One of the first children we met at the orphanage next to the hospital we were working in in Guatemala was four years old. He had just been dropped off by his mother a few days before. He sat in his crib with his tear-stained face, looking forlorn and not interacting with anyone. Immediately drawn to his sadness and thinking only of acting in love, one of the girls on our team spoke with him soothingly until he came to her and let her hold him. She was elated to see his smile (as we all were), and she carried him with her throughout the building on our tour. They giggled together. We took pictures. He held her close.
At the end of the tour, she put him down and walked out of his life forever.
He screamed and wailed with sadness as he clutched at her. She was heart-broken as well, realizing what had just happened unintentionally. This boy had thought she was taking him away to be his family. Good intentions, the kindest and sweetest intentions – turned to sadness, another person walking out of his life.
But how was she supposed to know that? Why didn’t the nuns at the orphanage stop her?
And more importantly: Why didn’t I stop her? I know all about attachment disorder. I felt uncomfortable when she picked him up, but both of their smiles felt good. My stomach hurt as she took him out of the room, but I couldn’t pinpoint why (looking back on it is so easy to see why). Even if I had found the words, there’s a good chance that, in the moment of connection and joy between these two, my words would have seemed negative or jealous. But I should have taken a minute to realize where my gut was coming from, found the words, and I should have said them aloud. I hate that I didn’t stick up for that sweet boy.
I’m venturing off the photography topic today, and bringing up something near and dear to my heart. It’s getting talked about more and more lately in articles about voluntourism and volunteering. It might make you sad, especially if you’ve done work like this. I don’t mean to get on a high horse or bash anything you’ve done in the past, but I want to make us all (myself included) question the difference between good intentions and doing good. It took a few articles on this to wake me up as well. And now I’m wondering, how can we volunteer to create sustainable change?
So many of us have really good intentions. We see a people in need of help, and we want to go help. With its relatively open borders and general safety, Guatemala sees a lot of this. I went there this past March to photograph for a group called Free to Smile (I’ll get to more of that in a minute).
A friend of mine who works closely with mission trips in Guatemala told me about a team who came down to build a church. They were not trained in construction, and locals who were watching were commenting on how they weren’t really doing it right. Not only this, but here was this building going up in their city that could have employed local workers and provided for their families. I am sure those volunteers had only good intentions in their hearts, but did they truly help the people they were trying to help? Did they create sustainable change or provide resources to empower the people of Guatemala? Sadly, not really.
This brings to mind orphanages again. This is a very emotional subject for me, as my daughter was raised in an orphanage/large foster home for two years of her life before we adopted her from China. She was at a pretty great place for most of that time, and we are incredibly grateful for that. But still she grew up with a revolving door of fifty or so brothers and sisters (all with special needs) and endless volunteers who stayed only for a short time. This kind of volunteering – where someone comes to help and play with the kids for a week or so, then leaves forever – can lead to attachment disorder and confusion in the kids at the orphanage. Sometimes their needs are met, sometimes they’re not. Sometimes it’s a different person meeting their needs, and then, suddenly, that person is gone. They don’t learn a sense of permanence, and when their adoptive parents do come to bring them home, they might not trust that they are going to stick around. This can lead to sadness, behaviors, mistrust, eating issues, insecurity, and more. What if, instead, volunteers did menial chores (laundry, cooking, shopping, etc.) so that the nannies could have more time to bond with the kids? Or what if they provided some care for the nannies who care for multiple kids every day?
Before I go any further, let me say that I am very grateful for those who volunteered with my daughter before she came home to us. I know they loved her while they were there. They are able to shine little bits of knowledge about her life that we never knew before. Those are like gold to my daughter, and we will collect all of these tiny little gold pieces that we can find. We’ll piece together her past as much as possible. But maybe there are ways that we as a people can volunteer that are helpful and also take into account the long-term effects for the child.
This past March, I went to Guatemala to photograph for a group called Free to Smile. It was an amazing trip. They provided life-changing cleft lip and palate surgeries for many children. Those who don’t know a ton about cleft lip and cleft palate might think, “Oh, how nice, now they can have a great smile.” But it goes way beyond that. It is very difficult with kids born with this to be able to eat or drink appropriately, and it is practically impossible in many cases, for them to be able to speak understandably. In many countries, cleft lip and palate comes with a huge social stigma that tears children from their birth families or from their whole community and keeps them from attending school.
The operation changes everything.
On this trip, the Free to Smile team provided surgeries for a couple dozen kids, a teen boy, and a grandma. I was amazed by the work of this team. They worked long, non-stop hours. They made some remarkable repairs. For me, it was interesting to see a cleft lip repair, as my daughter’s was done in China by a wonderful group called Care4Tina, a Dutch team similar to Free to Smile. Another important part of this trip for me was showing parents, crying and scared as they waited during their child’s surgery, pictures of my own daughter before and after her lip surgery. I didn’t really speak any Spanish. I literally would walk up to them and say “mi bebe,” then show the pictures and watch their faces as they flipped between the two pictures on my cracked iphone screen. Their faces would smile in surprise and I’d hear a small gasp and a sentence with one of the other few Spanish words I knew: “hermosa” (beautiful).
Something that has been on my mind so much ever since we adopted our daughter is how to best help kids with cleft lip and cleft palate. This is a really, really complicated question. My daughter’s birth parents are most likely alive. And as much as I LOVE being her mama so much that I can feel it in every bone in my body and it makes me catch my breath to say it, I know that the best place for most kids to be is with their birth parents (except in cases of abuse or neglect). The culture in China is not something that I understand. It’s something I’m constantly trying to learn about, and whenever I research or ask, I get a different answer. I am not sure exactly why my daughter was brought to an orphanage in China. Maybe it was the social stigma that came with her cleft. Maybe it was because her birth mom didn’t know how to feed her. Maybe it was because they didn’t have the money for a surgery. Maybe it was because they weren’t educated about cleft. It could have been that they wanted her to have what they were told would be a better life. Maybe it was family circumstances that made her family bring her to the orphanage steps. This list of maybes could go on and on. We will try to find answers, but we may never know.
And in this case, I don’t really know the way to do good. I am glad that we are questioning the building of orphanages lately. It is good to see the questioning of why children end up at orphanages when their birth parents are alive. I am glad that there are organizations working toward educating parents. I am glad for organizations like Tess Unlimited, whom we worked with in Guatemala to organize surgeries. Tess Unlimited works with families with children affected by cleft – they work to educate, provide milk and resources on feeding, coordinate surgeries, and provide speech and psychological care. Tess Unlimited is a treasure, and I am sure that families stay together because of their work.
I also believe strongly in the work of Free to Smile. I was only a photographer on this trip, with the charge to photograph for Free to Smile. I did not create any lasting change, and I know this. But I am proud and thankful to have worked with this team. Seeing them work so professionally and so whole-heartedly to help these kids and their families was an incredible sight to behold. They are doing good things in this world. Seeing these families and caretakers, one who sold everything to travel to the surgery, one who was going against her family’s wishes to have her child and keep him alive, some who had never known until this moment that there were other kids out there like their child – seeing their faces light up when they see their child post-surgery, as they thank the team with their hugs and their tears – there’s just nothing that could possibly reassure us more that Free to Smile is doing the right thing. And here’s my most favorite paragraph from their website: “In addition to helping today’s patients, we focus on helping those of tomorrow by training local surgeons on techniques so they may perform surgeries with expertise. Our long-term goal is to teach others to do what we do so the region can take care of its own. Once this goal is reached, Free to Smile Foundation doctors and volunteers find new sites in impoverished lands for cleft lip/palate repairs and surgical hands-on training.” Yes. Thank you, Free to Smile, for going beyond good intentions to actually doing good. I got to see this in action on their trip. This is creating sustainable change.
Thanks to last year’s fall weddings and our weddings so far this year, we have donated eight life-changing surgeries through Free to Smile. So grateful to all of you who have chosen me to photograph your wedding, and to Free to Smile for the great work they do. If you are looking for more ways to give back with your wedding, check out all of the wonderful vendors at Black Sheep Bride!
May we all learn to go beyond good intentions, and work towards doing good – creating real, sustainable change and empowering the good people of this world. I, for one, still have lots to learn and consider. If you have further thoughts on this (critical ones, too!), I would LOVE to hear them.
P.S. This may be the longest post I’ve ever written. Thanks for sticking with me to the end!