Adoption is not always the answer for a child who has been orphaned or abandoned. The Ethiopian government establishes strict criteria dictating conditions under which a child is eligible for adoption. Independent adoption agencies have their own criteria. And then there is the very human element: making tough decisions about individual children.
To be eligible for adoption, a child must be a full orphan (both parents are dead), a “half” orphan (one parent, typically the mother, is dead and the father and/or extended family is unable or unwilling to care for the child) or abandoned — meaning, in many cases, that finding the blood relatives legally empowered to relinquish the child to adoption is challenging at best and impossible at worst.
Even once those criteria have been met, there are difficult decisions to make. Some are related to medical triage: Children age 5 and younger have lower survival rates and are the first to be placed in orphanages to await adoption — when space is available. Children age 6 and older, who have survived that vulnerable, early developmental period, are by their very resilience at lower odds of being adopted by prospective families, many of which are specifically seeking babies or are daunted by the challenge of raising a child with years of trying history. Some of these older children are placed into “in-country orphanages” where they are raised, educated and supported as they transition to productive adult lives within their communities.
The Aerie Africa orphanage that I visited with Paradise Valley couple Brian and Keri deGuzman (the parents of four children adopted from Ethiopia), is an example of one such in-country orphanage. On the day we visited, the orphanage had 53 children in residence on a Soddo hillside overlooking the lush Rift Valley. Eleven more (older teens) were living in a transition home in the village.
“We’re really rethinking the whole [adoption-oriented] orphanage thing and focusing on raising these children,” said Noah Frank, a recent college graduate from the U.S. who works at the in-country orphanage. “We’re willing to go into new territory to save more children.”
The program is set up, as many in Africa are, so that individuals and families from around the world (mostly the U.S. and Europe) can “sponsor” a child, providing $800 a year to cover basic needs and education. The goal is to help these children pass the national test that is required of all Ethiopian children before they can advance “to university.” The staff hopes to place those who fail in vocational training or jobs.
The day we visited, there were children playing on a neatly kept playground with primary-colored climbing equipment. Some were playing soccer.
We approached a classroom building and spent some time watching a group of children practicing their English. Most of the curriculum is taught in both English and Amharic, the national language; the goal is to have English-only instruction after they reach seventh grade.
The next room was a kitchen, where meals were prepared, in the traditional Ethiopian way, over a wood fire.
Out back, a group of older children was practicing martial arts. Shyly, but with obvious delight, they demonstrated some of their moves for us in a setting befitting an epic movie, with sweeping views of the rich lands of the Rift Valley, where much of the nation’s coffee is grown, just behind them.
As we walked back toward the orphanage, we saw some men working in a garden, from which food will be cultivated to feed the children. A huge avocado tree hung heavy with fruit. A shelter is being prepared for 15 to 20 cows and sheep that will graze on the grassy hillside during the day, providing the basis for a revenue-generating business. The children will help tend the livestock.
We visited another classroom, where teacher Felelee Garri (nickname “Chu Chu”) was conducting lessons in a room decorated with colorful cut-outs amplifying aspects of the curriculum (“MATH,” “PLANETS”) and educational priorities: “BOOKS,” “STUDY,” “WORK.”
We walked back outside, where I learned that the orphanage has its own well to provide fresh, clean water. It is a something, believe me, that is not common in this area. It helps immensely in keeping disease (and dirt) at bay.
The day before we visited, the orphanage installed its first modern toilet (what the staff referred to jokingly as a “ferengi” toilet, “ferengi” being the term for a white person from the U.S. or Europe). The new challenge? Teaching the children how to use it. Compared to other challenges facing these children, and this hardworking staff, that one sounded like a piece of cake.