The Virtue of Restoring Humanity: Quality vs. Quantity
By Herbert Lee “Boo” Buchanan
Since 2006 a lot of wonderful people from many different cultures have collaborated on a variety of worthy projects to help make our world a better place in the name of Restore Humanity (RH). This September will mark RH’s 10-year anniversary and I couldn’t be more grateful to find myself living a life (happily married to RH founder and CEO, Sarah Fennel) that is to a significant degree, organized around the work we’re doing. In fact, I love it. A lot.
I am usually only asked to edit or co-author so what you’re presently reading represents my first solo contribution to the RH blog. What I want to talk about is an idea that animates our organization and is reflected in the nature of our projects but is unfortunately not always well understood. When it comes to caring for children in need we believe in focusing our attention and resources on providing exceptional care for a few rather than providing a marginal—but not insignificant amount of help to a great many. Many commendable organizations focus their efforts on feeding, clothing, and providing medical care to as many people as possible. This type of work is as awesome as it is necessary. Life is precious but also (to varying degrees) very difficult. Anything we can do to help one another or improve each other’s quality of life is surely worth doing. However, in my attempt to explain the virtue of our principal project focusing on just 19 kids (the JCO Children’s Center) I’ll begin by directing your attention to RH’s core values. You will hopefully notice that the very first one is a somewhat idiosyncratic, if not suspiciously assertive, version of the Golden Rule. It reads as follows:
Golden Rule: We treat others the way we want to be treated. This means avoiding sensationalizing and perpetuating misconceptions and negative or clichéd stereotypes. The best way to restore and preserve humanity is to treat the people we serve with the dignity and respect we would want shown to us if we were similarly situated. Being compassionate requires empathy and kindness—not pity.
If I were a kid who had suffered familial tragedy—let’s say the loss of one or both parents, then I would want someone to take care of me. I would want to grow up in a safe environment that kept me well nourished with a consistent and healthy diet. I would want access to healthcare whenever and to whatever extent needed, and to be aided and encouraged in my pursuit of the best education I could possibly attain. Perhaps most of all, I would want to love and be loved in return. Under this horrible circumstance I would want all of these things for myself. And while I may or may not know you personally I’d venture a (not so) wild guess that you, if similarly situated, would want all of these things for yourself as well. Thanks to the generosity of our donors and the prodigious efforts of my wife and our friend/partner/Kenyan mother Mrs. Opot (and many others besides) we find ourselves with both the means and opportunity to provide all these things for our kiddos. Their needs however, are not hypothetical and empathy is the *only* motive we need to meet them.
Prior to starting RH Sarah spent several months volunteering in a children’s home in South Africa and visited another in Kenya. She witnessed first hand the good, bad, and ugly of various institutional efforts to take care of large numbers of children. She saw that good intentions weren’t necessarily always enough, as there can unfortunately be dire consequences for the kids when compassion isn’t accompanied by competence or when resources and personnel are in staggeringly short supply. The gaining of these particular insights took an emotional toll on Sarah but proved profoundly useful once she and Mrs. Opot agreed to create a children’s home of their own. With it being named after Mrs. Opot’s late husband (James Christopher Opot) it was decided that the JCO Children’s Center would be run efficiently as an institution but would need to feel to its occupants like home—like a family. The amount of land available, the size of the building they wanted to build on it, the amount of staff required to reliably maintain it and take care of all the kids in it around the clock, as well as the multitude of resources required (attentional, financial, emotional, intellectual etc.) to keep the whole project ongoing once started were of course all major considerations regarding how to proceed, but mainly it came down to one question: how many kids could we have at the JCO and still have it feel like a home? They started out with just 10 kids initially but decided that 20-ish would be the maximum.
There is an encyclopedic body of research strongly suggesting that healthy cognitive and emotional development (the kind YOU as a loving parent would want for your own children) depends largely on the quality and consistency of a child’s familial relationships. Having visited the JCO on three separate occasions I can tell you that our kiddos are extremely close with one another. They intuitively understand and instinctively appreciate one another in a way that only someone who has also suffered tragedy can—and yet they’re also happy in the way kids should be happy before they become burdened with all the obligations and responsibilities that (irritatingly) come along with becoming an adult. They go to school together in the morning, they play games with each other in the afternoon when they return home, and they help each other with their homework at night before they go to bed. They share a strong solidarity that’s further cultivated by the outstanding and attentive staff that feeds them three square meals a day, washes their clothes, and keeps them safe while they sleep. That’s not to say that everything is perfect or that they always get along because it’s not and they don’t. They fight. Sometimes they fight a lot...but they tend to do so when one of the younger boys takes a toy that perhaps doesn’t belong to him or when someone cheats while playing UNO or Candyland—and that’s my point. They fight, not as orphans concerned about whether or not food and space to sleep will somehow become scarce, but rather as siblings in the same loving family in a shared household led by (more or less) the same responsible parental figures during the entirety of their childhood and adolescent experience at the JCO. There is a threshold number of kids beyond which there would be both a diminishment in the household’s camaraderie and a compromising of the staff’s ability to form the kind of close-knit relationships with our kiddos that they presently enjoy. It is our considered opinion that more than 20-ish kids represents that threshold for us and so under 20-ish kids we will stay.
Survival is generally a good thing and if you can help other people survive that’s even better but the key to understanding what we’re doing at the JCO Children’s Center is to wrap your head around the fact that merely surviving is just not the same thing as thriving. We want our kids to thrive just like you or anyone else would want their kids to thrive. Our oldest kid Jerim was the first to graduate high school and is presently being sponsored through our RH Scholars program to attend the best university in Nairobi. He is an impressively enthusiastic student of International Business and has a G.P.A of 3.6. Vincent, a young man who didn’t live at the JCO but whom we helped through our outreach program to get him through high school is another student we’ve sponsored via our RH Scholars program. He’s attending the University of Arkansas and is studying to be a civil engineer. And there are more bright young minds where they came from primed to follow in their footsteps. Without being coached at all, many of them have expressed some desire (with varying degrees of ambition) to improve their community and the world at large. Sirembe is a place devoid of electricity, paved roads, and running water. What do you suppose the impact of producing its own successful businessman and civil engineer will be when both of them have such strong civic and philanthropic energy and motivation? What if Juma, who by all accounts is a Rhodes Scholar-in-waiting, becomes a brilliant scientist? What if Violet becomes a gifted surgeon and Pamela a formidable lawyer? They’ve all got the potential to do great things in this life but those things are best facilitated by these kids receiving the kind of love, support, and structure that allows and encourages them to become the best version of themselves—and that my friends is the reason why we choose to focus primarily on the quality of the care we give. The numbers may look small on paper now but to truly appreciate the merit of our philosophy you have to take the long view before you can understand the impact we’ll have on the communities we’re serving.