While many people might struggle to get out of bed after the end of a marriage, Karen Gordon got a divorce and then decided to fix one of the world's most pressing problems.
In 2003, newly single and taking care of her two daughters, Gordon saw a video of an orphanage in Hungary famous for its high-quality care. It inspired her to look at the state of orphanages around the world. She found that while many provide food, shelter and basic necessities, they lack a simple yet crucial element -- loving care.
Gordon made it her mission to change the lives of the more than 16 million abandoned children. Using her $1 million divorce settlement, she started a foundation: Whole Child International.
For more information on Gordon's organization, please visit: http://www.wholechild.org/home.html.
"Why did I not take the money and just live off of it? I would have been bored, wouldn't I?" Gordon said. "This is rewarding work. I work with the best and brightest in our country. That's priceless."
Whole Child International is dedicated to training orphanage caregivers to be involved and interact with babies, even through mundane tasks like changing their diapers.
"There are millions of children living in institutions, and if we can shift this one piece of relationship in their development their long term outcome can be staggering," Gordon said.
Experts agree that training caregivers to interact with children can be hugely beneficial in the long run.
"It's the individual actions with the children that are literally laying down the pathways for their brains to develop," said University of Southern California child welfare professor Jacquelyn McCroskey. "It's probably one of the most important investments we can probably make."
Revamping Orphanage Care
Of course, finding ways to create relationships in cash-strapped, crowded orphanages is no easy task. By breaking orphanages down into small groups of children and making sure each child sees the same caregiver on a regular basis, Gordon's organization tries to foster a loving environment.
"We break the kids down into groups of eight or nine and make sure the same caregivers stay with the same groups," Gordon said. "You just see these wacky schedules where caregivers are on duty for 24 hours and off for two days, and that's for nine months. Then a kid moves to a different group. Arranging a more regular schedule, where the same couple of people are with the same kids regularly -- it makes it easier on the adults too."
Feeding children -- a seemingly straightforward task -- can be a vital bonding moment.
"We don't say, 'You have to be nice and affectionate.' We just say, 'You can't rush, and you can only place the spoon on the child's mouth when he has opened his lips," Gordon said. "If you're looking for that, you're making eye-eye contact, and you're connecting with them."
Gordon believes that having relationships with caregivers changes the way children grow and learn.
"We're just making sure that every child has the opportunity to connect in simple moments -- during bathing, diapering and feeding. That's what makes the difference in terms of them becoming a healthy member of society," she said. "It's about sucking the caregiver into a relationship, which is connection. Children at the end of the day need to connect."
Gordon's own children have connected with her work, too. She said she couldn't have embarked on this mission without having been a mother to them first.
"My 5-year old told her teacher that she helps children too because she shares me with them," she said. "I'm hoping to teach my children that to whom much is given, much is expected. Being a mother equipped me for this."