Caroline Boudreaux was skeptical when, in late 1999, her best friend, who was sponsoring a 12-year-old boy in India, insisted they include that country in the yearlong international trip they were planning. Boudreaux, a successful 29-year-old account executive at a TV station in Austin, Texas, had already quit her unfulfilling job and was eager to see the “real” world, not the European tourist cities frequented by privileged Americans. But India?
“That’s the biggest scam on earth,” she scoffed, dismissing her friend’s sponsorship. “I mean, everybody knows that stuff isn’t real. There is no kid.”
But her traveling companion persisted. So after five months in Africa and Israel, in May 2000 the friends landed in a remote village in Odisha, India. Clucking their tongues in a customary greeting, the local women flanked a parade of men who escorted the visitors to meet the child in the sponsorship photos. There, at the end of the humble procession, stood the boy, smiling and clutching the first letter Boudreaux’s friend had sent him.
His father, who was about 35, “looked like he was 70 years old” from cutting rocks in a quarry, Boudreaux recalls. “The whole family, all six people, lived in a mud hut. And I was just like, ‘Oh my God, I am really learning what poverty is.’” Compelled to help, the women decided to build the children a playground and do other volunteer work despite the 119-degree heat.
On Mother’s Day, a local family invited them to dinner. Over the years, their host had gradually taken in 110 orphaned children, who now sat in rags, bald, their bellies distended, eating fermented rice while the adults dined on chicken. After the meal and a Hindu prayer service, Boudreaux and her friend played with the “Velcro babies” who latched onto them, starved for attention and touch. A little girl named Sheebani persistently pushed her tiny body against Boudreaux, who cradled the little girl in her arms and sang her own favorite lullaby until the child fell asleep. Quietly walking upstairs to put Sheebani in her crib, Boudreaux was horrified to find 30 splintered, urine-stained wooden beds spread out like picnic tables. “The minute I heard her bones hit that bed, I just broke,” Boudreaux says. “I thought, ‘What am I doing? I’m partying around the world, complaining that I don’t have a purpose, and then here are these children.’”
The women ended their trip early, and in November, Boudreaux officially launched the non-profit Miracle Foundation. She initially set out to place six orphaned children in adoptive homes but, after discovering the corrupt side of international adoption and visiting 26 orphanages on a return trip to India in 2003, shifted gears and vowed to revolutionize the way the facilities are run and “empower orphans to reach their full potential where they live.”
The Miracle Foundation requires that the 22 orphanages it supports adhere to stringent guidelines as they move from a “warden and inmate” mindset to one focused on family. Only struggling facilities that show a genuine commitment to orphans and their education are chosen. During the “incubation” phase, the Miracle Foundation provides funding to fill in the gaps, train staff members and, using standards inspired by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, actively work with the orphanages to make improvements. Only after a facility has achieved 90 percent of the goals does it become a true Miracle Foundation partner and receive ongoing support, from food and computers to school scholarships. The rigorous system of accountability hasn’t deterred orphanages from clamoring to sign up; 650 applications are currently waiting approval, with 22 government-owned homes slated to hand over operations to The Miracle Foundation soon.
“We’re looking for people that love their children,” says Boudreaux, 46, whose optimism, outgoing personality and endless energy—“my husband says I look like I’m ready to pounce at all times,” she laughs—have helped her tackle foreign barriers and recruit hundreds of business executives, doctors, donors and other volunteers. “If they love their children, we can help them with every other skill set.”
So far, the non-profit group has helped 2,000 orphans. On her first visit to one orphanage, Boudreaux says, “The kids were so anemic and they had worms so badly that they would prop their heads up against the walls. Nobody was playing. Nobody was standing. There was no energy. There were no smiles.” Throughout the day, she carried a little “angel” named Santosh everywhere she went. With help from The Miracle Foundation, the children were soon worm-free, drinking clean water and eating nourishing food. And Santosh, who could hardly hold his head up three months earlier, was climbing on the jungle gym monkey bars, healthy and happy. “Just getting the children from totally despondent, hopeless, sick and hungry,” says Boudreaux, “to these totally ambitious, ‘on fire,’ healthy, energetic, college-bound kids—that transformation is what it’s all about.”
One difference between her organization and others is that it aims to “resettle” children with family members who can care for them. “Orphanages know that the more kids they have, the better support they can get. So they sometimes take children with parents,” she notes. “Well, that is absolutely against the rights of a child. Our goal is to help institutions get smaller.”
The Miracle Foundation bases its “12 Rights of a Child” on the 1989 United Nations convention of the same name, while focusing specifically on the rights of orphans:
- A stable, loving and nurturing environment
- Health care and nutrition
- Clean water and electric power
- A quality education
- Equal opportunities
- Guidance from a caring adult
- To be heard and participate in decisions that affect them
- To be prepared for active and responsible citizenship
- Protection from abuse and neglect
- To live in conditions of dignity and freedom
- Spiritual development
- To live with their parents or relatives, if possible
Boudreaux plans to expand The Miracle Foundation into other countries and is currently discussing the possibilities with representatives from Uganda, Kenya and Cambodia. And she recently started an Orange is for Orphans campaign to create awareness in the same way that pink has become synonymous with support for breast cancer patients and survivors. “This is an emergency,” she says. “If a flood happened to them, we would race out and help them tomorrow. This is a flood. It is a disaster. It’s that urgent.”
For more information see miraclefoundation.org.
Nancy Henderson is an award-winning author and national freelancer who often writes about people who are making a difference through their work. She is the author of Sewing Hope, a biography of Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe (Dust Jacket Press) and Able! How One Company’s Extraordinary Workforce Changed the Way We Look at Disability Today (BenBella Books) and has written for Parade, Smithsonian and many other publications.