Upon entering the doors of an orphanage, you will most likely experience things that are very different than the childcare standards here in the United States.  Here are a few tips to help you be mentally ready for your visit to an orphanage.

1) Prepare your heart and mind.

In order to best serve in the orphanage, you need to prepare mentally. You should not be on a tourist trip when you visit. Be prepared to leave your comfort zone. If you are not a “touchy” person, you need to prepare to have your personal space overrun by children of all ages who are hungry for love and personalized attention. Be prepared to love and give of yourself to these precious ones who have nothing and no one. Be prepared to have your world rocked, your emotions shaken to the core, and your heart overflowed with compassion you never knew you had. Be prepared to be changed. I promise that you will never look at life and your home or your country the same ever again.

When I went to an orphanage in 1997, my heart broke. It was a dingy little place with concrete block walls, chipping paint, exposed wood, but it had well-swept cement floors. It wasn’t that the caretakers did not care; they were just understaffed and lacked resources. My team was working in the younger children wing. There were no high chairs, toys, or bottles of milk—just faded wooden chairs, cups of a thick gruel, and so many toddlers. Then there was the infant room. I will never forget the one little baby I met. He was lying in a crib all by himself in a dim room. His weak cries drew me to him; his frailty broke my heart. This tiny boy’s arms and legs were like toothpicks, and his diaper was too large for his small frame. His little head looked like it had been compressed by forceps during delivery and was flat on the sides. Besides how small and frail he was, he was also very sick. His poor little nose drained thick, green gunk, and his tiny chest rattled and heaved. Even my 17-year-old heart knew that this baby would soon be in heaven, but that the duration of his life would be miserable. So, I held him the rest of the time I was there, hoping that he would know that he was loved and valued. As I left that day, my heart was heavy for the tiny, sick boy whom I had to lay back down all alone in a dingy bed in a dim room. I’ve never forgotten him.

2) Love is the greatest tool that you will bring with you.

I hope that you are going to an orphanage to minister and be a blessing. All the toys and gifts in the world cannot replace what these kids need most—love. You can’t offer them a forever home, but you can offer them a piece of your heart. Tell the children stories and songs, even if they don’t understand your language. Chances are they will clamor to sit on your lap or be near you. Allow them to touch your hair or skin; many of them may never have seen people with your skin tone or hair texture! Look for the child sitting alone and make it a point to try to interact with them. Be prepared for these little ones to worm their way into your heart.

3) Compassion overlooks differences and sees the people.

Ever hear the saying that love is blind? You will need to be a bit “blind” as you go into some orphanages. Realize that hygiene is not necessarily the same in other countries as it is in America. Sometimes orphanages are understaffed, overpopulated, and lack resources to do the most basic care needs. Dirty diapers, smelly bodies, and filthy clothes are hard things to ignore, but you must. Don’t allow your face to show your disdain, and never clean yourself in front of the children or the staff. Probably the hardest part of going to an orphanage is reigning in your emotions. Your face can show love, but not disgust. If the smell is pungent, you must not show it. Above all, don’t cry. Some cultures view crying as a sign of weakness, but tears can also be interpreted that you are looking down on them for what they have or don’t have. Internalize the heartbreak until you are safely away from the orphanage. Allow your compassion to enable you to overlook the differences.

To be sure, not all orphanages are dirty places, but the facilities and childcare will be very different than what you are used to here in America. The materials they use may be dated. The clothes and bedding may be faded. The toys may be more simplified. However, some caregivers are truly devoted to the care and well-being of their charges even if that care looks much differently than childcare in the U.S. Allow your love for the children to help you overlook what you see as lacking. Truly SEE the children.

Not all orphanages are horrible, but there are far too many that are. No matter what “kind’ of orphanage you visit, you are going to be wrecked. The children you meet will forever etch themselves on your heart. Your life will never be the same, of that I can promise you. When you return home, let the knowledge of what you saw and experienced and the memories of the people you met move you to gratitude for the life God has given you.