Earlier this year I was meeting with some staff for a local free clinic that helps Burmese migrant families. One of them urged us to open a new home for babies and small children. Babies are abandoned at the clinic often, not all the time, but it happens several times a year.
If I had been speaking to her 10 years ago, before we started The Charis Project, and before we learned all that we now know about what families and children at risk really need, I might have said yes. Because it makes sense right? Here is a baby that has no parents. Of course I’ll take care of her. And I wouldn’t turn away another baby in need after that, and another, and another. Soon we could have dozens of babies in our care and feel like we were doing a very important and useful thing paying people to care for these babies full time and keeping them alive.
[As I type this I’m holding my 6 month old on my lap. I would never want him to grow up without a family if something happened to us.]
But, we have learned a lot since our early days of just supporting an orphanage. Now, I ask questions. What is going on in the mother’s life? Why does she feel she can’t care for her own child anymore? Were there any indicators that could have helped us see that she was considering this possibility? Is there a way to support her and her family so that she knows that she has options?
We don’t plan to open a new children’s home, well, ever.
Remember when we started delivering nutrition packages to pregnant and breastfeeding mothers? Well, we added that to the community education work we were already doing. We found that the weekly visits were really important for encouraging mothers and giving them an opportunity to talk about their parenting difficulties and learn techniques that can help. Somewhat by accident we began providing the exact kind of support that experts say is vital in helping to prevent family separation.
We recently interviewed the families currently in our nutrition program to find out how we can improve what we are doing to help them, and to find out if it’s been helpful for them so far. Many said that because of the nutrition programs mothers have been able to stay home and breastfeed their babies much longer than they would have otherwise. It helps them to not have as much pressure to find work again right away. Breastfeeding is a completely normal and accepted part of the culture, but many don’t realize how vital it is in terms of long term health. The education they now have helps them to understand that giving their baby something like sweetened soy milk instead of breastfeeding is dangerous. (Proper formula is very expensive for them and they rarely ever mix it correctly, thinning it out to make it last longer.)
Many families also said that they’ve been able to pay off debts and be more free thanks to our help. They say the value of the packages is much higher for them than our costs because we save by buying in bulk and growing food ourselves, and because of the savings they represent for the family.
In some cases we’ve been able to help single mothers stay closer to home and be with their children rather than go far away to find a job. We’ve also been able to help some families see the benefit to the whole family of staying together and keeping babies close, rather than sending them far away to relatives to care for them. (It’s so important that a child’s caregivers are people who have bonded with them strongly. It’s better for the child’s development, and bonded caregivers are much less likely to abuse children than caregivers who have not bonded with the child.)
When we began many years ago we saw the need for financial support for institutions that cared for vulnerable children. Since then we have learned so much, and we now know that the best way to protect children is to help their birth families to be strong and safe wherever possible. Not only is it a better long term solution, but it’s much less expensive than providing institutional care until a child reaches adulthood.
So we’ve made it our goal, by the end of this year, to go from supporting 20 families at a time to supporting 150. That’s means an increase in donations of $65,000 by the end of this year.
We’ve hired new family support staff out of the communities we serve who understand first hand where these families are coming from and their circumstances, because they’ve been there too and have shared their pain, their struggles, and their difficulties. Our farm is increasing it’s outputs so we can add more healthy naturally grown produce to the packages every week.
What the families we surveyed may not realize is how vital nutrition during pregnancy is for preventing disabilities. A child born with a disability makes things much more difficult for the whole family. There is little support for them here. The child’s life is very sad and is mostly spent in dark rooms, hidden away from the rest of society. Many of the families we support have children with disabilities like cerebral palsy and one of the risk factors for CP is poor nutrition. Nutrition is one of the most important things we can do for a mother, and a whole family.
Other factors contributing to Cerebral Palsy here in Thailand are birth injury and abuse of the mother during pregnancy. Domestic violence is common here. It’s in this area that the weekly visits, and emotional support and encouragement brought by our family support teams, start to play a big role in helping couples find a new way of relating to each other and their children. We encourage them to attend our classes on child development, abuse, healthy relationship modeling, and even pick them up and drive them to classes every week to make sure they are able to attend. Our birth classes help mothers to be more proactive in their labor, which can help prevent the need for interventions that can cause injury.
We engage with families in a broad spectrum of ways;