How a Tennessee Pharmaceutical Entrepreneur Got Into the Business of Saving Orphanages Worldwide

Millions of kids depend on orphan care facilities, but homes are struggling to stay open as donor support decreases.

(Photo: ServingOrphans/Instagram)

Jul 10, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Ajay Singh has written about human rights, health, and development issues for Time magazine, The Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press.

When Emily Glover traveled to Kenya in the summer of 2014 to visit the Agape Hope Children’s Home, an orphanage in the capital of Nairobi, she was struck by the story of two young sisters. The girls, ages nine and six, had been abandoned by their father when they were both younger than five years old. Their mother was addicted to a highly potent bootlegged brew called changaa, a Swahili word that translates to “kill me quick.”

Every morning, the mother would lock her children in the house before heading out to drink in the slum where they lived. The children only survived because the older sister climbed out the window each day to find food in trash bins nearby.

“One night, the mother committed suicide in a drunken stupor,” says Glover, who works for Serving Orphans Worldwide. The nonprofit organization, located in the mountainous town of Bristol, Tennessee, funds and supports 43 orphan care facilities in more than 20 countries on five continents, including Agape Hope.

The sisters were severely malnourished when Kenyan authorities brought them to the orphanage, but within a few years, the girls were nursed back to health and are now “well enough to be adopted in Kenya or abroad,” Glover says.

So, Why Should You Care? There are more than 153 million orphans around the world, 14.5 million of whom turn 16 every year with no family to belong to and no place to call home, according to the United Nations. However, many orphanages have seen increasingly less funding since the 2009 economic downturn, according to SOW. Its goal: to keep at-risk orphanages from closing, with the motto to rescue, train, and sustain. “We’re keeping an orphanage’s doors open,” says Glover. “For many of these children, if the doors of an orphanage weren’t open, they would be street children.”

(Photos: ServingOrphans/Instagram)

Serving Orphans Worldwide is the brainchild of John Gregory, the owner of a Tennessee-based pharmaceutical company who initially provided medicines to organizations assisting orphanages. But he soon noticed that the efforts of many organizations to build or invest in residential care facilities for children were being hampered by prohibitively high project costs. In 2009, Gregory decided to establish a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a worldwide network of donor groups that could help support the operational costs of orphanages.

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SOW’s rescue phase focuses on elevating the quality of care at each of the homes, which the organization does primarily by funding special projects and ongoing operational costs. Each year, one of the organization’s six full-time staff members travels around the world to assess the facilities it supports. “We look for any urgent needs and whether any elements of care are being improperly executed,” says Glover.

Emily Glover and a young friend. (Photo: Courtesy Emily Glover)

During a recent visit to Agape Hope, for example, Glover discovered that because of the high cost of soap in Kenya, children were being given detergent soap to use for both laundry and bathing.

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“That wasn’t good for their skin, so we helped supplement the facility’s budget so that proper skin care could be provided for the children,” Glover says. “That might seem like a small thing to us in America, but using the right soap meant that the children were less susceptible to diseases that could infect them through cracked skin on their feet or sensitive areas such as elbows.”

Next, the organization works closely with orphanages to train caregivers, administrators, and directors on how to be more effective in their roles, with the ultimate goal being for each home to be sustainable and independent in the near future. Across the board, the priority is for every orphanage to help children get placed into foster care or with adoptive families as soon as possible.

(Photo: ServingOrphans/Instagram)

Although SOW, founded just five years ago, is still learning the ropes of aid and development work, some of the orphanages it supports are already making exemplary progress. One of them, Gentle Hands, in the Philippines, successfully placed more than 30 children into adoption last year, Glover says. “We’re learning from their model and trying to apply their techniques to other orphanages where adoption is not yet occurring.”

Despite SOWs successes to date, the organization still grapples with the negative public image of orphanages.

“Orphan care is very sensitive, and when most people think about orphanages, they envision a place where children are mistreated or not able to relate to adults who love and care about them,” says Glover. “We’re trying to break that stereotype.”