spend donor money, but it was in the wider community, over meals and stories with the relatives of the children in our care, that my consciousness arose. These relationships left me with more questions than answers and an increasingly uncomfortable feeling that, in an effort to help children in crises situations, we may have failed to harness the power of their extended families.

Family: We all know it is a key factor in child development. I think of 11-year-old Winnie*, a little girl who is thriving at our home. Prior to living at Flying Kites, she had been staying with her aunt Mary*, a single mother struggling to provide for her own two sons, overwhelmed by Winnie's HIV+ status and looking to find a better solution for the over-burdened family. We took Winnie in. How could we not? She needed urgent medical attention, food, an education. And now, thanks to the generosity of many, she has all of those things. Except her aunt. Likewise, many children languishing in city orphanages tell similar stories of family networks: aunts, uncles, cousins, adult siblings, grandparents. My Kikuyu colleague assures me that before missionaries arrived in Kenya, orphaned children almost always remained with relatives. It troubles me greatly to consider that parts of my work might have contributed to a weakening of this lifeline.

I should have taken more time to help keep families together, to increase the capacity of existing caretakers by connecting them to job training, micro-loans, medical care, encouragement. I don't know how to develop these services, but there are thousands of NGOs in Kenya that do. What if we worked together to create a virtuous circle of development? Holistic support of this nature could both reduce the number of children in orphanages and increase the level of care that existing homes can offer to the neediest of cases. We owe it to them, the small percentage of children without any family, those who have literally 'come to the end of the road', to get better at triage and expand our reach. I think we can do this, while at the same time, empowering communities to keep the vast majority of orphaned children where they belong: living and learning within their extended family networks.

For good reason, this is the direction that the Kenyan government is also seeking to move. The research on the benefits of keeping children within their familial settings is indisputable, but finding sustainable models for this type of home-based care in the developing world is somewhat more obscure. A few years ago, the United Nations Human Rights Council set forth guidelines for orphaned children, stating interventions "should primarily be directed to enabling the child to remain in or return to the care of his/her parents, or when appropriate, other close family members." But, they didn't tell us what to do if the extended family cannot afford to feed their own children. Or how we can help to ensure the rights of the child are being protected behind closed doors.

These are intimidating issues that those of us committed to children in the poorest parts of the world have to address, in collaboration. At Flying Kites, we are reframing our model from one that solely provides exemplary residential care to orphaned children to an organization that responds to the needs of vulnerable children, whatever they may be, whatever it may take. With a reported 143 million orphaned children worldwide, we have no choice but to move toward these horizons in meaningful ways.

*names changed