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Gregory's Story: Why Our Approach to Orphan Care Matters

Last month I attended the funeral of a young man I never knew. To be exact, I think we had met a time or two, but to say I knew him would be far from the truth. Still, I went to watch him be buried into the ground. To honor his short life. To mourn his death. To stand by our youth as they said goodbye to a friend, a brother. To remember the reality of what could be for this group of people I so dearly love.

His name was Gregory, and I have promised his friends I would tell his story well.

Gregory was four years old when his grandmother brought him to the orphanage. The details about his parents are unclear but they had both passed away. According to his friends and former staff, Gregory was a good kid and a hard worker. Although he struggled in school, he loved spending time in the mechanic shop working with his hands and learning how to fix things.

Gregory was by no means a troublemaker, but once he reached 15 he starting finding ways to sneak out at night to party with other teenagers in the neighborhood. Although it was well known among the kids that he did this quite often, it went unnoticed by the staff and administration for quite a while. The morning he was finally caught was his last. He was dismissed immediately and sent back to his grandmother’s house.

Unable to afford school, and now another mouth to feed for his grandmother who already struggled to get by, Gregory knew he needed to find work to help make ends meet. So he started cutting and selling ice, which earned him about $100 a month.

Life was hard, but he managed. He worked to survive each day, but felt as though he had no hope of a good future worth living well for. Orphaned by the death of his parents, abandoned by his grandmother, and now kicked out of the orphanage, where did he belong? Did anyone really love him?

It didn’t take long for him to turn to alcohol to mask his hopelessness and sex to try and find the love he so desperately longed for. Still a young teenager, cutting ice became his job during the day and partying his job at night.

Within a few years one of the girls Gregory was sleeping with became pregnant. Uncomfortable by his lifestyle habits, the new mother ran away before he even had a chance to meet the child. It was at this point his friends say he started to spiral out of control. More alcohol to numb the pain. More sex to try to find love.

By the time he was 19 Gregory was diagnosed with HIV. Depressed and alone, he never bothered seeking treatment. One friend said it was almost as if he was okay with the idea of dying because living for him was just too hard. For the next few years he continued to party as much as he could until one day both his lifestyle and his illness eventually killed him.

“It could have been any one of us,” one of the boys at Emmaus House said. He’s right. Gregory’s story could so easily have been any one of theirs. And it is this reality that has kept my mind racing and my heart aching ever since Gregory’s funeral.

As Tanya wrote last week on her post Fear of the Future, many of the youth at Emmaus House struggle to trust us completely as they make goals for their future. And this is a prime example of why. Even though we have been with them for years, they still fear that one day they will mess up and we, too, will abandon them, leaving them to figure out life all alone. Because they have watched so many friends leave orphanage life only to end up homeless, jobless, in prison, or even dead like Gregory, they often don’t even trust themselves with the ability to have a better life.

As Gerome (our Haitian administrator) sat with me this week and shared his memories of Gregory he said something so profound I had to write it down. “As Christians we are called to bear good fruit. And when we send kids out before they are ready it becomes very difficult to produce good fruit.”

This is true of all kids, not just those raised in an orphanage. All good parents aim to release their kids out into the world only when they are ready. But the difference is the safety net. When I left my parent’s house at age 19 I knew if I found myself falling, I could fall back home. Youth aging out of orphanages do not have such a luxury. If they fall it will likely be into gangs, into the arms of someone paying for sex, into drugs and alcohol, or even into their grave.

I wanted to share Gregory’s story not to reflect on past mistakes made by him and his previous caregivers. Rather, I want his story and his death to propel us all into meaningful conversations about our approach to orphan care. Because Gerome is right. As Christians, producing fruit is our calling and how God will measure the efficiency of our labor. And if institutionalized orphanages produce more bad fruit than good, then perhaps it is time we reconsider how we care for orphaned children all over the world.

What makes Gregory’s story so sad is that he never really had hope, and so eventually he just gave up. This is why Emmaus House’s mission statement from the very beginning has to be “restore hope” to orphaned youth. We know first hand that hope, or a lack there of, can be the difference between success and failure, faith and doubt, or even life and death.

As I walked out of the graveyard where Gregory now rests, I looked to Gerome. “Gerome, we have to make sure this never happens again,” I said to him while choking back tears. “I know,” he replied “We are going to do our very best.”

Emmaus House exists to help young adults like Gregory. We are here to embrace youth who have grown up without the security of parents and who need a place to belong, to grow, and to prepare for life in Haiti. Had Emmaus House been there for Gregory, who knows how differently his story could have been. If he had the love and security he needed as a teenager, maybe his hope could have been restored. Considering the “what ifs” in Gregory’s life won’t change the past, but Emmaus House is here now and is committed to changing the futures for as many orphaned youth in Cap Haitien, Haiti as we can.

CLICK HERE to learn more about the mission of Emmaus House and how you can get involved.

~ Jillian



To learn more information on orphanages in Haiti, this article is jammed packed with everything you need to know:

Blog posts about why orphanages often don’t work:

Don’t feel like reading? Check out this TEDTalks:

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