What Is A Good Orphanage?

 Written by: John Marshall Photography by: Whitney Runyon

Written by: John Marshall
Photography by: Whitney Runyon

For the past four years, I have worked almost exclusively with orphaned and vulnerable children and projects supporting this demographic around the world. After a long career in television, I made the decision to support these vulnerable, beautiful children in 2014. I can say it’s been the most rewarding and life-changing career move imaginable. 

Since then, I’ve visited dozens of orphanages in countries from Asia to Africa, I’ve been a part of more than 1.2 million dollars of fundraising, and I’ve seen a wide range of orphan care, some good, some not so good and some terrible.

On the dark side, I’ve seen scams where orphanage directors are just in it for the money. Once, I believe poor children were simply bussed in for the day to convince me to get involved with a non-existent organization. I’ve met children so starved for affection and attention, their need grabbed me like claws when I entered the gates, clutching for me not to look away.

However, most of the time, I’ve met with well-meaning people trying under incredibly difficult and underfunded conditions to help a few children lead a hopeful life. These people inspire me with their selflessness and dedication. These are the people I work with.

Of all the good orphanages I’ve had the pleasure of supporting, my favourite by far is the Good Shepherd Agricultural Mission in Banbasa, India. The Mission was founded in 1948 by the Rev. Maxton Strong and is now run by the father/son team of Rick and Clifton Shipway from Australia. After nearly seventy years, the Mission currently operates a 60-acre farm on their property, as well as a large dairy, an 800-student school, a leper colony and multiple workshops…all in service of the 75 orphaned or abandoned children in their care.

As an outsider, I’ve spent a good deal of time at the Mission, getting to know the kids and the staff, and seeing how the operations run from the inside. I’ve read all the children’s folders and know their back grounds. I’ve seen the way the place handles both good times and bad. 

While it may be hard to fully know an organization’s heart in a short two-week volunteer trip, I believe I’ve come to know the character of the Shipways over a slow, consistent multi-year friendship, behind closed doors, far from the public image they put forward on the internet.

In my opinion: These guys are the real deal.

I’ve seen first-hand how donations are handled with the utmost integrity, honouring to the penny each financial gift that arrives. There’s no back channel corruption that is so common, especially in India. I’ve seen their resourcefulness and desire for self-sufficiency. They grow their own food, build their own desks and beds, weld their own trusses, and take no government money. I’ve seen how they protect local families, only accepting children when absolutely necessary. Indeed, I’ve seen them turn away countless would-be orphans while desperate parents begged them to reconsider. 

But most of all, I’ve seen the kids. 

You don’t have to be a child psychologist to know these children are thriving. Spend some time with them and you will know. Of course like children in all families, they’re not happy robots. Some can be standoffish and quiet until they get to know you. They all come from painful beginnings, after all. But mostly, there is a sense of fun and joy at the Mission that memorable childhoods are made of, not simply grim survival common in the worst institutions. As I have seen, the Mission kids smile not just to pose for happy website photos. (Although they do like photos.)  They smile because they are loved, because they belong. They smile because they are part of a family.

In the past four years, my idea of family has grown. 

Beyond simply the two-parent ideal that is unfortunately not a possible or safe alternative for many of these kids just yet, I’ve come to see that family is who loves you. It can change. It can expand. Family can certainly be a 60-acre farm with 75 children, a large Indian staff, two Australian directors, and supporters worldwide. It can even include a former TV producer from America, I’m happy to say.

For the record: There is a volunteer program at the Mission and I would encourage anyone with an interest in these children to consider a trip. Who knows? You just might have your life, your heart, or your own view of family expanded in the process. 

John Marshall