In Memory

For the first twelve years of my life he said I was his favorite granddaughter; and every time I would respond- at first with a giggle then a roll of my eyes- “but Bapa I’m your ONLY granddaughter”.

Then my cousin came home and everything changed. Her adoption ignited a passion in my heart to see children in families, I was no longer the only granddaughter (and definitely not the favorite), and I watched my grandparents love her fiercely and become advocates for adoption. People would ask them if it was hard to love the grandchild that wasn’t biologically theirs and they would respond that it was easier! They told friend and relative after friend and relative that the miracle of adoption was one of the most transforming things they had witnessed in their long lives.

Because you see they knew- from the bottom of their hearts- that children belonged in families. They got to see the miracle first hand of how a family transforms a child and the grief of a child who didn’t have a family in those first formative months.

Read more

Bapa and Me

Response to Last Post

Anna Koons contacted me via email after my last post about Kathryn Whetten’s research. She asked if she could respond to my post, but wanted to do so in a kind and graceful way. These conversations can get easily heated and ugly so I really appreciated her gentleness in her disagreement and invited her to guest post on the blog.

“Anna is a research project coordinator for multiple international studies with the Duke University Center for Health Policy & Inequalities Research. The projects include a supplement project of Positive Outcomes for Orphans (POFO) and “Pamoja Tunaweza”, an RCT looking at the effect of Trauma-focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy with orphans in sub-saharan Africa. She received her BA from Wheaton College (IL), and is currently pursuing her graduate degree at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs.”

First, I would just like to say a huge thank you to Megan, for being so gracious as to allow me to respond to your post. I hope that as we continue in respectful dialog about these topics we will continue toward truth, since I think we all believe these children deserve our best work!

In my response, I would like to:

  • Correct a few factual inaccuracies about POFO in Megan’s post.
  • Challenge the widespread opinion that this study privileges institutions over family care settings.
  • Complicate the idea that ‘every child deserves a loving family’:
    • This is a beautiful goal that I share: every child should have a loving, supportive family. (Isn’t this true of all brokenness in the world – we’d fix it all completely if we could!)
    • The difference between our personal ideal and policy objectives is that this compelling belief that ‘every child deserves a family’ can end up becoming the focus and goal in and of itself; it can create a black-and-white, one-size-fits-all situation in practice, where it puts an ideal ahead of actual real kids’ needs in complex situations.

As a member of the study team, here are some details about the project:

The Positive Outcomes for Orphans (POFO) study has been following children for more than 3 years – It started when they were 6-12, and now is in the 8th year of following them. POFO hasn’t yet been able to follow many children aging out due to their younger ages (also some places and families have kept them beyond age 18), but it has followed children who are moving out of institutions, and out of families as well – POFO will follow them wherever they are living, regardless of where they started out.

Our team is in complete agreement that the aging out stage is critical, and is eager to look into that with these children! We are actually waiting to hear back about another round of funding to continue following the children into young adulthood and their early 20’s. The struggles and successes they experience as they become a part of society on their own would be a really important part of this project, and it is possible that it could result in different outcomes than we have seen so far – ah the scientific process! Information about how these children fare in respect to their peers will be so important in how policies are created, and we aren’t yet sure what we will find, so we hope we are able to continue.

As far as the primary means of collecting information, surveys have always been conducted with the children themselves, as well as with the caregivers. Self-report surveys have been used in these settings before (the study team can provide more info if needed but it is available online). Interviewers are from the study areas and are trained in impartiality and to try to have as private an interview as possible with each person (as is allowable within culturally and situational appropriate standards), to give them a safe space to speak. As is pointed out by Megan in her post, it is always true that any study using self-reporting can be biased, but our partner organizations at each site do not provide study participants in either families or orphanages support based on how questions are answered; this is discussed together when participants agree to become a part of the study, and periodically after that, as is worked out with our ethical review boards. And practically speaking, even if that didn’t convince them they wouldn’t somehow maybe get ‘something more’ out of it, as participants been interviewed for so many years now, we hope this bias has been eliminated as much as is reasonably possible.

In scope, the study is deeply interested in much more than the physical health of the children; there is a whole team of faculty involved with different areas of expertise, including child psychologists. POFO has looked at many factors including emotional health, cognition, and attachment. Trauma has been a large portion of our focus and has resulted in some really important findings – such as that boys are just as at risk as girls for abuse. At this point, the team hasn’t found significant results around attachment (meaning statistically significant, not ‘important’). There is a publication looking specifically at the children’s psychosocial wellbeing.

It is true that this study included mainly children who were entering these various types of group care later than age two – however, it is worth noting that 95% of all children who are orphaned or separated/abandoned in low and middle income countries are over the age of 5. It is critical that policies created only from infant and toddler data are not applied to the much larger group of children in need of quality family-like care that can be provided in a family home or a group home setting. It is these older children who are also much more likely to end up on the street or taken for household labor (or worse) if alternatives are not provided.

As far as outside support, one of the initial surprising findings from the study was that a majority of group homes were small, grass-roots places that grew up out of the communities and were not receiving foreign funding. The study has tracked all the financial and other types of support that families and group homes/institutions are receiving. So to say that orphanages and group homes in the study were receiving “thousands of dollars of interventions” or are “fancy” compared to other community families in the study is not accurate. In fact, “fancy” foreign-run institutions that weren’t considered reasonably replicable models in their communities were not included in the study for exactly that reason. If anyone is interested in the sampling (method of including study participants), I’m happy to provide more detail.

When Megan states that this work points to empowering families, she is right! Dr. Whetten does want to support families, and she doesn’t want kids to unnecessarily end up in orphanages. As Dr. Whetten said in a recent lecture “I receive emails saying ‘you want to put all the kids in institutions,’ and that is not true. I want to support families, I want to keep kids from going into institutions, I want to protect boys and girls, and we need to have a menu of options – but it’s not that I think that care in one place or the other is better, it’s the caregiving that happens in either place.”

And as is stated in one of the recent POFO publications, “These studies and ours should not be interpreted to mean that institutions are the preferred living environment for children, but rather that a family-based setting is not guaranteed to be a better place for a child to live. It is likely that the quality of care provided within a setting, whether that setting be family-based or institution-based, makes the difference in child wellbeing outcomes.”

It is also crucial to note that this doesn’t mean that all orphanages and all families are basically the same – so certainly not all children are thriving in institutions. The same journal article points out that “…In other words, there are substantial numbers of children in institutions and family settings doing relatively well and poorly both cross-sectionally and over time, which underscores the need to decipher the microcosm of quality of care issues within each setting.” This means that kids are doing really well, and really poorly in different settings. So, simply being a family or being an orphanage doesn’t automatically award a place a “gold star” for being a good situation for a child.

As a more personal conclusion, I’d like to finish with these thoughts:

We would absolutely love for each of these children to be welcomed into a loving and supportive family. That should be the priority goal for children for whom it is attainable, even if it is expensive or difficult to achieve. At the same time, the issues getting children to that place are big and endemic, and there must be a spectrum of solutions so that the needs and setting of a particular child can drive the solution for them. Family preservation, adoption, and foster care are unquestionably part of that spectrum – and they need further support and growth in so many settings, including our own country! But as numbers of homeless and street kids are rising worldwide and we see in our own country that only biological parents, domestic adoption, family-like care, or foster care alone can’t best meet the needs of every child, the case for a full spectrum of options is evident. Another consideration is that changing and unstable situations can be very traumatic for a child, and so many of these children are going through multiple changes and traumas, which introduces different needs and concerns. Let’s not let the children who are likely to fall through the cracks of what is best for most children not be able to have a good option.

We hope our work can be perceived as less polarizing. Hopefully it can be used to state the importance of excellence in care we provide to children in any setting, and to strengthen the work being done to support families and caregivers. We think it fits together well with Dr. Nelson’s work in Bucharest, for example, in communicating the importance of the quality of care given to all children. We need to support caregivers and family units, however they may have come together, to give kids the best situation for them that we can.

Dr. Whetten I don’t think your research is saying what you think it is saying

In 2009 Kathryn Whetten published the first part of her study [here], “A Comparison of the Wellbeing of Orphans and Abandoned Children Aged 6-12 in Institutional and Community-Based Care Settings in 5 Less Wealthy Nations.” Her message? Maybe we got it all wrong, maybe orphanages aren’t that bad after all. Her research was highlighted in the New York Times, Time Magazine, and NPR. She was asked to be a guest speaker at The Christian Alliance for Orphans. Orphanage directors all over the world posted and linked to her research- she was hailed as innovative and revolutionary.

Whetten’s research studies two different groups of children from five countries and over a three year period. Whetten and her team looked at cognitive functioning, emotion, behavior, physical health, and growth. It was called a one of a kind study because of the amount of countries represented and the way it compared children in families with children in institutions.

In many ways, Whetten did make new and interesting points. Her arguments that mass deinstitutionalization could be very harmful and hazardous to children are not false. Deinstitutionalization done poorly can be just as disastrous as over use of institutional care. Dropping kids back into poor families without offering any interventions and not utilizing social work and proper follow up can lead to just as much abuse and maltreatment. Social work is essential to this process. Whetten also pointed out that most of the research that has concluded that orphanages are poor options for children was conducted in European countries and that Asian and African countries have been largely left out. This is true and we could definitely use more research in the developing world on how orphanages affect children’s development. Whetten’s conclusions that not all orphanages are bad hold some truth. Her words are a good reminder that orphanages fall on a spectrum and not all orphanages are the horrific institutions we envision where children are starving for food and attention and wasting away day by day. But does that mean Whetten is right in her conclusion that “children are thriving in institutions [and that] institutions are not so bad, community life can be very hard”?

In my opinion there are many flaws in Whetten’s research and concluding that children are thriving in institutions is inaccurate and irresponsible. Here are just a few ways that her research is lacking.

Children need more than food and shelter

Kathryn Whetten is a professor of public health, which means that her areas of interest were more about how the children’s physical health was doing and less invested in their emotional health. Attachment- one of the biggest challenges for children in orphanages- was not looked at at all. Whetten’s primary means of collecting this information was through surveys given to the caregivers of the children. This survey method had not been used in these countries and cultures before and there were no discussion surrounding the possible bias of the caregivers being the one’s reporting. It does seem likely that poor families might be more likely to report their children as doing worse, in hopes it might provide some aid from the researchers. It also seems likely that orphanage workers would want to report the children as doing very well so that their hard work appeared to be producing positive results.

In addition, this study only followed the children for three years and did not touch on how children fare once leaving the institution. Many of the countries included in this study have more collectivist cultures where family and community ties are the foundations for everything. Children who grow up in orphanages away from their communities and families can have a very hard time finding jobs, spouses, friends, etc… without those essential connections.

A foundation of family changes everything

Whetten looked at children ages 6-12. Most of the children she studied in institutions had not been there for very long, meaning they spent their formative years in a family settings and entered the orphanage later. One quarter of the children had been in the institution for less than a year and only 5% had entered the institution before the age of two. This means that the children Whetten was studying had been provided a foundation of family during the years where the most development and attachment takes place. I doubt Whetten would have similar findings if she studied children who were raised by orphanages or spent their first few years in one.

Whetten’s research does not change the fact that children need families to develop in a healthy manner and that this is most important in their first two and three years of life.

Dr. Whetten I don’t think your research is saying what you think it is saying

Whetten seems to believe there are two options- children stay in poor family environments or enter fancy institutions, when there is in fact a third option- empower the family. To me her research is supporting just that.

What Whetten did with her research was take a sample size where no interventions were given [children in families] and compared them to a sample size that received thousands of dollars’ worth of interventions [children in orphanages] and still found that children in the institutions “generally fared as well as those in the community, or maybe even better”. Shouldn’t that say to you that families are clearly better for children if they can provide almost as good care with no interventions? What kind of care could they provide with interventions then? Why isn’t Whetten’s conclusion from her research just that- that we need to be pouring more interventions into families caring for orphans and vulnerable children?


I’ve been to terrible orphanages. Orphanages where children are starving, you can’t find an adult, everyone is dirty and sick, and no one goes to school. Orphanages where their families are right down the street and no one is fighting for them.

I’ve been to great orphanages. Orphanages that use their funds well and love their kids. Orphanages that take the kids to the doctor, eat three nutritious meals a day, have a family “village” style model, and the kids are clean and go to school and have nice clothes and their hair is always done. These kids would score great if you tested their health, intelligence, physical growth, etc… But when their friends go home with their families or are welcomed into new families and they are left behind- you see it in their eyes. They crawl into the laps of strangers and suck their thumbs and ask “when is it my turn”? They are given the best care possible- but that doesn’t mean they don’t want a family, need a family, deserve a family. They know that nothing can ever replace a loving family. No matter how beautiful the orphanage is or how much money they have or how fabulously they are run- every child deserves a chance at a family.

To those kids- the ones waiting for their turn at a family, the ones who have graduated orphanages and have no-where to go for Christmas dinner, the ones who are floundering trying to start their own families because they’ve never had healthy family modeled for them- to them Whetten’s research doesn’t change the fact that children belong in families.

Because He Needs His Mama

The assessment is bleak. Thirteen kids. Baby is sick. Eats once a day. Nobody in school. It speaks of desperation and poverty winning. It’s one of those assessments I read and shake my head and pass it back to the social worker thinking – goodness gracious where do we begin?

The family stays far away but I ask if it’s possible to bring the baby to our office so we can see him. They bring him and we huddle around this adorable bundle of a baby boy.

He’s small. He’s coughing. He’s sickly. But man oh man is he cute.

We assess and discuss and weigh and decide where to refer him to for his medical needs.

Then I go back to emails and paperwork and the boring things on my computer and the social worker goes off to arrange lunch and transport. I look over my shoulder and there they are in the corner of our office waiting. A grandmother and a mother united in this fight for life, raising their baby into the air to get those precious giggles, bringing him close so that their noses touch and smiling BIG. He grins. Just as big.


In the midst of this poverty that is overwhelming one thing does not change- they do not stop loving their baby boy.

They walk each day with this paradox of fear and anxiety and love and joy.

And it is this love that compelled them to the gates of an orphanage, asking for help. Asking if they could leave him there where they knew he would be fed and taken care of and grow healthy and strong. But when they went there they were told- there is another option.

And so they walked into our office and a week in a malnutrition ward and food supplements and six weeks of business class and parenting class and bible studies and a grant to start a small business.


We say:

You can get help AND keep your baby. You’re a good mom and he needs you. Look at how much he needs you. How his face lights up when you walk in the room. How much he wiggles and tries to get away from us when we hold him because all he wants is you.

If you dropped him off at the orphanage? He would be fed and cared for and get fat and healthy. But who will bring him close- nose to nose- and make him grin big? Who will raise him into the air to get those giggles only mama gets? Who will make him light up just by entering a room?

Because you see mama- he needs you. He needs his mom. And God didn’t make a mistake by giving you him. He needs you more then he needs nice clothes or a fancy school or new toys. You are his world. And I see it in your eyes- he’s yours too.

So here we are, telling you two things. One, we believe in you, we believe you can do this. And two, we are here to fight with you so you can keep your baby.



Will you join us? If we’ve learned one thing, it’s that the cliché it takes a village to raise a child is so true. These mamas needs their village to succeed and we are asking you to be a part of that.

I am trying to raise the support Mama Kintu and Arafat need to go through our program through monthly sponsors. We need $250 in committed monthly support to get this family fully supported. If you are interested in joining Mama Kintu’s village comment with your email or shoot me an email

Because we believe poverty should never be the reason children are raised by an orphanage instead of their parents

[Maddy Pittman photo credit]

Join Us In This Fight: Help Keep Abide’s Doors Open

Dear supporters of Abide,

Abide Family Center has been operating for a year and a half. What a year and a half it has been.

76 families served. 268 children in their families, instead of orphanages

79% of the businesses we’ve started have been successful

23 families have been kept from living on the streets by moving into our emergency housing

17 babies have been deemed HIV- because of the formula we can provide

Over 20 Ugandan staff hired

60 Ugandan pastors mobilized.

We are raising up a new movement of people that say Ugandan children deserve families. That say poverty should NEVER be the reason a child is raised by an orphanage.

Our programs are working. And all over Uganda people are saying we need more of this. One orphanage director said, “we need an Abide in every district”.

We rely on donors just like you to allow our organization to run. We are so thankful for the generous donors who have supported us so far. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough income each month to keep us functioning as we need to. Up until now, we’ve relied on one time donations to keep up going, but it’s not sustainable and does not allow for any growth or security for our families and staff.

As of March 1st we have stopped taking new referrals and will not start taking on new clients until our funding is more secure.

We have decided that if we cannot raise our operating costs in committed monthly donors by July 1st we will be forced to consider closing our doors.

Right now we bring in $3500 a month in monthly donors. We need $10,000 a month to give our families the care they need and deserve.

We believe so strongly in the work that we do. We believe it is God’s heart to see families restored and thriving. We believe Uganda deserves better for their children.

Would you join us in this fight and consider becoming a monthly donor today?

Sponsor a family.

Learn more about corporate sponsorship

Reach out to your churches and friends [please email]

Thank you to everyone who has carried us this far. If it weren’t for you, 268 more children would be living in orphanages today.

We are hopeful that this is not the end, but the beginning of something more here in Uganda.

Budget Infographic Final (2)

What No One Told Me About Fighting Injustice

We slept under make-shift cardboard houses on the lawn of the Washington Monument.

We wore T-shirts that said “Seek Justice” and raised thousands of dollars by twirling across a stage.

We sat in awe and listened to our generation’s justice pioneers- Gary Haugen, Shane Claibourne, Bobby Bailey- and thought “we want to be like them”.

Justice was the key word in my childhood. We cared about the oppressed. We cared about the persecuted. We were relevant and passionate and a little naive. My heroes were those who fought and stood in the gap and spoke up for those who could not speak up for themselves.

People who had pulled children out of brothels ate dinner with my family on Saturday nights. Those who  practically lived in their government offices so that effective legislation could be passed worshipped next to me on Sunday. I remind my parents that they can’t really complain about the fact that I live continents away and make hardly any money- they raised me this way. It’s really their own fault, I say.

If you look at the generation raised by my church and community, you will see we are little tiny world changers. We work for non-profits, we moved into inner cities and practiced the art of good neighboring, we have traveled all over the world, we give our money away, we are still passionate and relevant- but we are a little less naive.

There are two things no one told me about joining this fight for justice.

One. You will lose a hundred battles before you win even one.

Two. You will make enemies. And no, not the enemies you think- not the bad guys or the oppressors. You will make enemies in the church, among your friends, in your own community you thought you could trust. Because this is the thing about evil- it’s not black and white- it’s not evil against good- it’s all mixed up together and confusing and tricks you into thinking the world is all grey. The king of evil is manipulation and deceit. Cover up and lies. You second guess yourself and wonder if you’re fighting the right battle, and you will always have others trying to convince you it’s not possible or worth it or right.

Some day walking away seems easiest and right and the only option. Other days fighting seems easiest and right and the only option. Evil fogs up your fight to try and win.

We lose. Again and again, we lose. We questions ourselves. Again and again, we question.

Some say, “don’t rock the boat”, some say, “but think about our reputation”, some say “but church unity!”, some say “it’s too dangerous” or “it’s uncomfortable” or “we are called to be peace-makers”.

But this is what I believe: we are called to be peace-makers, yes. But we can’t make peace without fighting injustice. It’s impossible. Peace and injustice cannot co-exist. Because what you mean when you say peace-makers? Is that you only want to keep the peace for yourself, and ignore those drowning under injustice. Because for them? There is no peace.

If we, the church, turn our eyes against injustice- then what is the point? Why are we here on this earth? Where is the strength behind this gospel we preach? What is the church if we let it get infected with those who do wrong in Jesus’ name? If we’re not fighting, if we SEE and we are turning away, then how dare we call ourselves Christians? TURNING AWAY  is what ruins our reputation, destroys church unity, rocks the boat, created discomfort, destroys peace, and is the most dangerous.

So I will keep losing and I will keep questioning myself and I will keep moving through the fog that says maybe i’m doing this all wrong, but I will not stop fighting. I will not give up. I will not turn away.

Because for me, that is what being a follower of Christ means. I might not pray enough or read my bible enough or go to church enough, in fact i’m pretty sure I don’t. I don’t have all the answers and most days i’m full to the brim with questions and doubts. My faith is always changing, always questioning, always wondering, and always in need of growth. But this I know- Being a Christian is not meant to be safe, it’s dangerous business and If I dare to call myself a Christian- If I dare to do work in Jesus’ name- then I am not allowed to give up or turn away or pretend I don’t see.

I am called to act.

I’m Not His Answer

When I first came to Uganda five years ago I made the mistake so many young white girls do of thinking I was the answer. Child needed a home? Why not me? Family needed a place to stay? How about our extra room? Hungry? I’ll just buy you dinner. But I’ve learned I can enact so much more change by being the facilitator instead of the answer. By designing programs with end goals and policies and procedures and a focus on empowerment the help I offer has turned from limited and all about me to sustainable and far reaching. It’s not a popular thing to say but when the family stops being a family in my living room and starts being a family on our case load, the help I offer is stronger, more logically approached, and at the end of the day more helpful. I don’t make rash decision based on emotions- I think about long term affects, how to broaden our reach with our limited resources, and how to keep the focus on empowerment. At the end of the day when the family isn’t in my living room, seventy two families stay together after a year and a half of operating, instead of only a handful.

But every once in a while a child comes along and I fall a little bit too hard in love. And once again I want to be the answer. The part of me that was born to be a mom wants to be THEIR mom. And it takes everything in me to remember not now. God is saying not now. Right now I’m called to staying late in the office, hoping on planes when needed, living on a meager paycheck, giving Abide my all. Not now.

One day. One child. But not now.

I know that. And most of the time I’m okay with that. But not today. Today I just wish he could be mine and I could be his.

Today I wish I could scoop him up and take him home and watch him play in my living room. I wish I could be the one who guides him to Jesus who guides him to healing. I wish I could forget I don’t have any savings or health insurance or a job that pays enough or gives me regular hours. I wish that for once I wasn’t just the facilitator, fighting for his safety and praying for his family and pouring in resource after resource. I wish this time I was his answer.

But not now.

So I walk away, out the gates of an orphanage. I know he’s safe now. I now he will be loved and fed and no longer abused. But I want a family for him. I want him to have a mom who adores him and loves him and never ever lays a hand on him. I want it so bad for him I ask myself if it could maybe be me.

But not now.

God says not now. And I cry. I’ve learned to walk through our hard without tears and I’ve removed kids before without them. I’ve learned the art of not letting our families into my living room and keeping them on my desk. It all runs so much smoother, for everyone, when I do that.  But i’m human and sometimes they wiggle off my desk and right back into my heart and I cry in the office when everyone has gone home. Why him? Why does he feel so different?

The tears fall.

I wish I was his answer.

So You Want to Start A Non-Profit? A Cynical Approach

My purse is full of sleeping pills, an intention to sue (me), books, no money, and little scraps of paper that say things no one understands but me and instantly stress me out.

This is where starting an non-profit landed me.

Honesty guys.

Yes, some days are filled with happy kids and moms that get it and staff that blow me away with their skills and things that just work and I stand back and I feel pride and joy. But those aren’t most days.

The harsh reality is hiding behind the beautiful instagram photos of kids laughing during water play Wednesday. The harsh reality is that this is the hardest things i’ve ever done and often i’m falling apart.

I think about the way parents talk about the joys of parenting and how much they love their kids but then when you excitedly say, “I can’t wait to be a mom!” they smile awkwardly and say, “uh-huh”, as if what they really want to say is , “no, don’t do it. Yes it’s worth it, yes they’re great., yes I love them, but this is the hardest things i’ve ever done and i’m so tired I could sleep forever”.

Every once in a while someone tells me they want to start a non-profit and what advice would I give them? And I smile and say “uh huh” and rattle off some mediocre advice. But what I really want to say?

No, don’t do it. Yes, it’s worth it, yes the people I serve are great, yes, I love Abide, but this is the hardest thing i’ve ever done and i’m so tired I could sleep forever.

Take a year or two and sit on the idea. Do some research, build some good connections, think about it. And then if after a year or more you still cannot shake the passion and drive then maybe start to take some steps.

But first know these things:

There will be days you want to quite. So many days. In fact in the beginning you will have more days where you want to quit then days where you want to keep going. Do you have what it takes to push through?

Are you someone who handles failure well? Because you will fail. Over and over again. Even when you start to think you might have reached the “success” level and that those major failures are behind you a fundraising campaign will completely tank, a benefit dinner will have no one show up, your most promising case will crack into pieces, the people you thought you could trust will betray you.

Can you delegate well? Are you aware of your strengths and, more importantly, your weaknesses? If you are a control freak who thinks you have no flaws walk away now. Being the founder of a non-profit requires you be an expert at EVERYTHING- accounting, management, design, marketing, media, human resources, policy writing, time management, fundraising, networking, etc… which of course is impossible. Learn [often painfully] where your weaknesses are and bring people in to fill those. Let go of control. Delegate. Trust your staff.

Are you passionate about the reason your non-profit exists? Good, you’ll need that. Do you love to do the work your non-profit will be doing?  Sorry, you won’t be doing much of that. Being a founder means you get to answer e-mails, fundraise, hire, fire, manage, sit in long boring meetings where people say the same things over and over again. The day will end way sooner than you think where you’re actually doing the work your non-profit does. I haven’t gone on a home visit in years. I wrote my first set of case notes the other day [which honestly only happened because I failed to delegate, it was a poor leadership move]. I don’t even know the names of every mother in our program. My degree in Child and Family Studies is mostly useless,  I should have gone to school for business or organizational management.

Is your idea for a non-profit actually a good one? Whenever I critique a model I usually come back to one thing: STRATEGY. So many organizations lack strategy, and without that your work is lacking.

Follow these steps:

Step one: identify the problem. Step two: identify the reason behind the problem. Step three: Create a plan to address the problem

Then answer these questions:

– Who will receive your services? How will you evaluate them to make sure they really need them?

– What [exactly] will you do? What [exactly] will you not do? How will you do it?

– How will you work towards independence for the people you work with? How will you define independence?

– How will you evaluate your model to make sure it is working?

– Who will you partner with?

– What are all the possible outcomes from the help you give? Possible effects on the community, local economy, families, etc…?

– What would happen if you had to shut down tomorrow? What would happen if you, the leader, had to leave suddenly? Could the project sustain itself?

If you read all of that and are still ready to jump in, more power to you. Do it. Go change lives. And join the scores of us standing back and thinking, “what the hell did we get ourselves into?”

Someone to Call

In this crazy life I live, I frequently walk out my door and see redemption in my front yard. These days I walk out my door to Phillip, a single father to a rambunctious three year old and sweet eight month old. We are working on reconciliation with his wife*, but for now he is carrying the privilege and burden of parenting on his own. And he does it beautifully, performing his Abide chores with his baby strapped to his chest. Swallowing his frustrations with his preschooler and listening when we gently explain we think his behaviors are reactions to his mom leaving. He stands tall with the weight of parenthood, grief, confusion, and no answers to what’s next on his shoulders.

And his story hits so close to home for me.

I walk out my front door and I see Phillip’s three year old climbing the wrong way up the slide and I see me. I was a little older than him when I lost my mother but I was that confused little kid with the patient father who swallowed his frustrations as I acted out my grief and stood tall under the weight of parenthood, grief, and confusion.

I recently came face to face with some of the hard life likes to throw at us. The moment it happened, after I picked myself off the floor and remembered how to breathe again, my very first instinct was to call my dad.

It didn’t matter that we hadn’t spoken in a few weeks. It didn’t matter that he was continents away. It didn’t matter that he couldn’t make it all better. Just his voice on the other end of the phone; knowing that someone else loved me enough to grieve as much for me as I was grieving now. To know that when he said he’d pray for me and check up on me he meant it. To know there are people in this world that will never abandon me, change their mind about me, stop loving me. In my line of work, that privilege is not lost on me.

I want to walk across the yard and scoop up Phillip’s three year old into my arms and whisper into his ears, “one day you might think your world is crashing down and when that day comes you will reach for your phone and you’ll have a dad to call. A dad who knows what it is to walk through the dark periods of life. A dad who loves you. A dad who fought to keep you. When that day comes you’ll have someone to call.”

That’s what this is all about isn’t it? Because everyone deserves someone to call.


*Phillip’s wife has come back since I wrote this. Please be praying for healing and forgiveness in this little family.


She walks into the compound with her toddler on her hip. He’s still clean because the day is young and he hasn’t yet managed to wriggle out of his mama’s arms into the dirt. His mama sees the tiniest baby we have and puts him down to scoop her up. “bye!” she says to her toddler as she coos over the tiny one.

He scowls and toddles after her, not pleased sharing his mother’s attention. She laughs and eventually scoops him back up, where he rests content until he’s ready to wriggle back down and begin his day’s exploring.

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He wanders around our compound, getting covered in dirt, and entertaining us all. Our social workers call him “freestyle” because he does what he wants, when he wants. One moment the cook is shooing him out of the kitchen, the next the guard is bringing him back to the classroom. Classroom to sandbox to office to bedrooms to kitchen to moms in class to gate to big pile of dirt. But every hour or so you can find him toddling over to the room where his mama sews and he peeks in, making sure she’s still there. She smiles and waves [and usually laughs at his ridiculousness] and he grins big before running off again.

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One day mom is sick and spends the day at the clinic. I watch him toddle over to the room where she sews and peek in. The first time she’s not there he scowls. The second time he hits the ground crying and is only made quiet with the bribery of a biscuit. The grins are few that day. The giggles gone. No smiles from our wild man. He can’t figure out where his mama is.

But here’s the thing, at the end of the day she returns and he smiles big and waves his arms in excitement and toddles right back into her arms.

A year ago mom was at the door of an orphanage and was so desperate she was thinking about leaving him. Except it wouldn’t have been for just a day. I think about how that day might have looked. Him looking to the gate, seeing she wasn’t there. Him hitting the ground crying. His grins and giggles disappearing. And at the ends of the day there would be no happy reunion. At the end of the day he would be going to bed alone. And so would she.

Poverty should never be the reason children are raised by orphanages instead of their families. We can do better then that. I say it again and again and I believe it. All our staff at Abide believes it and fight every day to give these families a chance at staying together.

And I think if this little guy could talk he’d tell you he believes it too.

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