Reformer Profile: Whitney Runyon of The Archibald Project
When many of us think of caring for orphans we think “adoption.” But adoption, although wonderful and in some circumstances necessary, is only one way to care for orphans. Adoption is typically necessary because of deeper root problems: poverty, war, disease, lack of education, government policy, and the breakdown of the family.
With an estimated 140 million orphans worldwide, solutions to this global crisis are complex and daunting, but the Austin-based nonprofit The Archibald Project (TAP) is creating a movement of people who care for vulnerable children in creative and educated ways.
We spoke with Whitney Runyon, co-founder of TAP, about the many ways they utilize storytelling as a catalyst to end the global orphan crisis. Because of The Archibald Project, visual and written stories inspire people all over the world to ensure fewer children are called “orphan.”
Describe The Archibald Project in three words.
Orphan care advocacy.
Where did the name come from?
Nick and I had been married for about two years when I felt a stirring in my spirit that something completely new was headed our way. Nick was an airline pilot at the time, and I was a wedding photographer. At the beginning of 2011, I sensed that I was supposed to reach out to an old friend and ask if I could photograph her two-year-old daughter. So I did…
The entire shoot I wasn’t quite sure why I was there. I kept praying, “Why am I here? Why am I doing this photo shoot for free?” I didn’t sense an answer, so I just assumed it wasn’t about me and kept shooting. Towards the end of the session, I asked the mom if they were going to have more children and she answered, “Well, we’re actually in the process of adopting.”
It felt like the clouds parted, and I heard a voice deep in my heart, “You’re supposed to go with them and document their adoption.” So I looked at my friend and said, “I think I’m supposed to go with you to Bulgaria and photograph your adoption.”
And of course she was like, “Uh, well…let me talk to my husband…” and I was like, “Oh yeah, let me talk to my husband too!”
Because Nick was an airline pilot, we were able to travel last minute to Bulgaria, enabling us to document the adoption of a seven-year-old boy with Down Syndrome. It was the most beautiful and humbling experience of our lives. We were able to witness from behind our cameras a family choosing to love a boy just because. This child did nothing to earn his adoption or his family, he was chosen.
That was the moment when we realized the power of storytelling to inspire people into action.
A few weeks later, after we had returned home and put the photos on Facebook, I received a message from a complete stranger: “We are now adopting a five-year-old who is chronically ill from Ukraine. If it had not been for your photos we would have never found our son.”
That was the moment when we realized the power of storytelling to inspire people into action. We formed our orphan care advocacy nonprofit soon after and named it after the little Bulgarian boy whose adoption started it all. Archibald.
What is one thing you thought you knew about orphan care that you now realize was incorrect?
That adoption was the answer to ending the orphan crisis.
You refer to The Archibald Project as “your trusted source on ethical orphan care.” Tell me about the gap you saw in the orphan care conversation in regard to ethics and how The Archibald Project is filling that gap.
There is a lot of western Christian verbiage about adoption being the way to care for vulnerable children and little talk about addressing the issue from the root cause: caring for vulnerable children and their families and trying to keep families together. Around the time we started TAP, which is the acronym we often use, it seemed like everywhere we turned well-meaning pastors were writing books and encouraging their congregations that they were called to care for orphans and the way to do that was adoption.
We bought into this message as well initially and thought if we could tell more adoption stories then more people would adopt and we could end the orphan crisis.
It wasn’t until we were living in Uganda that we were exposed to the realities of the misinformed Western orphan care movement. We worked with many children living in orphanages who had living family that wanted them, but because of poverty, lack of education, war, disease, and the demand for adoption by the Western World these families were being ripped apart. And this is literally happening in every country in the world.
We worked with many children living in orphanages who had living family that wanted them, but because of poverty, lack of education, war, disease, and the demand for adoption by the Western World these families were being ripped apart.
Living in Uganda also showed us how often people can mislead their Western audience into believing one thing when really something else is going on. Like that a child needs to be adopted, or where donations are going. So we started using the word ‘ethical’ orphan care when talking about our storytelling because we wanted people to know that they could trust us and the organizations or people we promote. We vet everyone we work with and only promote people who are truly working to care for vulnerable children AND families. We only work with organizations who are conducting international adoptions when it is the absolute last case for a child. This is huge and people need to know the truth, so we use the word ethical so people can trust us. We apply this to everything that we do. We have seen many unethical organizations, but more importantly, we have witnessed so many amazing organizations and people that are truly on the front-lines fighting the orphan crisis.
Also, over the years in our research we found it difficult to find an easy-to-understand summary of how we got here, where we’re at, where we’re going, and what you can do to help. We’ve created our 411 pages where people can find all of this information in one place and in everyday language. Our goal is to help make this movement inclusive, we would never want anyone to feel excluded because of heavy language or inaccessible lingo.
It is vital that everything we produce is ethical and in the best interest of the individual child. Every story must be told with dignity and honor for the child, their family, and their culture.
The Archibald Project uses videos, writing, photography, podcasts, and social media to tell inspiring orphan care stories from all over the world. Why is story the currency you have chosen?
One of the most powerful and influential tools to motivate and inspire action is story. A well-documented and well-told story can change the course of history. This is why The Archibald Project exists. We use the power of media and story to educate and inspire a global movement to care for vulnerable children to end the orphan crisis. As a result of our storytelling, The Archibald Project has directly reduced the number of orphans worldwide.
Many people in the Western world think adoption is the main way to help orphans but that is a false narrative. Can you give examples of situations where other forms of help are necessary and better for the children and their families?
The orphan crisis is complex, and by no means a clear-cut single issue. Every child and family is unique and all actions should be pursued in the best interest of each individual child and family. There are many ways to care for vulnerable children including family preservation, foster care, reunification, adoption, group home care, education, healthcare, and the list goes on and on. We’ve dedicated an entire page on our website on how you can help!
Empowering families to keep them together is orphan prevention.
We are incredibly grateful to have been able to work with so many incredible ethical organizations! One organization that is doing things different is Mwana Villages in Point Noire, Republic of Congo. Mwana Villages works to serve children and parents through practical and sustainable ways, creating long-term solutions with a goal toward preserving the family. When a mother cannot care for her child, Mwana stands in the gap and comes alongside the family, caring for the child and equipping the mother until reunification and restoration is possible. Empowering families to keep them together is orphan prevention!
Another organization that is changing lives in a real good way is Selamta Family Project in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Selamta is rooted in family and integrated in their community. Selamta’s holistic approach supports education, health and wellness, psychological support, and spiritual and life skills development. With an emphasis on prevention and restoration, Selamta’s Forever Family Program and Outreach Program prevent children from becoming orphaned or abandoned, and recreate family for those who have lost their own.
Empowering families to keep them together is orphan prevention!
We also recently released a podcast that we recorded with a foster mom and biological mom. During our conversation the biological mom talked a lot about how the foster mom championed and cheered her on for years, even when it was uncomfortable. And guess what, that foster son was reunited with his biological mom after years of hard work. We are seeing families reunited and preserved in our own backyards! You can listen here.
What do you wish people knew about your work?
Everyone can play their part in ending the orphan crisis! Bring a foster family a meal in your neighborhood, support organizations that are working to reunify and preserve families, help an adoptive family fundraise, take foster care classes to learn what it is like to become a foster family, babysit foster kids, drive biological families whose children are in foster care to their required classes and meetings—there’s a role for everyone. You don’t have to adopt, or foster or donate a million dollars to help end the orphan crisis. We have even had many people write in and share that because of our storytelling they have changed majors to pursue career paths in helping vulnerable families! You can use your unique skills and plug in where you are passionate! We believe that storytelling will spark and expand a movement of people by inspiring them into action and will spread like wildfire until the global orphan crisis is eliminated.
The numbers of children are so overwhelming; what allows you to see hope? What keeps you going?
The children, the parents, and the people.
When we get to see a child go home to their biological family and witness their parents singing and crying as they reunite. When we hear the number of children who are disappearing out of group homes to be trafficked. When we spend time with teenagers in Eastern Europe who express their desire for a different future than their parents who, because of addiction, led to their institutionalization. When we hear that one of our foster care stories has inspired someone to also become a foster parent. When we advocate for a 13 year-old, visually impaired, orphan boy who needs a forever home or he will age out of the system in China and literally move into an elderly home at 14…and because of our photos finds a family and is now a son!…this is why we do what we do. These children and families need a voice, and The Archibald Project is able to give them a platform for their voices to be heard.
How do you experience God through your work?
It sounds odd, but I see God in the amount of good people we’ve met around the world who have dedicated their lives to helping the vulnerable people in their own communities.
When I sit down to interview locals who have little of their own and they are pouring out everything they have to help the people they are working with… I see God.
I see God when a family chooses a special needs or unlikely child to be adopted and for no reason chooses to love this child as their own.
I see God when I hear about people starting organizations or joining organizations or donating to ethical organizations we have promoted because of our storytelling.
I see God in the amount of good even though the statistics and the daily news only want us to see the growing amount of bad.
I see God in the amount of love people are pouring out to end the orphan crisis.
Lindsy writes from Miami where she, her husband, and their five kids endeavor to love their neighbors as they love themselves. She is passionate about downward mobility, ushering in a more livable planet, and good tattoos. She is a co-host of Upside Down Podcast where she enjoys unscripted conversations on faith and culture. Follow her on Instagram @lightbreaksforth, on her website lightbreaksforth.com, and on her podcast upsidedownpodcast.com.