Labels, Stigma, and a Vocabulary Lesson

One of Abogar’s newest board members, Sharon Roberts, has endeavored to understand Abogar well… Continue reading to see her perspective!

Through the eyes of a board member:

I was recently invited to join Abogar’s board. What an honor. I have known its founder, Jesse, since before Abogar existed. Six years ago, we met in Guatemala, and when we walked around town, he would point out the children on the street, saying he could identify with them and wanted to form an organization to support them. He followed through. I followed the organization’s progress. This year, I joined in at a greater level.

With a background quite the opposite of Jesse, I cannot identify with children on the street. So at first I wasn’t sure how I could be of help. But then I realized—or perhaps the Lord showed me—that I do know what it’s like to have a strong, healthy family that cares for each other and leans on each other and supports each other. What if I could be a part of making it possible for others to have that? And with that realization, I was in. My heart had been stirred, and I began to really dig deep into Abogar—its vision, its mission, its strategy, its questions, and my questions. I watched World Without Orphans, a 10-minute powerful video discussing a shift in how to think about orphans and how to help them. I took notes. I wanted to make sure I understood this world, this cause I was now fighting for… But I had questions.

As a starting point, I asked Jesse to help me with some definitions, knowing all too well how conversations can go awry when people use the same words but attach different meanings to them. Of course, he was happy to help.

First I asked, “How do you define orphan?” (The video had mentioned it could mean a child who has lost one or both parents. Since I had always thought of it as a child who has no parents, I was curious how Abogar would see this.)

Clearly, I had a lot of learning to do. The immediate response I received was, “We don’t use that word.” The word orphan.  Wait.  I’m confused. I’ve been telling everyone Abogar advocates for orphans in Latin America. That’s what I thought I was signing up for. Jesse explained that “orphan” is an undesirable label. It’s better to say “children who have been orphaned.” This language distinguishes the fact that certain circumstances have taken place in the child’s life, but it does not label the child. Jesse explained to me that being called an orphan could make a person feel like that is their identity. With that label, perhaps they would always be compelled to see themselves as lonely or lacking something or needing charity from others. Jesse and so many others who have gone before me want these children to know that they can be valuable members of society and even have a family of their own. Their value is in being made by God, not in having perfect circumstances.

It’s a good thing I signed up for vocabulary lessons. I asked about more terms I had been seeing, and Jesse walked through them with me…

Vulnerable children” or “at-risk youth”– These describe children without family or a support system. They are often the most vulnerable to prostitution or violence, to being trafficked or turned into child soldiers. These words also describe children in families facing circumstances so dire, they are at risk of falling apart.  These are the terms used widely in circles that work with these children regularly, and they can be used interchangeably. Before my vocab lesson, I had thought maybe “vulnerable children” meant children age 12 and under and “at-risk youth” meant teenagers. This is not the case. Different circles just describe things differently.

“Abandoned” – My first mental image was a baby being left on a doorstep. A child being left somewhere does happen. Yet that is not the only type of abandonment possible. There is usually quite a bit going on behind the scenes, and it could be a situation in which the parents have no ability to care for their child, and the child has had to leave or be removed from the parents. This is commonly how children end up on the streets. Abuse may be connected and can be the result of the parents’ frustration in their inabilities.

“Homeless” – This is the result of being at-risk and abandoned. This is a place of great danger for the child and often the point at which the child stops being on track to being an engaged participant in society.

I don’t want to carelessly use terms. I definitely don’t want to reduce a child, a person, to a term. It is not my intent to help find the right label. It is merely my intent to bring clarity to conversations and interactions. The above are not “official” definitions; they simply reflect my new or improved understanding of the world around me. Even as the write, I am nervous about labeling or unintentionally creating a stigma. I hope that my language does a semblance of justice to the situation of so many children and families.

I have spent time with children in Guatemala. I have relationships and know them by name. As Jesse and I talked through the situations that so many face, they weren’t hypothetical to me. In my mind, I could see children I’ve taught and mentored in Guatemala who face similar situations. I know their names, their personalities, their smiles.

They don’t need our labels. A little clarity wouldn’t hurt.