Alongsiders walk with the most vulnerable children in their own communities. Many of the children are orphans, so the Alongsiders movement is also an orphan care movement. Today let's look at one of the most overlooked factors in orphan care.
They say there are about 150 million orphans worldwide. The website for SOS Children's Villages puts the number at 153 million. Other orphanage providers and international adoption agencies give similar numbers. What they rarely say is that the vast majority of orphans, at least 95 percent, are cared for by their own relatives.
Most are cared for by their widowed mothers. If that's confusing, keep in mind that the international definition of an "orphan" is a child who has lost at least one parent.
Most double-orphans (who have lost both parents) are cared for by grandparents and relatives. In developing countries, we've seen this role falls primarily on the grandmothers.
That is to say, in the developing world, widows and grandmothers are the unspoken heroes of orphan care.
Of course, this shouldn't be a big surprise. Most of us, if we have or imagine having children, assume that our spouse or parents would step in and raise them if something happened to us. Naturally, people around the world, rich and poor alike, feel the same way. They want their children to stay in the family.
But there's a catch. In those countries where the orphan crisis is most severe, there are very few organizations or ministries supporting widows and grandmothers caring for orphans. Immense amounts of money are invested in orphanages, and relatively little is spent on widows and grandmothers who care for the majority of orphans.
How can this be?
The good news is that organizations, churches, and donors are beginning to transition away from the old orphanage (shelter, center, children's village) model toward real family-based care, and we're seeing more efforts to support widows and grandmothers.
We believe the Alongsiders movement is part of the change.
Many young people who become Alongsiders choose orphans as their little brothers and sisters. In so doing, they're giving crucial support to hardworking widows and grandmothers who have so much riding on their shoulders.
Sophy is a young girl living with her grandmother in rural Cambodia. Her grandmother is tough as nails. Not only is she raising Sophy, but during the day she helps care for her nephew, a young man who was paralyzed from the waist down in a motorcycle accident.
Recently, Sophy was on her way to school when an older girl she knew named Chenda fell in beside her. As they walked down the road, Chenda asked Sophy to become her "little sister." Sophy was overjoyed, and later her grandmother gladly gave permission.
Sophy's grandmother loves her, but Sophy has always felt lonely. Many of her peers skip school, gamble, and drink. Her grandmother has kept Sophy in school and focused on her studies, but she can't meet all her needs.
Chenda can help Sophy in ways her grandmother can't.
She can help with homework, visit the school and talk to the teacher, relate more closely to Sophy's problems and temptations, connect her to leaders and friends in the community, intervene when when other problems arise, and disciple her.
Right now Alongsiders in Cambodia, Indonesia, India and Pakistan are walking with hundreds of orphans and abandoned children, giving support and comfort to hundreds of widows and grandmothers.
Sometimes having an Alongsider shifts the balance so that a widow or a grandmother can raise a beloved child on her own, rather than sending the child away to an institution.
So hats off to widows and grandmothers! To their toughness and tenacity in love, and the difference they make in the lives of the most vulnerable children. May they get all the support they need.