“We discovered an orphanage where six adults were trying to care for 250 children in facilities with a leaky roof and no working toilets. It was heartbreaking,” recalls Garrett, who has led 16 trips back to El Salvador and Honduras. He and more than 200 volunteers have partnered with local churches to improve and build dormitories — and rebuild lives.
“Orphan Helpers is a multidenominational ministry to serve the physical, educational, and spiritual needs of children who’ve been abandoned in orphanages and prisons,” says Garrett. He estimates that the organization has helped some 3,000 children in five years, including many who’ve been incarcerated.
Tragically, incarcerated children may be among the lucky ones, Garrett says, since the unofficial practice in some Central and South American cities is to shoot street children, who are considered a nuisance.
“Most Americans are completely unaware of the kind of lives these children lead,” says Richard Yeargain, executive director of Orphan Helpers. “Many are incarcerated simply because they’re homeless; some turn to prostitution or drug dealing to survive.
In one center we visit, half the boys are addicted to crack cocaine. What makes this even more disturbing is that their average age is 11.”
Since 2000, Orphan Helpers has raised nearly $1 million to provide meals, clothing, education, and counseling. “In the United States, orphaned children have resources and organizations designed to help them. In Central America, that support is sadly lacking,” says Garrett.
Conditions are often crowded and dirty, Garrett says. “There may be 20 or more babies in a single room, with just one person trying to care for them. Older children just wander around, with no toys or books or adults to guide them. Often the youngsters are in need of shoes, clothing, and a bath,” he says.
Orphan Helpers employs about 50 teachers, counselors, and caregivers in 12 facilities, which often doubles or triples the existing staff.
Many of the children who received support from Orphan Helpers are now working with the organization. “That’s a major theme of ours,” says Garrett. “We want today’s orphans to become tomorrow’s helpers.”
A good example is a young woman named Esperanza. When Garrett first met her, she was angry and bitter at having been abandoned by her family. “We showed her we cared about her, and now she’s working with the younger children as a teacher trainee. In fact, we’re going to help her go to school to become a psychologist,” he says.
“A young man committed six murders on kill-or-be-killed orders from a gang before his 16th birthday. Now he’s in his third year of studying to be a pastor. There’s just no way to overestimate the good a young person is capable of if you show that you care. I believe these kids are going to help change the world,” Garrett says.
Orphan Helpers is based in Hampton, Va., where Garrett started Greg Garrett Realty in 1984 and now runs eight other real estate–related companies. So far in 2005, Orphan Helpers volunteers have made more than a dozen trips to El Salvador and Honduras, with each person paying up to $1,600 for airfare and expenses. The leading donor is Garrett himself, giving nearly $150,000 and 600 hours of his time in the past two years.
This year Garrett is making five trips to Central America. One of his missions is to visit prisons and help teenage boys break away from the “maras,” or gangs, that prey on youngsters and force them into criminal activity. “Three of our orphans-turned-helpers have been killed by gang members after they’ve left prison,” says Garrett.
Even in the face of such challenges, Garrett remains determined to see Orphan Helpers grow; plans are under way to expand into Guatemala and Nicaragua in 2006. “We hope to be working with a million kids in a hundred countries,” he says. That may sound like an impossible goal but not to Garrett, who believes that “if you listen to your heart, it’ll lead you to your destiny.”