An ancient Chinese proverb teaches us that, “A crisis is an opportunity riding the dangerous wind.”
This is the story of how the first Alongsiders movement grew out of the orphan crisis in Cambodia...
It was 2001.
An estimated 220,000 Cambodians were "living" with HIV/AIDS. Since no treatment was available in Cambodia at the time, they were dying at an estimated rate of 15,000 people per year. More than 150,000 had died since the epidemic began in 1991, and they would continue to die at high rates for another five years.
Many Cambodian children lost one or both parents to AIDS, and worldwide there was a mad scramble to open new orphanages, urged on by statistics predicting millions of AIDS orphans. (An orphan in most countries, including Cambodia, is defined as a child who has lost at least one parent.)
Even so the vast majority of AIDS orphans were cared for by surviving parents and relatives.
At that time, Craig Greenfield was overseeing a community-based health program in a Phnom Penh slum. As the number of orphans grew, rather than starting an orphanage, the program came alongside surviving family members and relatives to help them care for the orphaned children themselves. (You can read about this story, including why they didn't start an orphanage, in Craig's book, The Urban Halo.)
The community-based care program was successful, but there was a noticeable gap. As Craig saw it, the children and families needed "love, discipleship, coaching and mentoring - but only a movement of people would meet that need."
One day while wrestling with this challenge he had an "a-ha" moment. The local churches, he thought, had many young people who could do the work - they just needed to be mobilized.
The first Alongsiders were young adults recruited from relatively well-off churches and communities in Phnom Penh and assigned as big brothers and big sisters for slum children orphaned by AIDS (or at risk of being orphaned).
It worked to a degree, but some changes had to be made. Two of the most important changes were:
1) the decision to recruit Alongsiders from churches located WITHIN slums and marginalized communities, and
2) giving Alongsiders the responsibility to prayerfully choose little brothers and sisters themselves from the most vulnerable children in their own neighborhoods. The result has been a growing movement of young people at the margins.
Now it's 2015 and we continue to hear about the orphan crisis in Cambodia, even though the number of orphans has dramatically decreased. What we don't hear enough is:
- that 90 - 95 percent of orphans are being cared for by their surviving parents and relatives
- that studies have shown poverty, not a lack of parents or any other single issue, is the most significant indicator for whether a child will be put in an orphanage.
The good news - perhaps surprising - is that so many orphans and vulnerable children are being cared for by parents and relatives.
The challenge is that many single parents and grandparents in economically poor communities need support.
It's often a very tenuous thread that prevents orphans and the most vulnerable children from being sent to orphanages or put at risk in other ways (ranging from abuse and neglect to human trafficking). What breaks the thread? A crisis without any means to fall back on, the ongoing stresses of poverty, the burdens of discouragement and isolation, and a lack of resources to provide for a child's education.
That's where Alongsiders comes in.
Alongsiders is an orphan care movement, but not in any "top-down" sense that orphan care may imply. Alongsiders, as an organization, empowers young Cambodians, via local churches, to provide practical support for orphans in their own communities. Simple as their actions may be, this helps parents and relatives, who are often stretched to the extremes, care for their own orphaned and vulnerable children.
Forty-one percent of the little brothers and sisters in Alongsiders Cambodia are orphans. Many of the remaining fifty-nine percent have parents, but they are in the care of their grandparents or relatives for various reasons.
Here is how one Alongsider (himself orphaned) describes the impact Alongsiders can have on orphans who become their little brothers and sisters:
The Alongsiders movement grew out of a major crisis facing the nation of Cambodia - the crisis of neglected and impoverished children. It is the same crisis that so many developing nations face in the world today.
The seeds of hope and faith are always there. But sometimes it takes a crisis to nourish and encourage their growth.
Join us in praying for life to come from death, good to emerge from tragedy, and young Christians to rise up all over the world in response to the crisis facing their orphaned children.