Aging Out: What Happens When Orphans Grow Up
Who do you picture when you think of orphans?
A row of cribs full of crying babies. A bright-eyed little girl smiling from the top of a fundraising pamphlet. A toddler on a sponsorship website. A group of boys, laughing as they kick a soccer ball around a dirt field. A pigtailed little girl shyly meeting her prospective adoptive parents for the first time.
That’s fine. Sometimes, that’s what an orphan looks like.
But it also looks like a teenager gazing wistfully at a college brochure. A young man with no one to turn to when he loses his job. A girl standing on a street corner, hoping to earn enough to eat the next day. A boy who’s found his first family in a gang who promises him protection. A housekeeper who can’t read because she’s never finished middle school. A new father with no father to ask for advice.
Each year, approximately 14,050,000 children turn 18 and age out of the system. They cease to be included in the total number of orphans worldwide. They do not, however, cease to be a vulnerable population.
Many have never interviewed for a job or signed a lease before, and have no one to show them how. Some don’t fully understand what sex is, or how they can get pregnant. Some are scared of living on their own, having been told how lucky they are to live safely within the walls of an institution, and quickly turn to gangs or men to protect them from all the perceived evil. Some are quick victims for human traffickers, having no one to miss them when they disappear. Some of the statistics are frightening. According to a study of formerly-institutionalized youth in Russia:
10% commit suicide.
40% become homeless.
60% of girls turn to prostitution.
70% of boys are convicted of a crime.
If we are concerned with caring for the orphan (and we should be, if we’re followers of Christ), then we should still be concerned with caring for the orphan after he or she turns 18. Our concern for them shouldn’t fade when they’re not cute anymore or not living in orphanages anymore. If anything, our concern should increase once they’ve lost whatever community or support they received as children.
Too many stories of kids aging out of the system end in violence, illness, perpetuated generational cycles, and death.
But there are ways to replace those endings with joy, growth, health, and newness. Success stories.
Here in Huehue, we run a transitional living program called “El Puente” (“The Bridge”). The program is designed to aid the teens and young adults who are transitioning from institutional to independent living. The goal is to prepare these young people for life on their own by teaching them the basics of life outside of an institution and coupling this teaching with the supervision and guidance of a loving and trustworthy adult. We’re looking to expand this program in the future by partnering our young people with adults from local churches who can take a more active role in spiritual mentorship and helping our kids find their place in our community.
We’ve also provided job training and jobs for teens and young adults from our community- in El Puente and otherwise- in our coffee shop, Fuego Cafe.
We’re always learning new approaches to best prepare these teens for the future, but we’ve already seen the fruits of our labor in some of the young adults who have participated in our programs. We’ve seen teenage boys excel at their first jobs and make strides towards turning talent into a career. We’ve seen young women learn to support their children on their own. We’ve seen both boys and girls embrace the outside world with open arms and blossom as they become valuable parts of the community.
Unfortunately, the population of vulnerable teens and young adults- aged-out orphans and young single mothers and others with no family support system- doesn’t end outside of Huehue. This group exists worldwide, and so too does the call to continue to come alongside them and serve them.
Much of this call is not financial or material, but relational.
Many of the problems faced by kids aging out of institutional care can be solved with relationships.
Of course, a family is ideal. Adopting or fostering teenagers is vital to ensure that they’re connected to a family well before they’re truly on their own. But another important step is mentorship. Mentorships, friendships, and other supportive, trusting relationships with these kids provide a start to a much-needed support system that individuals often lose upon aging out of institutions. They teach these kids that the world isn’t scary, and that someone has their back when they need it. Often, relationships like these ensure that the young people know how to buy groceries or pay bills or pump gas- things that we take for granted, but that no one has bothered to explain to many teens who have no one to turn to for guidance.
These relationships can look very different, because the needs of each young person are very different. The important thing is that all of them need people to be there for them, to demonstrate God’s love for them, and to come alongside them as they take their places as adults.
They need family, or at least something closer to family than most institutions and systems can provide them with.
Maybe they need you.