Forum to address key issues, provide hope amid global crises affecting orphans and vulnerable children

By Timothy Goropevsek |
Orphanage boy
Frank Mckenna / Unsplash

“The state of orphans and vulnerable children was improving for decades, then suddenly one crisis hit after another,” says Karmen Friesen, principal coordinator of World Without Orphans (WWO), a global movement that seeks to mobilize the Church to respond to the needs of vulnerable children in every nation.

Pointing to United Nations figures about a significant decrease in the number of people living in poverty globally, along with improvements in health, education, and access to water and sanitation, Friesen admits that things looked very hopeful but then took an unexpected drastic turn for the worse within a very short period of time.

“We could never have imagined what these last few years would bring. It seems like the crises around us keep multiplying. From pandemics to wars, from earthquakes to floods, from opioid epidemics to broken families, children face increasing vulnerability and orphanhood,” he says.

Some of the sobering statistics say that in the last 20 years, the number of forcibly displaced people has grown more than six times - from 16 million to 110 million, which includes 43.3 million children. Orphanhood due to parents dying from opioids, disease, wars, and disasters continues to grow, and over 10.5 million children have been orphaned by COVID-19 alone.

However, despite these seemingly overwhelming numbers, there is also reason for hope, he says.

Every child should be able to grow up in a safe and loving family, know their Heavenly Father, and reach their God-given potential.

In an exclusive interview with Christian Daily International ahead of WWO’s third global forum in Chiang Mai, Thailand later this month, Friesen says the current challenges only serve as reminder of the importance of this Church-centered movement to tackle these issues head-on. The event comes at a critical time to refresh and strengthen the leaders of churches and ministries that have been involved in serving vulnerable children and strategize how to respond together more effectively to address some of the root causes of orphanhood.

“Children always end up bearing the brunt of crises, but God is calling us to imagine… a world without orphans. Every child should be able to grow up in a safe and loving family, know their Heavenly Father, and reach their God-given potential,” he says, referring to WWO’s mission statement.

For their third global forum, held from February 29 to March 4, Friesen says they expect more than 500 leaders from over 70 countries. Recognizing the vastly different contexts in each region and country, WWO’s focus is on equipping churches and Christian leaders in each nation to respond to the unique situation they face at grassroots.

WWO Global Forum 2016
Participants of the first World Without Orphans Global Forum in 2016. | WWO

“Our mission is only ever to call and equip national leaders to collaborate to accelerate solving their own country's orphaned and vulnerable child crisis,” Friesen explains. “Vision and activities must be led by national leaders living in their own country.  There is no real opportunity for growth of the vision and movement in a country if the vision is not locally owned and led.”

Vision and activities must be led by national leaders living in their own country.

The challenges are manifold and complex, requiring not only the mobilization of local churches to support families at risk but also engaging with governments and changing laws to improve the ways that orphans and families-at-risk can be helped. Sometimes, it could also mean to help churches change the perspectives among congregations how they view adoption or offer programs and counseling to ensure that those who serve at the frontlines don’t burn out amid the overwhelming needs in their communities.

Apart from a few general sessions, the forum will thus also feature a wide range of more than 50 choice sessions where experts and practitioners present and facilitate conversations that are meant to equip participants with the practical tools they need. Emphasis is on evidence-based approaches and reality-proven principles, and a recognition that what may work in one country may require adjustments and contextualization in another.

Asked about success stories that could offer ideas how to solve some of the deeply rooted issues, Friesen says that he was encouraged by ten country initiatives that were catalyzed in 2023, including Argentina and Panama.

“This past summer, our team trained orphanage directors and other nonprofit leaders in Panama and then hosted a roundtable for 40 evangelical, nonprofit, and government leaders to facilitate them exploring how Christians might partner across the nation to make a much more significant difference together,” he recalls, and adds: “We were amazed to sit in the room with government ministers and see the opportunity the Church has to partner with the government to move kids from orphanages to families and strengthen families with the gospel and economic, education, and parenting support.”

Strengthening families is at the heart of WWO’s strategy for both prevention and intervention. Preventing children from becoming orphans in the first place is the ideal scenario. But if that is not possible, then moving from institutionalized care in orphanages to family-based models is among the key concerns for those involved in orphan ministry today.

“Scripture is clear that God's design has always been children in safe and loving families.”

“Scripture is clear that God's design has always been children in safe and loving families,” Friesen says. He points to Ukraine where the movement started back in 2010 as churches came together to foster and adopt thousands of children who were previously living in orphanages. The transformative change that this brought about at that time led the movement to spread to other countries.

“Romania Without Orphans began because leaders there were inspired by what was happening in Ukraine.  Over the last ten years, they have helped change the adoption laws in the country, and they have seen the number of domestic adoptions increase annually,” he says.

But the ways the churches and individual families and believers respond varies greatly because the needs and opportunities are different, Friesen emphasizes.

“We always want to ask ourselves what part God is calling us to play and how we can work with others to multiply help for vulnerable children and families.  We are always amazed at how God puts children and families in our path who need His people to engage so that their families can be strong, and their children can thrive,” he says.

Offering some practical examples, Friesen mentions that, “For some of us, that means single moms or vulnerable families struggling with addiction or homelessness.  For others, that might mean refugees that God is bringing to our doorstep. For some, it is engaging in adoption and foster care or supporting families that do.”

“We can't all foster or adopt, but we can all do something to respond to God's clear call to meet the needs of the orphan, the widow, the stranger, and the poor.  And in almost every case, we will be helping strengthen families so that children can thrive,” Friesen says.