At the time, I was spending weekends contentedly rescuing dogs and cats from the streets of New York. But I was interested in doing something to help the world. Asked by an Indonesian friend to travel with him to his hometown in the Celebes Islands, I jumped at the chance and off we went. My life was about to turn dramatically.
By happenstance, we drove by an orphanage, and I felt drawn to visit it. I was intrigued. Over the years, orphanages have been phased out in the United States, replaced by foster care. Stepping inside the dimly lighted facility, I was overcome by the extraordinarily poor conditions. There was plenty of loving care, but the facility itself was dilapidated. If these children only had more money for food and shelter — about $600 a year would do it, I figured — they could thrive. What could I personally do to make this happen?
One infant literally stood out from the others, and his pleading yet determined eyes seemed to demand that I take him home with me. His name was Mathew. He was 10 months old.
The connection between us was immediate, and after talking to my fiancée, I agreed to adopt him. The staff asked that his undershirt, full of holes, be left for the next child.
Within a year Mathew had cleared Indonesian and American bureaucracies and was in my arms at Kennedy Airport.
Before Matt arrived, I had discussed what I had witnessed with a sharp-minded child psychologist in Boston — Frances Dudley Alleman-Luce, my mother and friend. I could not stop thinking about the other infants at the orphanage, existing in such Dickensian conditions, worse than New York’s animal shelters. They could not all be adopted, but they could be helped. My mother and I talked about ways we could do that.
Then came the denouement: “Mom, guess what?” I said. “I adopted that little boy — you are now his grandmother!” It took her only seconds to realize that the theoretical was now deeply personal — and a new page in our family history had been turned. The matriarch of our family, with deep roots in Puritan and Anglican New England, had been given a Chinese-Indonesian grandson.
When Matt came, she immediately embraced him as her own and gave him the same tour of Harvard Yard that she had given me as a child, pointing out our family’s roots there. Today he is your average New York City teenager.
Solutions to the overall problems I had encountered in the Celebes Islands had to exist. My mother studied my inclination to give love and affection to the needy and challenged me to conceptualize my aim to improve the lives of orphans.
So was born the idea of a surrogate foster care system in developing nations. My concept was based on small homes with only four children and a house parent at each dwelling. My vision was to raise orphaned children from toddlers to adulthood the way I would raise my son. This simple notion is now codified as “Mathew’s Rule.” Could Mathew thrive here? This is our strict and primary criteria.
My mother died in 2001, and in her will she designated money with the hope that I would begin Orphans International. Given my heritage — from a co-founder of Harvard (Thomas Dudley) to the founder of the Naval War College (Stephen Bleecker Luce) — perhaps she believed institution-building was in my genes.
We incorporated Orphans International in Indonesia later that year, and opened our first home in Sulawesi. In 2002, we incorporated in New York and began raising money here. We started work in Haiti in 2003, eventually opening a home in Gonaïves.
Then, the tsunami slammed across the Indian Ocean from Indonesia to Sri Lanka. Contributions poured in, from my own Roosevelt Island community and from prominent families around the world that had heard about us through word of mouth. We placed staff on the ground— actually in the mud — within days in Aceh, Indonesia, quickly set up a home and embraced our first tsunami orphans with love and compassion. I thought of my mother.
When the wave smashed Sri Lanka, a young Sri Lankan-American couple were caught in its deadly grasp on a beach near Galle. The husband was washed away. His American wife survived. In his memory, her father pledged to build an orphan village in Sri Lanka.
Backed by our board, we built a United Nations-associated nongovernmental organization. Our umbrella organization is Orphans International Worldwide, with our administrative office staffed by volunteers in Lima, Peru, and our volunteer internship program in New York. This structure enables us to maintain a low overhead; our latest audit shows less than 8 percent spent on administration.
To underwrite these efforts, we created the usual Founder’s Circle, President’s Circle and Advisory Board — each group with specific financial commitments. Since we became associated with the United Nations Department of Public Information, Matt’s Rule has been fleshed out and become a standard for orphanages in the developing world.
After the tsunami, I resigned my Wall Street job to dedicate myself to increase financing, build programming and assure compliance with our global standards. Tremendous progress has been achieved with honest, supportive and caring local professionals. We had hoped they would help us avoid the setbacks — including countless cases of nepotism and corruption — that we have encountered. They have to some degree, but challenges still occurred.
For example, a board member for one of our programs pressured us to hire his mistress as our director and rent his brother’s mansion as our orphanage. No. A staff member saw dollar signs after the tsunami and the millions in aid flowing after, and announced he was taking over the organization. No. Another officer, with me for two years, could not account for funds. Again, no. How can anyone betray their own children?
Despite these behind-the-scene battles, we are on the ground in 12 countries and have an annual budget of a half-million dollars, with projects in Haiti, Indonesia and Peru and opening in Sri Lanka. Interestingly, Sri Lanka is the only country in which we have never been cheated. There we have not faced corruption, but rather the slow torture of a bureaucracy. I believe our project there, which is about to accept its first children, may become the model for our global efforts.
Orphans International has become my calling, and it can be a dangerous one. Last summer in Haiti, out for a swim with our local director and two of our children, we were attacked by a mob of people who thought we were kidnapping their children. The Haitian police saw the danger and rescued us but were themselves overrun by the violent crowd. Ultimately, we were saved by United Nations peacekeeping soldiers.
Ultimately, I believe, patience, trust, good will and the Internet make our efforts possible. We communicate with our 218 volunteers across time zones by e-mail, instant messaging and Skype. Plaxo, Facebook and LinkedIn also play a role in our outreach. Plans are for our child sponsors to be able to greet their children directly via Skype.
As on Wall Street, the 100-hour weeks continue, except now I no longer receive a salary or annual bonus. In 2006, I cashed in my retirement plan savings to keep our efforts afloat. My focus continues to be pursuing the almighty dollar — only now for others.
Jim Luce is the founder and president of Orphans International Worldwide.
Originally published in The New York Times.