J.K. Rowling, orphanages and changing the world

J.K. Rowling, orphanages and changing the world

By Connie Belciug | November 8, 2019 

J.K. Rowling, the famous author of the Harry Potter series, recently spoke out against volunteering at orphanages. “Despite the best of intentions, the sad truth is that visiting and volunteering in orphanages drives an industry that separates children from their families and puts them at risk of neglect and abuse,” she said.

It can be surprising to read this and wonder whether the good intentions that led volunteers to help abroad are harmful to children in orphanages.

I've led many mission trips with CERI and served alongside hundreds of passionate volunteers. From distributing winter boots in Moldova to empowering women in India, I can confidently say that volunteers make a difference.

I see the difference in the life of the child who CERI met for the first time on a Shoe Mission and now has a forever family. Or, the teenager we met in an orphanage that now has the support she needs to be independent. After volunteers pack up and fly back home, CERI staff help transform the lives of children we meet on mission trips.

Volunteers on mission trips have helped us change many children’s lives.

As a social worker, I also know that a short-term mission trip is not enough. The needs of the children and families in other countries are many and complex. What orphans need most is a family and what keeps vulnerable families together is constant support. It takes many caring people and time to make this happen.

Girls in Sri Lanka with their mother and grandmother
I agree with J.K. Rowling that volunteers need to “look at what drives children into institutions and dedicate [their] time to projects that tackle poverty or support communities with vital services.

However, the global orphanhood issue is impacted by much more than volunteers. Here are 4 important things for volunteers to know about serving orphans:

1. More people need to know

Family is the single most influential factor in a child’s life, and everyone needs to know that 140 million orphans around the world are growing up without one. J.K. Rowling’s campaign is bringing attention to this issue with orphanages at the center.

If more people learn about the issue, the number of orphans decreases as children are reunited with family and parents are empowered to raise their kids. Volunteering on a mission trip is a great way to serve, but the biggest impact comes when family and friends learn about the issue you are helping solve and support it. As you volunteer and serve orphans, become a voice and get others involved in making family possible for all.

2. Action is more powerful than guilt

Orphanage care is severely damaging to children. Children who live in orphanages are impacted socially, emotionally and physically for life. Volunteering at an orphanage during a short-term mission trip, sometimes referred to as orphanage voluntourism, can be harmful to children after they attach to volunteers who eventually leave.

Learning that volunteering at an orphanage may hurt instead of help orphans is especially hard if you’ve done it yourself. Instead of feeling ashamed or guilty, you can be a voice for orphans.

A young girl in Moldova waits to receive boots distributed by CERI volunteers
Albert Einstein said, “Those who have the privilege to know have the duty to act, and in that action are the seeds of new knowledge.”

As we all continue learning about the best way to help orphans, I invite you to continue doing something for children.

3. Until very recently, orphanage care was the only option

In the Global South, orphanage care or institutionalization, was the only option for children who were abused. For the poorest families around the world, orphanages provide education and much needed food for children.

Many countries around the world simply did not know the impact orphanages were having on children as they focused on meeting basic needs. And, without the right laws, funding and community services for poor families, the cycle of orphanage care continued.

In 1989, the first global law that promotes the right of children to be raised in their own family, was adopted. And, only recently in 2010, international guidelines on how to care for vulnerable children in a family environment were published. These two important events were only the first steps on the world’s journey to changing the way we care for orphans.

As more countries embrace a new and better way to care for orphans, orphanages are closing and children are growing up with a loving family.

4. It takes all of us to end orphanhood

Living with a family is a fundamental human right and we all have a role to play in defending that right for all children. Governments and child protection workers alone cannot solve the issue. It takes parents, family members, researchers, advocates, communities and volunteers.

Another important group are orphanages themselves. Orphanages are still common around the world and, in some places, the only service available to children without parental care. Orphanage staff have dedicated their lives to caring for orphans and genuinely want the best for the children they care for. After children are reunited with their families, many orphanage staff choose to become foster parents and community workers to continue helping children.

If we’re going to change the way we care for orphans, we must work together. All of us – including volunteers.

Join us in creating change and make family possible for all.