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Why You May Need to Rethink Your Summer Mission Trip

While on a mission trip to Haiti in 2010, my husband and I encountered an orphanage that would change our lives forever. 

From the moment we first stepped into the orphanage, we felt an undeniable connection to the children. Their need for love and support was so evident. That’s all it took — we began making plans to move to Haiti as soon as we got home. For the next three years, we also organized countless mission trips to this orphanage so our friends and family back home could come and serve alongside us.  It was a joy to see them hold, love, care for and play with the precious children there.

But one Sunday in Haiti, I noticed that a group of women from the village would come to church every week to hold and play with the children from the orphanage. I asked the pastor of the church who they were. “Those are the moms,” came the reply. I was in shock. At that moment, my understanding of our true mission in Haiti changed dramatically. 

My husband and I realized that our most well-intentioned efforts were misdirected. We started to see that we could do more for these children than just support their orphanage — we could support their mothers. We could play a role in keeping these precious children out of orphanages in the first place.

Of course, that change in perspective came as a surprise to us. Most people don’t know that the vast majority of the children living in orphanages across the world have at least one living parent, and are often placed there because of poverty. The orphanage can feed and shelter them or even provide education — something many families living in poverty simply cannot afford to do. 

But children are better off living with a family than they are in an orphanage. Families are essential to the healthy development of a child.  A family provides the love, belonging and identity a child needs to thrive. Not even the best orphanages can provide for the holistic needs of a child. 

Research confirms — growing up in an orphanage harms brain development. It shapes lifelong attachment styles, and thwarts a child’s ability to form trusting long-term relationships. Some experts estimate that one month of early childhood development is lost for every three months spent in an orphanage. 

This means that supporting vulnerable children should be about strengthening families. Children belong within a family. So, my husband and I committed ourselves to supporting vulnerable families to help keep them together.

In 2013, we started learning from and working with local Haitians with a similar vision to begin job development programs that taught the community valuable business, agricultural, and domestic skills. We asked medical experts to provide education on health issues for families, such as natural family planning, women’s health, and first aid. We started summer camps to help keep children fed when school is not in session and struggling families are unable to provide meals. These programs are making a real impact to prevent children from being unnecessarily separated from their families by empowering parents to improve their own lives and nurture their children. 

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But running these types of programs requires support, including volunteers, funding, and prayer. Unfortunately, so much attention is focused on supporting orphanages, and mission trips rarely support family empowerment. Contributing meaningfully to long-term, sustainable family empowerment programs perhaps feels daunting for potential mission trip goers. 

Yet, it shouldn’t be. And it doesn’t have to be. These families deserve support, and Christians have an opportunity to be the hands and feet of Christ and provide help that is life-changing. 

You can pray. You can donate. You can reach out to organizations that are empowering families and ask how to get involved. Perhaps it’s a mission trip to learn more about the challenges families face and support their programs that are strengthening families. I know they’ll be grateful. I know you will be needed. 

I am so thankful my eyes were opened to the true identity of the women who would come to church and play with the children from the orphanage all those years ago. My experience is something you can learn from. Join us in empowering families, so children don’t have to live in orphanages, but can thrive in the love and care of a family. Take a leap on your next mission trip. Get involved with the right kind of organizations. Learn how you can have a lasting impact. You might change someone else’s life more dramatically than you could ever imagine.


Stephanie Robinson has worked in holistic community development and family preservation for 11 years. She is the Outreach Coordinator of the Faith to Action Initiative and also co-founder of a grassroots organization called Konbit Haiti, which provides localized support to family preservation through supplemental programs. 

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