[DA] You’re listening to together by AGCI. I’m Dayn Arnold.
[CLIP FROM “FRIENDS”] Turn! I just don’t think it’s going to fit! Oh yeah it will, come on up! Up, up, up! Yes! Here we go. Pivot, pivot, pivot, pivot.
[DA] Do any of you guys remember that clip from Friends? I mean, I feel like I’ve seen memes of it just over and over over the last few days, but… It, you know, it really does feel like that’s what every business and nonprofit is doing right now. Most of us have put our ambitious 2020 plans into action over the last few months and then all of a sudden we ALL have to pivot to find new solutions to new problems as quickly as we can. Even this baby podcast is having to pivot to make sure that you all get to hear about our most vital work in near real-time. Any nonprofit who works internationally knows that flexibility is the key to sustainability, so being flexible isn’t new to an organization like AGCI. But to have all of our work around the world affected at the same time by the same thing is intense.
Today we’re going to talk about how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting three vulnerable groups that AGCI serves and what we can do together to make a difference. We’re going to be talking with AGCI’s Vice President of International Programs, Kiersten Luginbill. Kiersten, welcome to the podcast.
[KL] Thank you so much.
[DA] So Kiersten, we wanted to take a moment to talk to you about, um, just some of our programs internationally that are being especially affected by the coronavirus in this time, and what we can be doing to help with that as individuals, as, you know, like a small group at a church. What, what, how can we be involved in helping those who are the most vulnerable in this time? So I guess, I guess maybe the first place that I’d like to start is, we have a partnership in Bogotá, Colombia. They provide therapies of all sorts to help kids be able to stay in their families, and… You’re going to do a much better job of explaining what that’s all about than I will. So, would you mind kind of giving us just a quick rundown of what this partnership is all about there?
[KL] Yeah. So AGCI does have a partnership with a local nonprofit organization in Bogotá, Colombia, and they are specifically serving in the Usaquen community, families from the lowest socioeconomic class. And they provide therapeutic services, parenting classes and overall family support for these vulnerable families and children that live in this community. And, they’ve been doing this work… They actually were founded in 1968 so they’ve been around for a very long time and have really focused, especially over the last five to 10 years, on their family-based and community-based programming. We know that children do best in a family setting and they’ve really worked hard to provide wraparound services so that these children can remain in family care, that they don’t get separated. But also that those families have the strengthening and support that they need. So yeah, they really do a fantastic job of providing all of those counseling services on a regular basis. But of course in light of the crisis happening right now, they are also shifting their mode of intervening for these families, and providing emergency relief supplies for families in the community. They’ve been putting together food packages for those families. And then one other really urgent need that is on their plate, relates to the sexual violence program that this organization operates as well.
[DA] Can you, just real quick, give us an understanding of what those therapies for… Children who have been victims of sexual violence, what that looks like?
[KL] Absolutely. So, as a little bit of context, in 2019, just this last year, in Colombia there were over 14,000 cases of sexual violence towards children reported to the ICBF, which is the child welfare institute in Colombia. And that was an increase over the previous year. So this has become an emerging crisis, essentially, in the country. And the child welfare office, the ICBF, does an investigation on each of those cases that come forward. They will make arrangements for the child to be placed in a safe location, whether that’s in a foster family, sometimes within an institution, while they work to process through this case. And during that time, the child that’s been a victim of sexual violence receives in-depth counseling and support services from a designated provider in Colombia. Now the shocking thing is there are actually only three licensed providers to offer this type of counseling and service to these children in all of Bogotá. And you can imagine just the overload of cases that they see on a day to day basis. So currently our partner on the ground in Colombia that’s one of these three providers, has seen over 500 children in just a 12 month period who have experienced sexual violence. And beyond that they have a wait list currently of 200 children that have experienced this type of trauma that still cannot receive services and are waiting for counseling support. Um, so this, of course, as you can imagine, is an urgent need despite the crisis that’s going on all around us. I mean these are children that have experienced just a horrific trauma really. And to be sitting and waiting to receive this kind of support, in a time where the globe is also dealing with this health crisis, it’s just complex trauma on top of complex trauma. And, um, really the, the need to intervene and to be able to provide this service to children is urgent. So, one of the things we’re looking at doing is responding in a way that they’ve never done before with this program, which is actually providing online counseling services through a designated platform, so that these children can still meet with a licensed mental health professional who can help counsel them through their trauma, help them understand what they experience, help to be sure they don’t feel even more isolation, fear, and shame in this time where everyone is dealing with so much around them. And I think unfortunately in a health crisis like this, you know, there are so many needs that our children are facing every single day that have gotten overtaken, really, in this health crisis. And while child welfare agencies are having to shut down and really postpone services indefinitely, we know these kids needs haven’t just gone away while that’s happening. There are still urgent needs for kids every day that we’re trying to respond to. And I feel like now more than ever, it’s so important for our local partners on the ground and for AGCI to be kind of filling that gap and responding to those needs.
[DA] Yeah, so what does that look like? What does it look like for AGCI in particular to step in?
[KL] Yeah, so we work with a team on the ground through our local NGOs, to provide support to counselors and therapists, support for that online training platform where they actually can get on and do face-to-face counseling sessions online, and really making sure that those services don’t stop. I mean, without the intervention of AGCI, um, a lot of our partners are being forced to furlough staff, to lay off staff, potentially, and discontinue service altogether because they don’t have the support they need to bring this to, the support to children.
[DA] Yeah. I think that’s something that so many of us can relate to in this season. Like it’s just such a global phenomenon.
[DA] So let’s shift gears a tiny bit. We have another, another program that we have helped to launch in Bogotá. We call it the Dream Home, and there are some needs there as well, because Bogotá, as a city, is on lockdown, like a lot of our cities are here, but maybe even more extremely. Can you… First of all, can you maybe give us a sense of what the Dream Home is all about, and then from there maybe we can talk about what some of their immediate needs are in, you know, in today’s crisis.
[KL] Yeah, so the Dream Home was launched in partnership with AGCI and the ICBF, the child welfare agency in Colombia in 2018, and it was created to be a place where young women, ages 18 to 24, who had grown up in the child welfare agency, um, could really find a home and a place, not only to pursue a college degree and their professional ambitions, but also to be able to heal and to understand who they are as a person and to understand their identity in Christ. And we wanted to create a unique environment, never seen, really, before in Colombia for this population of youth that were aging out of the system and preparing for adulthood, oftentimes without any skills or training to be able to do so. So that was the heart behind the program. We have a really dedicated staff that are with the girls 24/7 and they offer not only tutoring and support in day-to-day things, but also are really working with the girls one-on-one emotionally. Helping them to understand their trauma, helping them to understand how to build healthy relationships, how to operate in society outside of an institution. So, really deep level work that’s kind of going on in the home day to day really through, through relationship with our local staff.
[DA] So maybe, you know, for the Dream Home, the students that are in the dream home currently, what are some of their restrictions and how are they, how are they making it through this at this time?
[KL] Yeah, so it has certainly been a challenging time. Um, every single home or institution in all of Colombia right now is on quarantine lockdown, which means that every child who lives under ICBF protection full-time cannot leave the home that they reside in. And that includes the girls in our Dream Home right now who are not able to come in and out of the home. Many of them have had university courses postponed or they’re trying to do their coursework online in a home of 24 girls. We also, because of the quarantine, are only allowed to have so many designated staff at the home. So we can’t have our typical staff in and out of the house on a regular basis. We continue to do phone check-ins with the girls, with all of our staff, but we do have to have 24/7 full-time staff working over-time and actually sleeping in the home to support these girls during the crisis. We’ve also, of course, had to be monitoring our supplies and our provisions to be able to meet just the ongoing food needs, medical care, et cetera of those 24 girls being in the home 24/7 at this point in time. And beyond that, just really working to kind of keep morale high. We are doing live-streaming workout classes, and museum visits, and music concerts, and all sorts of different opportunities to try to keep spirits high and keep the girls engaged during this time. But it’s definitely a very challenging season, I would say for caregivers and also for all of the children in Colombia that are within ICBF care right now. Just having to face every day with uncertainty, really. And just the added stress. I know we all feel this right now, but particularly for caregivers and children who may have come from a history of trauma or stress, these uncertain times are just very, very difficult for kids and caregivers. And so really working to support our staff during that season, and really also providing resources for caregivers in protection institutions, even outside of the dream home to be sure that they have resources, activity ideas, tools to help address behaviors that come up. All of the needs you can imagine in homes with anywhere from 24 girls to maybe youth that are in these different institutions across Colombia.
[DA] Yeah. And so some of the bigger needs are prayers for the morale of the girls. I mean their freedom that they have enjoyed in this unique space is interrupted and that’s, that’s gotta be super challenging for them. Um, but then also for the staff as well. I mean, for them to be pretty constantly on the clock, I’m sure that that has to be a strain on their own families and on the system in general.
[KL] Absolutely. I mean, our staff right now that are there 24/7 with the girls, I mean, they’re really foregoing, you know, the needs of their own families, really… in this moment and making a huge sacrifice to be with the girls, not only physically, but also really being present for all of the emotions, all of the challenges that a lot of our girls are facing in this uncertain time. And handling that with grace and with care. Putting together birthday parties with what we have in the house, helping to do cooking lessons, like really supporting the girls, um, in, in their day to day and a time where we’re, many of the girls in our home are feeling an added level of stress and uncertainty and disconnect, I would say. You know, really this is… These traumatic events can also trigger a lot of emotions for our girls that maybe do have uncertain or troubled pasts and this can create a lot of those things coming to the surface. And so having staff there full time, not just to be with the girls, but also help them process through those emotions and really be with them, counseling them through this time is just so, so critical.
[DA] Oh, that’s an enormous sacrifice on their part too. So that’s, that’s pretty amazing. And it’s, it’s great that All God’s Children is there to kind of help support not only the girls, but the staff that are, that are caring for them more directly. Just because, especially in this time the need is, is even greater than, than is typical.
[KL] Absolutely. And, I mean, operating a home, like the Dream Home… I mean, of course there are needs that come up on a regular basis, sometimes even unforeseen needs, but no one could have predicted we would be in this type of situation. And so having to look at, you know, managing over-time for staff and making sure the girls have what they need. And there’s just a lot of mobilization that’s been happening and we’re grateful, you know, that we’ve been able to respond to those urgent and last-minute needs. But it’s definitely a strain on everybody.
[DA] Yeah, for sure. We’re going to try and make sure that as staff members of AGCI that we’re connecting with those girls, even personally and sending them messages and notes of encouragement during this time and the staff too. So let’s take a, um, a quick little jump across the Atlantic and talk about Ethiopia. Maybe you can explain to me a little bit what are some of the, the ways that AGCI is involved in Ethiopia. And then we can talk about how the current crisis is affecting that population there currently.
[KL] Absolutely. Yeah. So, um, one of our largest programs here at AGCI is our education sponsorship program in Ethiopia. And this program allows us to ensure that children who are living in a single family household or maybe with a grandparent, aunt, uncle, or even older sibling, those children are able to continue to go to school. That they receive the support they need to provide basic education: supplies, go to school on a regular basis, healthy meals. And then there’s also a savings program linked to our sponsorship program where children and families put away money every time we do distribution to provide for future education opportunities or to help deal with family emergencies in the future. So it’s been an incredible program. Many of our children are in the program for well over 10 years just walking through their entire education and we’ve really seen so many kids go on to be successful adults and really actually break the cycle of poverty that they started in when they were young in the program. So yeah, it’s been incredible. The program has been in existence for around 11 years. So, um, it’s very well rooted in many communities throughout Ethiopia, particularly in Gambela, and then several rural areas in Tigray, Ethiopia. And then we also provide sponsorship support for several hundred children in the outskirts of Addis Ababa where many of the families from lower socioeconomic classes live.
[DA] And so as the virus is coming in and things are beginning to shift and shut down, how is that affecting these families, just kind of generally?
[KL] This is something we’re just experiencing in live time. I mean, we have watched as country after country where we work has been impacted by the virus and their response to that. And several of the countries in Africa where we work, including Ethiopia, it feels like are just a couple of weeks behind this massive response that’s happened in places like Colombia and the U S. And I would say even as of this morning and talking with our in-country team, you know, there are many who are very worried, just with the lack of ventilators and trained medical professionals on the ground in Africa. The government is trying to put out guidelines on hygiene and how to stop the spread of the virus, but most of the day-to-day life in Africa, as you know, is communal. And often workers aren’t in occupations that allow them to work remotely. Many of our sponsorship families, you know, live in small spaces as large families or with extended family. And it can be really challenging to think about how this virus is really going to impact those communities when it actually hits its peak. So definitely we can feel the anxiety rising in our staff and on the ground in Ethiopia, and knowing that oftentimes in these crisis, it’s families, you know, below that poverty line that are hit the hardest. Because that line that they’re walking is just so thin. So, yeah. It’s definitely a tenuous time right now.
[DA] Yeah. So what is All God’s Children able to do to kind of support our staff on the ground? Cause we, we have staff there who have been there for 10, 12 years themselves, since the very beginning. And they’re extremely dedicated and they love those kids, but this is a lot for anyone to handle. What are some of the ways that we’re helping to kind of support them in all this?
[KL] Yeah, we have been hitting the ground, actually traveling, at times, to different homes to deliver sponsorship support, but also working directly with the ministry of women’s affairs in Ethiopia at the federal level. Also at the regional level, and then even lower down, local social affairs offices to figure out, how can we remain in contact with our sponsorship families? How can we get their sponsorship support to them? And beyond that, how do we actually understand what their most pressing needs are? I mean we have a lot of families that are going to be dealing with food-scarcity. Not able to go to work so they don’t have any sort of income coming in. And these are families that are already living on the brink. So, we know that we need to be all hands on deck making phone calls, doing house visits, and really reaching out to these families to be sure they have the support they need during this time. So, it’s a busy time for our team. The ministry of women’s affairs office is, because of government mandate, closed currently, but we are still on the phones daily with that team trying to problem-solve, literally family by family. How do we get to them? How do we get them the support that they need? Uh, what is their current status and how can we continue to support them moving forward?
[DA] Yeah. Well that’s such a tall order for, for all three of those different things. The two in Bogotá and the really large impact that we have in Ethiopia. What can we do to support these initiatives that AGCI is trying to move forward?
[KL] Yeah, I mean I’ve been telling some of our team here, I just believe God is asking us as an organization, and our teams on the ground, to lean in. And it can be a really scary time to do that. There are a lot of organizations and even child welfare offices that have been closed or are not providing service in this time. And I just, I know God is asking us to step forward. I know we have mobile teams on the ground that are ready for action and are acting right now and filling those gaps, making sure that kids and families are getting what they need. And for us here at AGCI, we just need supporters and, and you know, families to come alongside us and contribute to those needs and help us continue to mobilize those staff on the ground that are already doing the work. We’ve been talking a lot here at AGCI about being the hands and feet of Jesus, and our teams really are doing that every day on the ground. And I feel that now more than ever, you know, their support and intervention is needed. And this is really why we are so passionate about empowering local leaders. We’ve talked about it for years, but this is where it really counts. I mean our teams on the ground, they are the front lines. They are there with those kids every day and we are uniquely positioned, I think, as an organization to help support that work, to support those leaders and be sure that kids and families are getting what they need during this crisis.
[DA] We can all, I’m sure, commit to praying and hopefully that prayer leads to action. This is a, this is a pretty heavy time for all of us, but it’s good for us to not get so inward focused as it is so incredibly easy to do when we are the ones who are actually facing a crisis, which is… You know, in comparison to these populations is much more rare for us to experience this kind of thing. But it is critical that we make sure that our focus is not only on ourselves, but is also on these vulnerable people who just need our support now probably more than ever before.
[KL] Yeah. I just got off the phone actually right before I joined you with our team in Colombia and we were just talking about how this is maybe the first time in history in a long time where the entire world has been really on our knees and looking for God to intervene in a way that there’s never been, really. And just knowing that regardless of, you know, country or status or religion or race, you know, this is really causing us all to have to come together. And I think that, yeah, it just really is unique times and, and I surely can see God working in it all.
[DA] I feel like the ability for us to be able to empathize with other people has been, the volume has been turned up to 11 on that. Like, it’s just… You know, we are all literally in the same position. You know, to varying degrees, of course, but I think for us to be able to understand, another person’s position and another person’s challenges and difficulties because we too are also facing such similar challenges is… It’s, it’s an incredibly unique time. And so my prayer is that we do, we do all kind of face this time on our knees and we do pray for the globe, but even more specifically for the children who
need to be receiving therapies for, just the abuse that they have experienced in their path; to pray for our students at the Dream Home and the staff who are supporting them and giving up their personal lives for that; and also for, you know, our hundreds of kids that we are trying to support in Ethiopia and the staff that are supporting them. I mean, this is, these are super practical things that we can… You know, you can write it in your prayer journal, you can write it on a sticky note and put it on your fridge. These are the tangible things that we can pray for and God can do incredible things. And… We need to remember that, that ultimately it’s all for his glory, and if we are focused on his glory instead of our misery, then I think that incredible things can happen. So, yeah. As challenging as these times are, it’s kind of exciting to see what the Lord can do. I mean, I just think that really amazing things are to come. So yeah. Thanks so much for joining me, Kiersten and for, um, just allowing me to kind of get a little bit more insight on where our programs are at, but more specifically these three things. And yeah. I hope you guys stay safe and healthy at your home.
[KL] Yes. I’m sure you can hear my son in the background.
[DA] I can, but it’s nice. My kids are being shockingly quiet. So… that’s a blessing. Alright. We will, we’ll catch up with you later, Kiersten, and thanks so much for your time.
[KL] Great. Thanks so much, Dayn.
[DA] That was Kiersten Luginbill. She is the Vice President of International Programs at All God’s Children.
One thing that we can all do, without question, is to pray. So please pray with us. Pray for these children and these families who are in such vulnerable positions. And if you’re in a position to do so, join with us. We can make a huge difference in the lives of these people. For more information on practical ways that you can get involved, you can check out our website, www dot AllGodsChildren.org. And if you want to contact us here at the podcast, you can contact us at Together at AllGodsChildren.org. The amazing thing is we get to be the hands and feet of Jesus in a world that desperately needs it. We have everything we need to make a long-lasting impact in the lives of hundreds of children and families. And we get to do it together. We’ll talk to you next time.