Jim Luce, founder of Orphans International, which seeks better lives for kids without families, visited Panama, last week. It marked his first charitable work away from home since the start of the pandemic. Here is his story.
First Impressions in Panamá
My first impression of Panama is that it is similar to most other tropical countries with a mix of rich and poor sandwiching a solid middle class. The roads seem better than in many countries and cars on the street are predominantly new.
Population & Location
The nation’s population is only four million with its capital at the mouth of the Canal on the Pacific Coast. About a million people live in the county’s capital. The nation is only about fifty miles wide at its narrowest and this isthmus was the perfect location to build the Canal one hundred years ago.
A century ago, the U.S. coerced Panama to succeed from Colombia so that it could control the country and build the Canal, following in the footsteps of the Spanish and French. The waterway, completed by the U.S., is one of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken.
Global Melting Pot
Because of this, perhaps, Panamanian culture is not as distinct as other Latin countries. Because of the Canal construction a century ago, the country has been a global melting pot. Panamanians are proud of their modern affluence but seem to have less connection to their pre-Colonial past.
There are seven indigenous peoples of Panama numbering about half a million people, about 15% of the population. Indigenous people who retain their distinct customs seem relegated to islands off the Atlantic Coast.
The country is separated on its southern border by a rather impregnable jungle controlled in part by Colombian separatist guerrillas (FARC). However, drugs and migrants make their way through it. Panama’s army was disbanded when America toppled Noriega under Jimmy Carter, but a quasi-Coast Guard exists to attempt to slow the flow of drugs north.
Charity Partners from NYC Visit Panamanian Orphanage
Dr. Kazuko Tatsumura of Gaia Foundation and I, representing Orphans International, travelled to Panamá together. We had an inspiring visit with the orphaned children and elderly director of Hogar San José de Malambo run by Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul.
Founded in 1890 outside Panama City, the facility is run by the French Order that historically works with the world’s disenfranchised. Elizabeth Ann Seton of Philadelphia was affiliated with this Roman Catholic Order. Sister Lourdes D.C., originally from Czechoslovakia, is the director of the girl’s home. Boys moved to a separate campus at the age of four.
A Catholic Orphanage in Panamá
The orphanage was well kept and as folksy as could be for an aging institution. Heavily Catholic, the cement buildings had stood on the slope down to the main road for decades. First established in 1890, this project had stood the test of time. Its director, eighty-year-old Sister Lourdes, likewise had been there seemingly since inception.
Smelling of humidity, sanitizer and children, the campus was awash in religious statuary, faded bright kiddy colors, and ubiquitous cement construction. The children were in their respective small homes, segregated by age, with babies and infants of both sexes, and then primary school-aged girls and above.
Small Homes or Actual Families?
I believed when I founded Orphans International twenty years ago that I could supervise construction of small homes-based orphanages to raise children internationally, with one foot in their local culture and the other more worldly. That model, similar to the approach used by Austrian Hermann Gmeiner of SOS Kinderdorf, proved to be too costly. A pared down approach, such as this one, is more affordable but lacking in stimulation.
However, our model had boys and girls raised together as in a ‘normal’ family. Gender segregation strikes me as absurd and, if anything, simply encourages same-sex relationships. Although I am not enamored with international adoption, I believe my own family could certainly raise a child better than if left here.
Funding Trickles Down
We understand from the director that the Panamanian government allocates about a million dollars (U.S.) for the orphanage each year, but only about one-third actually reaches the children due to ever-present corruption. Certainly more funds could be used to modernize the facility and hire better-trained staff. Volunteer English teachers are badly needed as well.
Multi-Racial Panamá Impacted by Migration
As Panamá is a multi-racial society from the time the Canal was constructed, bringing talent and labor from around the world, orphaned children have traditionally been Panamanian. Today, because of migration issues, families trek north from South America headed to the States and often dump children in Panamá who cannot keep up.
Many Caribbeans are able to fly into Panama or points South and make their way to the Canal. So now the orphanage has Haitian, Ecuadorian, Colombian, Brazilian, Peruvian, Guyanese, and Venezuelan children as well, many ill from their family’s long and arduous journey. This same population has been seen of late massing on our Southern border.
Beautiful, Burned Boy Squeals with Delight
As we sat in the home for four and five years olds, a little boy who had been horribly scarred by fire sat on my leg and giggled appreciatively as I bounced my knee playing “Ride, Ride to Boston!” as I had played with my son and my father beforehand with me. He squealed in appreciation as he patted the sun-bleached hair on my arm and kept commenting in Spanish how funny it was…
Mixed Bag of International Adoption
Many countries have outlawed foreign adoptions for a variety of reasons including child trafficking, difficulty in vetting international families, and the impossibility of post-adoption follow-up. Panama, on the other hand, continues to allow it. Yet, like many Catholic countries, Panamá only allows adoption to nuclear families and prohibits single or same-sex parents. So although my heart yearns to take this boy on my knee home, I am simply not permitted to dedicate my life to taking care of him.
How Can We Help Here?
I think the best way to help here would be to establish, as far away from the capital as possible, a permanent home for kids where one generation of six to eight kids could be raised by one set of houseparents for twenty years. A two-decade commitment followed by a college scholarship. This has been our model in Indonesia and Haiti, and will soon be repeated with dalit (“Untouchable”) kids in India. Not rotating staff like in a hospital, but rather fulltime parent or parents.
Simply giving funds to this existing orphanage would basically only perpetuate mediocrity. A foundation grants to existing institutions, but our organization Orphans International creates projects. Of course, it is more challenging to continue a project through an economic downturn or worldwide pandemic. The advantage to funding someone else’s orphanage is that we can walk away in the event of a child abuse or fiscal scandal.
Our attorneys a long time ago counseled that our brand “Orphans International” was too valuable to run our own projects vulnerable to scandals that could tarnish our excellent reputation. But avoiding risk has never been my forte.
Family Care as Alternative
Our second choice in Panamá would be what we refer to not as Full Care but rather Family Care, which is similar to foster care in the U.S., funded and overseen by our organization and not the government. In Sri Lanka we assisted about three dozen mothers whose husbands had been swept away by the Tsunami.
We ran a community center that provided medical care, skills training, and supervision of the children supported by the program. This project, initially supported by Giorgio Armani, lasted about three years until the economy improved and the mothers had adequate training to stabilize their families.
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