Guest post by Sebilu Bodja, Ethiopia Country Director for Bethany Christian Services.
As an Ethiopian, I was fortunate to have been raised in the church—both of my parents were Christians—and that clearly influenced my decision to choose a career that involves helping others. Specifically, I oversee the work of Bethany Christian Services that focuses on orphans and vulnerable children—“the least of these”—in Ethiopia.
In my country, there are approximately five million vulnerable children. Approximately one million of them have lost one or both parents due to HIV/AIDS. Many of these children may live with a single parent or extended families but have been defined as vulnerable because they do not get enough food, are not in school, or lack adequate shelter. Some of these children may sleep in a family home at night but roam the streets during the day. They are basically street children because their parents cannot afford to send them to school or care for them during the day.
Every child deserves to live in a loving caring family. For those poverty-stricken families who are facing the possibility of placing their children in an orphanage because they are unable to care for them, we provide financial assistance so the children can attend school, as well as job training for the parents. This is more than a handout because the overall focus of the program is to help a family eventually be able to support themselves and keep their family together.
For children who have been orphaned, we have instituted a Foster-to-Adopt program. Traditionally, Ethiopians would never take in a child who was not a relative, but by working with local churches we have been successful in recruiting foster parents who will accept a child from an orphanage into their homes. And of the families we have recruited, fifty percent have made the decision to adopt their foster child.
Recently we added a sports program to help foster parents—especially fathers—bond better with their foster children. Unlike the United States where children play in age-group leagues or in school sports programs, in my country there are not many opportunities for children to play sports. The common interest of sports simply gives parents an opportunity to connect with their foster child, and then use that interest to talk to the child about spiritual values such as love, fairness, and honesty.
When we introduced foster care, many of my fellow countrymen were skeptical. The government especially had serious doubts about the program because in our language we don’t even have a term for foster care. But we were confident because we chose to work with church families. We knew they would respond to the biblical message that children are precious and important to God, and they did! This made a big impression on the government. Now government officials from other countries are visiting to see how we do it, so the church has been a critical component of our program.
Thanks to Christian families in Ethiopia and the generous support of people in North America, vulnerable children in my country are receiving the love that every child deserves.