My name is Chris, and in 2011 my family and I left our home in North Carolina to become missionaries with Agape Children’s Ministry in Kisumu, Kenya. This radical change was birthed out of a growing burden for the children we had met on a missions trip to Agape the year prior.
Agape started in 1993 when a woman named Darla Calhoun, an American nurse working in Western Kenya, was overwhelmed by the estimated 1,000 boys who called Kisumu’s streets their home. Darla began by meeting with the boys on Sunday afternoons to play soccer, share Bible stories, and provide a small snack. But when 150-200 boys began showing up each Sunday to meet with Darla in the town center, the police started complaining that she was creating a security problem. Boldly, she responded, “Then, you need to give me a place to work with these boys.” Not long after, the Municipality of Kisumu amazingly gave Darla a piece of land, and Agape was born.
For the next 15 years, Agape operated as an orphanage-style long-term care facility for former street children. As the first generation of Agape’s children began to reach adulthood, Agape began to see large issues emerge. While some “graduates” did okay, many struggled with issues of dependency upon Agape.
In Kenya, one’s family and rural home are key parts of their identity. If a young man in Kenya finds himself without a job after finishing school, he is always welcome to return to stay with his family at his rural home. There he has a place to stay, food to eat, and the family’s farm to work on while waiting for future job opportunities; but, most importantly, he has a family there to love and support him. By keeping children at Agape long-term, we accidentally deprived Agape’s first generation of children of these critical parts of their identities.
As Agape began to witness the negative impact of keeping children in long term, institutional care, we started thinking about the idea of family reintegration. Up to this point, the stories that Agape’s children had told to staff either identified that they were orphans or that their families and/or homes were so bad that they could never return there. For over a decade, Agape staff and missionaries had heard of the terrible pasts that Agape’s children came from, but suddenly we were challenged to learn that many of these stories were not true.
Agape’s executive director, Blake Gibbs, decided in 2008 that Agape should try out this new idea of family reintegration, hiring a small team of social workers to start the work. By 2011, Agape had placed over 200 children back with family members successfully and was visiting these children on a regular basis. Around this time, we also began developing more fully our rehabilitative and discipleship programs on campus to better prepare children for their eventual return to their families. With our new 4R’s program (Rescue, Redeem, Rehabilitate, Reintegrate), Agape began to rescue 350+ new children every year. As a result, Agape has successfully reintegrated over 2,300 children back with their family members throughout Kenya and even into Tanzania and Uganda since 2008.
Our reunification process at Agape begins with the identification, preparation, and subsequent rescue of a child from the streets or from governmental incarceration. Agape assesses each child academically, psychosocially, and spiritually, developing individual rehabilitation plans, (IRPs) generally lasting anywhere from 30-120 days. In developing a child’s IRP, we employ a customized and varied approach to meet each child’s individual academic and psychosocial needs, but when seeking to meet a child’s spiritual needs, we utilize a singular approach of presenting the Good News of Jesus Christ in a way that each child can understand.
As soon as a child is ready (preferably within the first two weeks upon arriving on campus), Agape’s social workers take a child for an Initial Home Visit, so that Agape can assess the child’s home and family situation. Agape’s social workers are trained to utilize the Child Status Index (CSI) to ascertain the suitability of a targeted home for the child’s future placement. If Agape’s social workers determine that the child’s home is not conducive for the child’s placement, Agape’s social workers begin searching for extended family members that have the capability and willingness to care for their relative. Amazingly, Agape’s social workers have successfully found 99.9% of our children’s families in past 11 years.
Once Agape perceives that the child is ready, and the family is ready, then the family is reunified. But, this is not the end of the process; after a child is placed back home with the family, ongoing empowerment of the family may be required, and Agape’s social workers continue with ministering through scheduled follow-up visits with the child and the family until the child reaches age 18.
Child rehabilitation successfully affects many of the problems children bring with them to Agape, however, some children sadly resort back to old behaviors and addictions when they return home. Addictions to sniffing glue and compulsions toward stealing are two major issues among Agape’s children. On the family’s side, divorce and step parents are an ever-recurring challenge that we face in dealing with long-term stability of a child in a home.
Currently, there are over 40,000 children living in Children’s Institutions in Kenya, but there is a growing push internationally to place these children back with family members. This is going to take a lot of work and a lot of effort from many people to successfully find the best long term solution to each child’s story. It is estimated that 80-90% of children living in these institutions have a living relative that is capable of caring for them. In most cases, these children can be reunified back with their families again!
Agape’s mission is to, “Reconcile children to God and family through the Good News and transformational love of Jesus Christ.” To learn more and to get involved with Agape Children’s Ministry, visit their website and check out their Instagram!