CHIANG MAI, Thailand -- There are an estimated 8 million children worldwide living in orphanages. Now a movement, led primarily by Christians, wants to change that dynamic and put those children in safe, stable and nurturing families.
It's an ambitious vision of a world without orphans, one that Gennadiy Mokhnenko has made his life's mission.
"The statistics show that if one or two Christian families will take one orphan, we will have a world without orphans," he told CBN News.
Mokhnenko is a pastor from Eastern Ukraine. In 1998, he saw first-hand the plight of children living on the streets and in orphanages in his hometown of Mariupol.
"I just didn't know how I could have left them on the streets. When I saw their eyes, I understood the Father's heart of God. It was a crazy idea, but I knew we had to do something," Mokhnenko said.
Parents to 32 Children!
What he and his wife Lena did was remarkable. Over 18 years, they've become parents to 32 children! Most are adopted.
"My adopted children were living on the streets. Some of them were as young as 4 and 5, some as young as 2, but we knew if we didn't take them off the streets, most of them would be dead or in prison," Mokhnenko said.
Today the Mokhnenkos run Republic Pilgrim, the largest rehabilitation program for street youth in Ukraine.
"Nobody needs to adopt 32 children like we did. My family is not the norm," he acknowledged. "But I strongly believe there are enough Christian families in the world who can adopt one, maybe two and then there will not be any orphans left in this world!"
Mokhnenko took that message to Chiang Mai, Thailand, where 450 key orphan care leaders met for the first-ever Global Forum for a World Without Orphans.
Ruslan Maliuta helped organize the gathering.
"Our purpose is very simple: It is to activate, connect and equip the Body of Christ to this vision of every child having a permanent, nurturing and safe family," said Maliuta, who serves as international director for World Without Orphans.
It Won't Be Easy
Maliuta believes churches and Christian organizations have to change their approach from investing in orphanages to investing in families.
"It is not easy. You cannot just close an orphanage. The message is not 'let's close all institutions.' That will actually be a wrong idea. We need to change the way people think first," Maliuta explained.
Craig Greenfield, founder of Alongsiders International, works among vulnerable children in Asia. He says the change has to start with faith-based groups.
"Unfortunately, it is still Christian missions and Christian organizations that are perpetuating this model of orphanages," Greenfield said. "Large secular development organizations, they've not supported or done orphanages for many, many years."
The change is happening, albeit slowly, says Rebecca Nhep, who works with a network of Australian churches helping strengthen children's rights to a family.
"There is a growing awareness taking place within the Church that this actually isn't the best way to care for children, and that a lot of the children being cared for in orphanages or other types of residential care aren't actually orphans -- they are children with families; they are children with parents," Nhep said. "They are there for reasons such as poverty, disability, or access to education."
Not Without It's Critics
But this paradigm shift is not without its critics. In Chiang Mai, home to roughly about 1.6 million people, there are 600 private orphanages -- and many of them are run by Christians.
"I grew up in an orphanage as well, so my desire is to take care of orphaned children," said Manop Chaochareon, who runs Ban Dek Dee orphanage.
His family was too poor so they sent him away.
"Since there was no school in my village, my parents sent me to an orphanage where I was able to get an education," he said.
He admits it wasn't ideal. Now he and his wife try to create a family-like atmosphere for the 30 children they care for. He says they only take in those who are truly orphaned.
"The truth is children should live with their family, but if that can't happen, for whatever reason, there has to be places like this that can be another choice for them," Chaochareon told CBN News.
Back at the forum, participants from 60 countries attended workshops and seminars on raising awareness of family and community-based care.
"This forum is a historic forum for the world because I really believe that children are voiceless and they cannot speak for themselves, therefore God is revealing His secrets to the adults to save the children!" Chinehulu Lohe, a delegate from India, told CBN News.
"When He created us, He created us in families and so when we come together this way, we understand that we can really help each other grow, support each other, we can equip each other and be significant light in each of our countries," Anja Goertzen, a lawyer form Paraguay, said.
Building Families, Not Orphanages
Several speakers addressed the forum, including CBN's very own 700 Club co-host Terry Meeuwsen.
A mother of seven, five of whom are adopted, Meeuwsen started Orphan's Promise in 2005. She learned early on that building and filling an orphanage was not always the best thing to do.
"People still come to me sometimes and say, 'Well, I'd like to build an orphanage. Can we do that through Orphan's Promise?' And we say, 'Well, you can help us build families and you can help us help children, but we are not really building orphanages,'" Meeusen said.
"And the orphanages that exist, we are helping to change how they think and feel into that family pod mode," she said.
Orphan's Promise works in 60 countries. Meeuwsen says while this new shift doesn't always guarantee that children will have healthy families to go back to, it's important that the Body of Christ steps in to fill the gaps.
"Let's step up as the people of God, in whatever culture we are in, and let's take those children into a family setting. Let's help them find wholeness so that we are creating a world of healthy families," she said.
'Everyone Can Do Something'
Maliuta is excited to see more and more people embrace this new mindset of orphan care.
"Here's the great part about this vision: Not everyone can adopt, not everyone can foster, not everyone can engage in a substantial way with some program, but everyone can do something," he said.
"Everyone can be an advocate," Maliuta continued. "Everyone can pray, everyone can be a champion. And anyone who has spent some time in this field knows that it's a long and complicated process, but we have to start somewhere."
The forum, he says, is a new phase of that long and difficult journey towards a world without orphans.