Sean Callahan, President and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, Joins Denver Frederick

The following is a conversation between Sean Callahan, President and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.


Sean Callahan, CRSDenver: And this evening, we’ll be joined by our second semi-finalist, Catholic Relief Services, who is looking to change how society cares for children and orphanages with the aim of getting them into family settings. And with us to discuss it is their President and CEO, Sean Callahan. Good evening, Sean, and welcome to The Business of Giving! 

Sean: Good evening, Denver! Thank you for having me.

Denver: Before we get to the specifics of your proposal, tell our listeners about Catholic Relief Services and the breadth and scope of the work that you do.

Sean: Catholic Relief Services is the international development arm and humanitarian assistance arm of the United States Catholic community. We reach out to people in over 100 countries around the world, reaching over 100 million people every year, focusing our efforts on emergency response, health interventions, agriculture, water, and economic development.

Denver: So Sean, if you would, why don’t we start by having you walk us through one of these orphanages and tell us what we would see and what we wouldn’t see; what we would hear as well as what we wouldn’t hear.

Sean: As you walk into an orphanage—and I just came back from Africa and had this experience—you normally enter a cinder block room that is crammed with metal cribs. And as you peek into the room, it’s normally a little dark so that the children seem to be somewhat sedated in that context. And the one thing that struck me as I walked in is the complete silence… and just quiet when you have a room packed with children. And then walking into the room and by various cribs, if the children notice you’re there, they scurry up and they start grabbing the sleeve of your shirt or grabbing your pants. They’re yearning for some attention and some human contact. 

Denver: Would the lack of noise or the lack of crying be the children realizing it doesn’t do them any good? They don’t get a response, so they just stay quiet like that?

Sean: That is part of it. I think any children that are in this context, as the research has shown: Three months in an institution delays the development of these children by about a month. But my daughter actually went and volunteered in the summer and worked in one of these areas, and she sent me a little quote about her feelings about it. She said there was a young boy named Peter that she was caring for. She said, “Peter, who cried every day that his father visited because Peter actually had a father though he was in an orphanage. His dad was trying, but they were poor – too poor to feed him – and so the father was taking responsibility by putting him in an orphanage. But when Peter got the chickenpox and was on bed rest for a week, his hands bound so that he could not scratch his skin until it bled, he did not cry. He sat staring at the wall like he could feel the world beyond, just sitting there staring at the wall.”

So we do think that as you look at these children, that these children just become placated by the environment they’re in. There isn’t enough stimulation for them, and they don’t have that loving, caring family to help them express themselves. 

…every three months in an orphanage delays development by a month itself, and so what you have is delayed development that is never caught up in the lifetime of many of these children.

Denver: Well, speak a little bit more about that Sean, if you will. What is the impact on a child, their health, their brain development, and, ultimately, their ability to function as a productive member of society?

Sean: It’s actually devastating although many people support orphanages for many, many good reasons, and there are people who work in these orphanages that really try to reach out to the children. But as I was mentioning earlier, every three months in an orphanage delays development by a month itself, and so what you have is delayed development that is never caught up in the lifetime of many of these children. And then when the children exit the orphanage–because they’re only in there for a certain period of time–they have great, great difficulty in integrating into society. They have not had the family support structure; they have not had the interactions, and they haven’t had those daily experiences that we have in a home that would allow them to integrate. And so in school, they have problems; with relationships they have problems. And oftentimes, they’re exploited when they come out of these orphanages. They’re taken by people who probably don’t care for them as much as their family would. And they’re often subjected to commercial sex type work or exploited in other ways, or homeless. 

Denver: When you think of an orphanage, Sean, you automatically think of children who have lost parents, but is that actually the case?

Sean: It isn’t the case. We found that around the world, about 80% of those in orphanages actually have parents, and it’s really an economic problem and a capacity problem. On the economic side, as I’ve mentioned that quote about the young boy named Peter, some families don’t have the resources to care for their children, and they feel by putting them in an orphanage that the children would be fed well, cared for well, and looked after. And they feel that they can’t do it. They just can’t cope, given the poverty that these people are in. In other cases, and I’ve seen this in various countries and most recently in a visit to Iraq, children are placed in some of these locations because of disabilities, either intellectual or physical disabilities. The parents don’t have the education or the ability or the support structure to care for children with disabilities, and so they oftentimes hope that these institutions will care for them in a better way than they could.  

Denver: Does CRS have an estimate of how many children are living like this across the world?

Sean: There’s no exact number, but the estimate that we do have is about 8 million throughout the world right now.

…we found that supporting the children with these day care facilities — as opposed to an institution in which, frankly, the child would be somewhat incarcerated — that the children will then have the opportunity of that family environment and not have all these negative traits and stigma that come with being in an institution. 

Denver: This is a pretty tough issue.  There’s no question about it, so I guess the question would be how do you go about getting these children back with their parents or at least into some kind of a family setting? What do you do? 

Sean: We work with the orphanages themselves, and we work with the local structure of the local government and all, and local community-based organizations. And so as we look at the orphanages throughout the world, these eight million children, we see that probably four million of the eight million are in faith- based institutions. So we’ve been reaching out to various faith-based institutions that support these children and providing them with the research and the capacity-building techniques that would help them to convert their institutions to child care centers… to resource centers for parents, that actually would help educate them and move them beyond this.

In the case of Iraq that I’ve mentioned, the center there now is a day facility where parents can come in, learn the techniques of caring for children with either physical or intellectual disabilities and then caring for those children.  And then they take the children home and keep them in that family environment. In other cases, we work with social mobilization groups and we help the families to develop livelihoods that allow them to get the resources so that they can then support the children. And we found that supporting the children with these day care facilities — as opposed to an institution in which, frankly, the child would be somewhat incarcerated — that the children will then have the opportunity of that family environment and not have all these negative traits and stigma that come with being in an institution. 

Denver: Yes. So you’re really making this much more locally focused. You’re trying to provide those parents with some economic stability and some parenting skills to be able to bring these children back into that kind of a loving setting. 

Sean: That’s exactly right! And it’s a very cost-effective solution. Our solution actually costs about one-tenth of what it costs to keep a child in an institution. So, you can actually help 10 people with the donation that people would provide normally to one of these institutions– they could actually help 10 children, and it actually allows the children to stay with their family, which the family actually desires.  And then it produces a child that is a more integrated citizen into society.

We have seen great results in Moldova. It’s one of the countries in Eastern Europe that has had great success with this.  We’re trying it out in places like Lebanon with some of the migrating communities that go along. We’re reaching out to those communities because many of them are the most vulnerable as well.

Denver: That’s fantastic! I think it’s somewhat counter-intuitive – you think it would probably cost more, but it doesn’t; it costs less. It costs a lot less! It’s unbelievable 10 cents on the dollar! This approach, where has it been successful? Have there been many countries that have tried it with great results?

Sean: We have seen great results in Moldova. It’s one of the countries in eastern Europe that has had great success with this.  We’re trying it out in places like Lebanon with some of the migrating communities that go along. We’re reaching out to those communities because many of them are the most vulnerable as well. And so we’re seeing that the ability of the families to care for their children– and then the support centers reaching out providing the education and capacity building for the families, as well as helping the children integrate into schools– has been tremendously successful.

The other important factor, as we move it forward, we’ve been seeing that the governments have been taking it on and providing legislation that is in support of this type of effort. As you may know, in the United States, we don’t put children into homes and orphanages anymore and haven’t really since the ’70s. And so something that we say is, “We wouldn’t send overseas a medicine that’s been expired… that we wouldn’t use ourselves… and ask them to use it on their children. And we shouldn’t be promoting orphanages that we would not put our children in this country in.” These are actually facilities that oftentimes are somewhat of an incarceration of a child as opposed to allowing the child to flourish. 

Denver: You have an educational effort there, I would imagine, because I think a lot of people, well-meaning people in this country, are sending their monies directly to those orphanages thinking they’re doing a lot of good when, in fact, they could do a lot more good by directing it the way that you have suggested. Do you have any efforts along those lines– to try to inform and educate people?

Sean: We do, and we’re going to continue to move on these efforts. We have a resource group and an advisory panel with us that is a very broad array of various institutions that help children, both technically with intellectual and physical disabilities, and with reaching out to all of these groups to advise their people that by redirecting aid, they can actually have a much more substantial impact.

And so with this 100 & Change opportunity: One, we get the attention for these issues so that we broaden it. We can maximize our effort by reaching out to countries and responding to this crisis issue right away in a more rapid manner. We also provide the opportunity for those who are giving… to continue giving, but to redirect the aid to these resource centers and see that their efforts are actually improving these children 10 times as much as they thought by giving to the institution.

Denver: That’s fantastic! In this 100 & Change initiative, you have two partners, Lumos and Maestral. Tell us about them, the roles that each of you plays, and how this partnership came together around this initiative.

Sean: It’s a really exciting collaboration. Lumos, as many people would know, is the charity of J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame. She had seen these issues, had read some articles and some papers, and saw that in Eastern Europe, children were in very difficult situations. And by difficult situations, pretty much in cages, as she saw it.  And it just struck her that that was not the way for a child to develop and so she started Lumos as an enlightenment– as the name would say it– and from the magic spells that Harry Potter would cast to create light in the world.  And Lumos is to shed light on this issue.

And so they have done some great awareness campaigns, really focusing on Europe. And what she wanted to do was combine with the effort of Catholic Relief Services to spread this throughout the world. They have seen some success in eastern Europe where they’ve been working now and wanted to expand that globally.  So, they joined our effort on this, as well as Maestral, which is a United States-based technical group that protects children. They have fantastic experts that have worked around the world, and they’re coming in, bringing their technical expertise. And then we have an array of other organizations including the Special Olympics and  various universities that have come in to join because they all feel “Now is the time.”  It’s right for the political context to help governments set up a new legislative paradigm that will assist us in moving forward in closing down the orphanages and transforming them into child care centers.

Denver: It sounds like you have a dream team with which to address this issue. If your proposal should be chosen as the winning one by MacArthur, what would you do with the $100 million, Sean? What would it allow CRS and your partners to achieve? 

Sean: The first thing that we would do is: we would make changes with governments and allow government leaders to help us to move this effort forward. We would also right away start reintegrating children into their family areas. We would start stopping children from being put into orphanages right away because that is one of the key areas that we find– that stopping them from getting in will help the children right from the beginning– and put them into these support centers.

So, we will have some campaigns, open up these family-based care centers for the children… and then moving away from that reliance on the care… and then providing these nurturing family care environments… so capacity building and education for the families as they move forward. We would also start working with faith-based communities in the various areas, so that those different communities see the strength of this… and assisting them in providing the support for these resource centers that are going to be in the local areas in which they work as well.

The most difficult one I think, is the acceptance from those who have been supporting orphanages in the first place…I think oftentimes people are reluctant to believe that they’ve been supporting an institution that might not be providing the best for the children.

Denver: Sean, you have spoken about creating a paradigm shift as to how society and the world addresses this issue. And of all the challenges you faced in creating that shift… aside from the resources, of course… what do you believe is going to be the most difficult and daunting one that you will encounter?   

Sean: The most difficult one I think, is the acceptance from those who have been supporting orphanages in the first place. I think we have many, many well-meaning individuals who have contributed their hard-earned resources in the belief that they’re protecting or saving the life of a child by giving to this orphanage.  I think oftentimes people are reluctant to believe that they’ve been supporting an institution that might not be providing the best for the children. And so we’re trying to do this conversion process in a way that people don’t feel like they have been doing something wrong. Instead, that the research in these countries and the timing may not have been corrected in times since.  So maybe these institutions were ones that did help protect the child, but now we know that deinstitutionalization really is what the children need.  They need their family and they need that family support. So it’s helping these people who have given in the past and helping them to be supporters of this paradigm shift so that they can support into the future, as I’ve said before, not just one child that they’re protecting and saving, but 10!  

…we’re not just asking to change something for a moment, we’re asking to change a lifetime. So we’re really asking people to look in their hearts to support this effort and to assist us in changing the lifetime of these children.

Denver: Let me close with this, Sean. As I’m sure you will agree, there are seven worthy and really just spectacular proposals amongst the other semi-finalists. But if I ask you to make the case as to why this proposal will have the greatest impact and benefit to the world and society, what would that case be? 

Sean: I would just tell everyone that just imagine your child sitting in a cell by themselves every day, and it’s unconscionable that we, as Americans, would allow that to occur. We need to free these children. We need these children to flourish and have full potentials. So we’re not just asking to change something for a moment, we’re asking to change a lifetime. So we’re really asking people to look in their hearts to support this effort and to assist us in changing the lifetime of these children.

Denver: Fantastic! Well, Sean Callahan, the President and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, I want to thank you so much for being here with us this evening. If people want to learn more about this specific initiative, or of all the work that CRS does, where do they need to go to find it?

Sean: They can just look on our web page which is at http://www.crs.org.

Denver: Thanks, Sean, and my best wishes to you and your colleagues in the MacArthur Foundation’s 100 & Change Competition. 

Sean: Thank you very much, Denver! Much appreciated!

The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/BusinessOfGiving

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