FIERCE :: Redefining How to Care for Orphans

"And now the fight continues for all orphans and children who need families who will love and care for them—until they too can all go home."  -- Kim De BlecourtUntil We All Come Home: A Harrowing Journey, a Mother's Courage, a Race to Freedom

I was 19 years old when I met Alia.  An incredibly gorgeous, sophisticated, intelligent young woman from Hong Kong, she mesmerized me with her fashion and daring sense of humor.  We lived in a tiny village in the Midlands of England called Nuneaton where there was little more to do than play Tina Turner on the juke box at the local pub.  We only lived together for a few months but our souls were bound up in a sisterly kind of way and through the years and distance we have remained friends.  

Alia's adventure has much to impart to us.  Her extensive travel, wide-range of linguistic aptitude, obsessive love of cheese and the way she floats into a room are only a few reasons people are drawn to her.  When she speaks, people listen.  Even in her silence there is a strength that escapes definition.

So, lean in.  

Clear the space in your mind and break out a note pad or iPad or a host of sticky notes.  LISTEN, because Alia has something to teach us about how we view our role in caring for the orphan.  Let her strategy and sharp mind inspire you to think more intelligently about this topic but most of all, let her heart speak through her words as she inspires us to care more deeply.

Alia, you were an attorney for many years and worked in corporate finance.  What made you come to the conclusion that you would give that life up to work in the NGO sector?  Why Mother's Choice?

When I was 9 years old, I watched my parents, Ranjan and Phyllis Marwah, and their good friends, Gary and Helen Stephens, make a decision to respond to the desperate need of young girls facing crisis pregnancy and babies without families in Hong Kong.  The catalyst was an article that they had read in the local newspaper about the hundreds young women going over the border every weekend for illegal back street abortions.  Most of the teenagers interviewed were already in their 8th and 9th month of pregnancy.  Together with help from their friends from work, church and school, they started Mother’s Choice from scratch, and they even included us children in volunteering in whatever way we could.  Today, Mother’s Choice consists of 1) Pregnant Girls Services, which provides non-judgmental support through a counseling center, hotline service, hostel for pregnant teenagers and home for new mothers; 2) Child Care Home, which provides a loving home for both healthy babies and special needs children who do not yet have permanent families; 3) Foster Care which manages and trains foster care families; and 4) Adoption Services, which assists with both overseas adoptions for children with special needs and local adoptions for all children.  
I never thought that one day I would be CEO, but there has never been a time since Mother’s Choice began that I haven’t been involved in some way.  Then just over a year and a half ago, I left my career as a corporate lawyer at a large global law firm to work at Mother’s Choice full time as CEO.  The reason for my decision to is simple: I shared the vision to ensure that no girl and no baby is left alone, I had a passion for the mission – to join hands together with the community to transform lives and give hope, and I felt that I had a calling to use my skills and experiences to support that vision and mission in a leadership role.

As you made the transition from attorney to NGO CEO what was the most difficult adjustment?  What was the one thing that made you say, "Thank God I'm not a corporate lawyer anymore!!!"

Although I have never regretted my decision to move from the corporate world to the non-profit world, I have to admit that it has been a challenging transition!  I had some pretty major misconceptions about working in an NGO, including the idea that non-profit workers enjoyed a better work/life balance.  The reality has been drastically different.  Although I worked long hours at a big law firm, I always had access to support staff, strong infrastructure and
well-developed training and leadership programming.  The non-profit world suffers from serious under-capacity.  Non-profits have less access to resources, quality staff and reduced ability to make decisions quickly.  You have to be much more entrepreneurial and creative in an NGO!  I have to spend a lot more time explaining to my team how to do things, I have to think creatively about where to find resources and how to build capacity, and decision-making requires much more collaborating and consensus building with more stakeholders.  I actually work much longer hours now, but I have to say that I absolutely love what I do and I am much more motivated by the work that we do together with the community. 

Often the West has a very particular image in our minds when we think about orphans.  Can you talk about some common misconceptions that we have and how it has affected the work of orphan care?

We are more concerned about misconceptions about orphans and orphan care here in
Asia!  We have thousands of children in institutional care environments in Hong Kong (in orphanages, small group homes and foster homes), and the vast majority of the community believe that because these children have a roof over their heads, food to eat and receive education and medical assistance, that their needs are being met. 
Many also believe that family can only consist of blood relatives, and so to place a child in an institution rather than with an adoptive family is a good choice. 
Most children in institutionalized care in Hong Kong remain there for years, and are often neither returned to their birth families nor placed for adoption. Although temporary institutional care is appropriate for some children, the absence of a stable and nurturing family can cause serious emotional and physical harm.  The presence of a nurturing primary caregiver is crucial, particularly during the first three years of life. Their brains develop rapidly during this period, reaching 90% of their adult size.  Where a child is neglected, abused or simply lacks a responsive and nurturing caregiver - their brain interprets the world as threatening and stressful, and adapts accordingly. This seriously affects a child's development and life chances. It raises the risk of problems finding and keeping employment,  as well as substance abuse and anti-social behavior  as an adult. It can also affect a child's intelligence, self-esteem and ability to form healthy inter-personal relationships. 
This is why we do not run an “orphanage” and none of our children stay with us on a permanent basis – we are working around the clock to make sure that they are placed with a loving, stable, permanent family as quickly as possible. 
We want our community to know that child-care institutions, even foster families, no matter how well-run, cannot provide an adequate replacement for the sense of security and the level of care that can be provided by a permanent family.  Every child deserves to have a forever family, and family is defined by love, not blood. 

If your organization is successful, what do you hope to accomplish?  How can the average person be a part of helping you accomplish these goals?

This is an interesting question, because measuring success in an NGO is much more difficult than in the corporate world!  Our bottom line is not just financial and it is difficult to find metrics that accurately measure a changed human life and changed societal attitudes!  Even though it is more challenging, strategic planning and being willing to evaluate both individuals and our organization is even more important.  To be able to create meaningful key performance indicators at every level, we have to be willing to take a hard look at our services and be able to articulate well what great quality services look like.  This is an ongoing, iterative process and also means being able to dream big and think of long-term solutions, even if we don’t immediately have the funds or resources. 
In the next five years, one of our primary goals at Mother’s Choice is to help more
babies and children without families find loving, permanent homes.  Currently, for every child we accept we have to turn one away due to lack of resources!  We will take a three pronged approach to accomplish our goal, through: 1) Community, 2) Advocacy, and 3) Education.  We are working with a global management consulting company, Bain & Company to develop creative solutions that include a new way of looking at private foster care in the community, many pro bono attorneys are helping us to be stronger legal advocates for babies and children who need permanent families, and we are rolling out new education and awareness campaigns to educate the community about adoption and change the way that people think about children in adversity. 
Absolutely every single person can do something to help us achieve our goals, whether it’s giving of their of time, talents or financial support. 
As a non-profit, first and foremost, we need “funding” to keep our operations running and the most crucial gifts for us are those that allow us to, what I like to call, “Keep Our Lights on”.  For our Services to make the maximum impact, we need to have a strong core of adequate infrastructure.  This support not only makes our current services possible, it also gives us the resources and breathing space to come up with new ideas that enable us to make even more of an impact in our community.  Core support makes us more efficient and gives us the flexibility to be responsive, innovative and resilient in the face of threats. 
To give of “time”, we have a role called Overseas Volunteer where individuals make a full-time commitment of 6 months to a year of getting hands on experience working in one of our four services.  Over our 26 years, we’ve had volunteers come from all corners of the world and several of them have been inspired to go back to their own community and open up sister organizations that are now in China, India and Cambodia.       
We also rely heavily on volunteerism – in fact, the number of volunteers to paid staff is 6 to 1!!  The majority of our volunteers help out in our Child Care Home but we are starting to see an increase in the number of volunteers who give of their “talent” whether it’s legal, HR, design, strategy and IT.  We’ve really benefited tremendously from these professionals who provide expert advice that have helped us to be more efficient and effective with our limited resources of time, people and money. 

Can you recommend resources [books, articles, youtube videos, podcasts etc] that can help us as we seek to engage in the issue of orphan care?

Alia Eyres is the CEO of Mother's Choice, a local Hong Kong charity that provides and promotes loving, nurturing care for babies and children needing permanent homes, and for single girls and their families facing crisis pregnancies. Prior to joining Mother's Choice, Alia was a corporate lawyer in Hong Kong for Hogan Lovells, and in New York for Skadden, Arps. Alia holds a Juris Doctorate from the Georgetown University Law Centre and a Bachelor of Arts in International Affairs from the George Washington University, where she was also a member of the NCAA Division 1 Women's Rowing Team. Alia was born and raised in Hong Kong, where she and her six younger siblings had the opportunity to volunteer at Mother's Choice through childhood. Alia lives with her husband, an entrepreneur from Ireland, and her two young sons.

You can read more about Alia's incredible body of work by clicking these unbelievable links ::
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