A Deeper Look into the Development of an Orphan
The media has trained us to see orphaned children in a particularly dim and ominous light; sad and destined for struggle; for hardship. Is this far from reality? I believe this is a question left in the hands of those who are in the position to mentor, raise or provide institution for any child.
As of 2015, UNICEF estimated that about 140 million children around the world are orphans, 10 million of these children come from Latin America. This term “orphan” refers to children who have lost one or both parents; not that they are in need of an institution, new family or care facility, though some may be. UNICEF differentiates this definition to try and raise awareness to families who are in need of support, such as a single grandparent who is unexpectedly now raising a young child. Without such support, these children may be subject to an institution after all.
Heart4Honduras focuses on children in San Pedro Sula who are in need of an institution, care team or mentor in order to have a home and stay off the streets.
Can a child who lives in an impersonal institution, or who is subject to any form of neglect (even children outside of the defined orphan), be continuously put at a disadvantage later in life? One of the most famous studies that examined orphaned children was a study conducted in Romania. Orphaned children were followed into their teenaged years, when they were taken in to complete imaging studies of their brains. This study found that these children who had been subject to orphanage had less white matter than comparable children in local families. Grossly, this meant these children had smaller brains than similar children who were not subject to orphanage. Nerve circuits involved in general cognitive performance, emotion, maintaining attention and executive function, and sensory processing were significantly impaired. The implication behind this fact is huge.
What does this mean?
These results were interpreted based on the assumption that these children did not have a significant, single parental figure. Instead, shift workers were responsible for caring for these children, and many times personal relationships were not formed. A child’s early developmental years are crucial for making such connections, though there is evidence that the loss of these connections can be reversible. What complicates this further is the element of stress : these children are introduced to chronic stressors such as feeling [mentally] alone, as well as a constant change in “home”. Stress primarily effects the hippocampus, which is thought to be the center for emotion, memory, and the autonomic nervous system. Although these are skills many of us take for granted, a child without the ability to trust another individual, control emotion, maintain attention or focus on their ability to control each decision they make … is a child who is set up for hardship.
Moving into a supportive, familial environment can teach a child to form deeply personal relationships, to trust, to hope. These are functions that can truly change the chemistry of the brain. When a person begins to a “hope”, there is a release of neurochemicals called endorphins and enkephalins which actually mimic the effects of morphine. This allows the brain to enter a sort of recovery mode, a mode which cannot be entered by those who are constantly in a reparation mentality.
To hope refers to a person’s goal oriented experiences. Someone who holds hope has an idea of what they want their future to look like. Hope can also be defined as a positive motivational state that is based on an interactively derived sense of successful (a) agency (goal-directed energy) and (b) pathways (planning to meet goals). A paradigm shift like this is as important as an elementary education in terms of the development of a person.
It is for this reason Heart4Honduras places such an emphasis on the growth of the child, not only in providing resources for children in need. By educating children to be responsible, to provide service, and to understand that a whole cannot be made from anything but its smaller pieces, they can build essential interpersonal skills that will lead them to maintain a successful mindset and character. In helping to create new connections, we hope to offset those that were not able to thrive.
There is nothing more powerful than a child with confidence.
Limits are self imposed – lets create something great together.