Aristotle was one. So was Cyrus the Great Saint Nicholas Alexander Hamilton, Herbert Hoover and J.R.R. Tolkien. Even Marilyn Monroe, John Lennon and Steve Jobs were members of this special group of individuals: they were all orphans.
Orphans have often appeared in literature. Tom Sawyer lived with Aunt Polly, Batman and Robin became crime-fighters as a way of avenging the death of their parents, Harry Potter is an orphan, and so is Tarzan. My own first meeting with an orphan was by way of the character Pip in Great Expectations.
When my daughter and her school buddies decided to find a group of real-life orphans to help, I was delighted. What could be a better aspiration for young people than reaching out to help those less fortunate?
We quickly ran into a snag, though: Orphanages are all but gone from the landscape of society—at least in the USA.
What happened to the orphans?
Orphanages were once the primary means of caring for children who had no parents or relatives able to watch over them. Early in the 20th century, there were upwards of 1000 orphanages in the United States, averaging 100 children each—most were founded by religious groups, but other non-sectarian charitable organizations were also involved.
Perhaps the most famous of them all is Boys Town. Founded in 1917 by Fr. Edward Flanagan, the orphanage was the subject of a 1938 film starring Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney. By the mid 1960’s, though, orphanages in the USA had pretty well disappeared. They were replaced by the new Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) social welfare program and a move towards foster homes in a family setting.
How can you be sure your gifts are reaching the children?
We gave up on our hope of finding an orphanage nearby—one that would allow face-to-face interaction with the children. We began looking to other countries where orphanages are still abundant. An internet search turned up plenty of them; but how could we avoid being scammed? How could we be sure our money, supplies and letters would actually be going to the orphans instead of lining the pockets of hucksters who used the kids for selfish reasons?
We were fortunate. Once the seed had been planted, it wasn’t long before we found out about an orphanage in Quito, Ecuador—on that is based on a family-style living environment and is solely supported by a USA-based company that is closely involved with the work on the ground. We decided to trust them to oversee our monthly donation.
What about you and your family? Do you have a heart for orphans, but aren’t sure how to go about finding the right organization to support?
Other than that … good luck. It’s a jungle out there, and plenty of well-meaning folks are inadvertantly supporting corruption rather than children. I have heard the Charity Navigator website is a trustworthy resource, though I can’t personally vouch for it. Other organizations, like World Vision and Catholic Charities have stellar reputations.
Tips to be sure you aren’t getting scammed:
- Be sure to find out what percentage of your donation will go to hands-on support. Many well-respected, IRS-registered charities spend more on salaries for officers than for the causes they champion. There will always be administrative expenses, but they should not take the lion’s share of the income from donors. Check Charity Navigator’s “10 Highly Paid CEOs at Low-Rated Charities” article for an eye-opening experience.
- Don’t fall for sales pitches. If you don’t personally know the people you are dealing with make sure to check them out thoroughly before donating. If the group is legitimate, they will be able to provide information about themselves openly and will have references you can follow up on. If you smell a rat, it’s probably because there is one.
- Beware of giving anyone access to your financial information. Scammers are especially good at getting your okay for a small donation, then reaching in to take a large one. Here again, be sure you know whom you are dealing with before you open your purse or your heart to an emotional appeal.
That said, don’t let the crooks keep you from helping those in need. By taking a few precautionary steps, you can get matched up with a legitimate and trustworthy charity. There are plenty of them out there. Just beware—the scammers will play off your good intentions. With diligence, you excess can make a big difference in the life of someone who needs your help.
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