Many families have talked about orphanages as pseudo “baby homes” and have focused on their own child’s young age, perhaps the first year or so, being spent at an orphanage. That background can create the perception that there are young, healthy babies that primarily make up the residents of an orphanage. Currently in China, that is rarely the case. It is important for adoptive children to be prepared for what they will experience during a volunteer assignment.
In China most children, who reside at orphanages have a disability and oftentimes it is a significant one. It is helpful to have discussions with your children about volunteering at an orphanage and get a sense if that will be too emotionally difficult or complex. All facilities are not open to such visits either, so while it may be feasible at some facilities, it will not be allowed at many others. If one visits a government run Chinese orphanage, it is typically part of the "Social Welfare Institute" (SWI), which also houses elderly residents and mentally ill patients. This should also be part of the discussion and can be covered under a larger family preparation discussion to explore society care programs. For example, a family can undertake research to see who typically cares for elderly parents, physically or mentally disabled children in North America and who provides care for such individuals in Asia. This type of “meta-discussion” can be useful for both adults and children as a family begins preparation for a return visit.
Some children residing at an orphanage may have minor or easily repairable disabilities such as a cleft lip/ palate and adoptive kids may easily recognize that this is a condition that can surgically corrected and the child can lead a typical life. Plan to have some family discussions about minor and major disabilities prior to trip departure. It is important to allow kids to process and understand the volunteer assignment BEFORE embarking on a trip. For some kids volunteering can be highly empowering and may release them from some guilt feelings for “being chosen” and not remaining in an orphanage setting. For others, it can induce some "survivor guilt" feelings, so it is a type of experience that one should be prepared to support and assist your child navigate such complexities.
Stay connected, support them and create an experience that you know will fit the emotional maturity of your child. Plan ahead and have “talk times” on a regular basis regarding your upcoming trip. Allowing them to assist in the planning and preparation details can be extremely helpful for kids and eliminate some of the powerlessness that occasionally surprises parents as families prepare for a heritage trip. Seek out professional support prior to a trip is a wise choice, so you can provide the best tools and support in advance of this type of important life experience.
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