Mara is a 10-year-old boy living in a Cambodian orphanage. His Vietnamese father left when Mara was very young. Being half Cambodian and half Vietnamese is challenging enough for Mara, as the Cambodian culture does not readily accept people of mixed races. To add to Mara’s strife, the only remaining family Mara had, his mother, was a drug addict and lived on the street. For a while, Mara was homeless with her. But, sadly, this environment just was not safe for Mara. So, he was brought to the orphanage.
At first, Mara’s mother visited him from time to time. Of course he was excited to see his mother, but each visit was laced with heartache. Mara wanted desperately to be with the only family he knew – his mother. But, homeless and on drugs, Mara’s mother always left without him. The visits became less frequent, until Mara’s mother eventually stopped visiting the orphanage altogether. It is not known now whether she is alive or dead. So, Mara waits for a family to adopt him or to “age out” of the orphanage and have a family of his own – whichever comes first.
In 2007, Kids2Families (K2F) co-founder Susan Lawrence got a call from a friend to help raise funds for the orphanage in Cambodia where Mara lives. The call compelled Ms. Lawrence and her husband Paul to make a family contribution and to head up a fundraising campaign to find more donor families. The Lawrence family traveled to Cambodia to present the orphans with Christmas gifts from the donor families and friends.
When Susan Lawrence and her family volunteered in the Cambodian orphanage, they expected to be affected by the children living there. What they did not expect was to fall in love with Mara, who just wanted a family of his own.
Mara wore a gumball-machine version of a CTR ring on his finger. Regardless of its worth, he treasured it. Traditionally, CTR stands for “choose the right” to live righteously. For Mara, “the right” is to have a loving family.
Mara was very receptive to the motherly affection Susan Lawrence gave him, as it was something he had not received from his birth mother. The Lawrence’s would have adopted Mara on the spot, but a ban on inter-country adoption in Cambodia at the time prevented them from making him a legal member of their family.
On Susan’s first visit to the orphanage, Mara cried inconsolably when it was time for her to go back to the U.S. And, she was equally heartbroken. Before saying their goodbyes, Mara gave Susan Lawrence the thing he treasured most – his CTR ring.
For Mara, there is no happy ending – not yet. The Lawrence’s recently went back to visit Mara and the other children in the orphanage. Susan brought Mara a surprise – a sterling silver CTR ring to replace the one he had given her. The ring stands as a symbol of the Lawrence’s love and commitment for Mara and children worldwide who have the “right” to a family.
The Growing Need:
The right to a family belongs to all children. The obstacle that prevented the Lawrence’s from adopting Mara is not unique to Cambodia. Most families looking to adopt are requesting infants. The reality is that most children awaiting adoption in orphanages are, like Mara, much older. When a country’s abandoned and institutionalized children are predominantly older, HIV-positive, or otherwise sick or disabled, yet the inter-country adoptions are mostly of infants and toddlers, it can be a red flag that corrupt agencies are illegally buying or stealing babies to supply the demand for infant adoption.An investigation proved this to be true in Cambodia, as in several other third world countries, causing inter-country adoption policies to tighten.
For families that want to love a child of any age, the ban on inter-country adoptions makes it harder and harder to help older children, like Mara, find loving families to adopt them. The solution in many cases may be same-country adoption – that is a family living in the same country adopts the child and they stay in that country.
Some interesting facts:
- 95 percent of all orphans worldwide are over the age of five
- Every 2.2 seconds a child becomes an orphan somewhere in the world
- Every 2.2 seconds another orphan child "ages out" of an orphanage with no family to belong to and no place to call home
- Every year over 14 million children who grow up in orphanages "age out" of the system without ever being adopted
- Every year nearly 130,000 children in America alone await adoption
According to UNICEF, there are an estimated 145 million orphans in the world – 130 million of them live in the developing world. An orphan is defined as a child who has lost one or both parents. The plight of the most of these children is caused by poverty and the diseases that come with it. Now, most of these orphans are cared for by relatives. Though it is almost impossible to calculate the total number of children living in orphanages worldwide, some estimate as many at 13 million. These are the children that may need the most help. In some countries as many as 20% of all sick and special needs babies living in orphanages don’t survive.
Many of the children that do survive “age out” of the orphanage system and end up as street children and become beggars as a means of survival. Sadly, many turn to drugs and even risk being victims of predators and are sexually abused. Abusive labor and child trafficking and slavery are common, while AIDS and other diseases plague more of these children than you might think.
It is estimated that 15 million of the world’s children are orphaned by the death of one or both parents due to AIDS. Children without families are more likely to have behavioral problems, commit crimes, live in poverty, develop psychiatric disorders in adulthood, have difficulty getting jobs, and become a life-long burden on society. Most of them do not receive the education required to improve their lives. Tragically, many of these children become part of a vicious circle when they have children of their own.
We heard Mara’s story. Each and every child living in an orphanage has a heart-wrenching story. And the challenges that these children face in developing countries are likely nothing you or I will ever experience.