Five Questions With Sarah Gesiriech

Sarah Gesiriech has dedicated her career – including her service in the Bush Administration at the White House, HHS and the Department of Education – to advocating for orphans and vulnerable children. An expert on adoption and foster care policy, Sarah has also worked for the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care and as a legislative assistant for Senator Chuck Grassley of her home state of Iowa.

Since 2012, Sarah has had “the great privilege” to lead the Faith to Action Initiative, a coalition of child protection and global development organizations and institutions working in orphan care and with vulnerable children. F2A serves as a resource for churches, organizations and individuals seeking to respond to the needs of children around the globe who have been separated from their families.

In this month’s “Five Questions With…” feature, Sarah shares powerful lessons from her personal experience as an adoptee…and policy expert. Prepare to be informed…and inspired.

Q:  Can you please tell us about your work?

My work for the past 20 years in child welfare and child protection issues has allowed me to combine compassion for children in need with policy and a robust body of evidence on healthy child development. At the Faith to Action Initiative, we serve as a resource for churches, organizations and individuals seeking to respond to the needs of children around the globe who have been separated from their families. The great mission of our work is to encourage action to help children while providing evidence-based best practice and research that upholds the importance of family in the life of every child.

Faith to Action grew out of the groundswell of support from what President Bush called, “the armies of compassion” – churches, faith-based organizations and many others who were responding to the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa that had left so many children orphaned and vulnerable. The primary and understandable response by many was to build orphanages and children’s homes. And as an emergency measure, it made sense. However, now there is growing movement among international and national policymakers, faith-based organizations and the development community to recognize that children grow best in families. A transition to family-based care and a global change for orphan care will not happen overnight. But along the way, Faith to Action is able to share resources backed by the best research, and mobilize and educate organizations and faith leaders to support local and long-term solutions to ensure nurturing, loving, and consistent family care. This includes reunification, kinship care, temporary foster family care, adoption, and strengthening families to care for their children. We encourage long-term partnerships based on local empowerment and community ownership, and that are in the best interest of children to help them remain in, reunite with, or regain a family.

Q:  This is clearly a calling.  Where did the inspiration come from to take on this important and challenging policy work?

The inspiration started in the first few years of my life. My mother and father picked me up from an orphanage in Omaha. From a young age, I was proud to tell the world how my family found me. Although she wasn’t my first mother, my Mom taught me about unconditional love and belonging. She and my father provided security and a home to thrive in. And, she recognized me as an individual with unique needs and talents. And after she left this earth, I finally understood what the loss of a parent felt like. My reunification will take place in heaven, so I have that hope. But for children who have lost a parent, I believe nothing short of being in a family will help them to ultimately reach their God-given potential.

Through my work, I have heard children tell me of exploitation because they didn’t have the ongoing, one-on-one care of a loving parent. I have heard the stories of those with broken hearts who left foster care and orphanages without a family. And I have learned about struggling mothers who make difficult, but loving decisions, to release their children to an orphanage just to meet the child’s basic needs. But I have also heard the stories of healing and renewed hope from children reunified with a maternal grandmother or adopted after many years in foster care, and stories of mothers and fathers who were supported financially so they could provide the best care for their children. Their stories break my heart, their resilience inspires me, and their testimonies remind me to be vigilant in advocating for them to have a loving family.

It has been my tremendous privilege to work for three leaders who cared deeply about orphans and children in foster care. When I worked for U.S. Senator Grassley, he inspired me to be persistent and creative in advocating for and making policy to ensure positive outcomes for children and families. He demanded that I meet with the people the policy would impact – judges, caseworkers, birth families, foster families, and youth – so we didn’t legislate on theory and feelings alone.

When I worked for Dave Thomas – or as some of us remember him – “The Wendy’s Guy”, I began to understand that we can use whatever platform God gives us to advocate for children to have families. Dave would ask everyone – those flipping burgers, business executives, social workers, pastors, governors, policy staffers – what can you do for kids who need families?

And finally, President Bush taught me about steadfast commitment to this cause. He truly believed the family is the foundation of our society, and the place where we find deep human fulfillment and where we find love. I was inspired by President Bush to have high expectations and look at the strengths of all communities to create positive and meaningful policy and programs that support children, families and their communities.

Q:  What do you wish people knew about orphans and vulnerable children and how can the average person help?

Children grow best in families – no doubt, no question. I’ve learned it really doesn’t matter how children are separated from their families, or why they are separated, they need families to care for them and provide the love they need to thrive. And that’s what continues to drive me in the work I do whether inside government or out.

Unfortunately, the issue of children living without parental care is not going away. The emerging refugee crises, growing trafficking of children, conflict, and natural disasters continue to call for innovative solutions when children are separated from their parents. It is complex, but it’s not impossible. It takes the active involvement of and collaboration between government, donors, NGOs, local communities, the faith-based community, families and caregivers, and children and youth.

Up to 8 million children around the world are living in residential care centers (including orphanages, large-scale institutions, small group homes, and children’s villages). A large proportion of these children have at least one living parent who would care for them if they had the physical and financial means to do so. Some children may need specialized services in a residential care center, but even then, it should be an intervention not a destination.

Policies, practice, and support for children are gradually shifting away from the overreliance on residential care centers toward increasing family-based models of care, such as kinship care, foster care, or adoption.

Just recently, I spoke with leaders of an organization working in Haiti. I was so encouraged to hear about how they started out providing safe space for young children in a children’s home, and how their ministry has transitioned to serve over 600 families each year, so those families can care for their own children. For those children who have experienced permanent separation from their families, the organization is now working on solutions that could be provided by the local community to ensure there is foster care and domestic adoption.

Everyone can be part of this movement. You can raise awareness within your community and spheres of influence about the impact of poverty, the needs of orphans and vulnerable children, and the importance of strengthening family-based care. You can contribute to family-based care and family-strengthening work already happening around the world through credible, well-established organizations and groups. You can partner with relief organizations that build community services to ensure families stay strong. Or you can volunteer as a Court Appointed Special Advocate or welcome a child into your home as a foster or adoptive parent. If you are interested in learning more about the Faith to Action Initiative and want to share resources and tools with your church and community organizations, please visit www.faithtoaction.org.

Q:  Is there a leadership lesson from President Bush that most influences your work today?

I learned leadership lessons from both President and Mrs. Bush. Through her leadership on Helping American’s Youth, Mrs. Bush taught me to lead with compassion, and believe that redemption is possible with the help of caring adults who invest in the lives of youth. President Bush taught me to have high expectations for the individuals and communities we engage with – helping instead of hurting the very people we wish to serve.

In my current work, I too often hear folks say , “well these kids can’t, those families won’t, those communities never will” – harkening back to similar arguments made during the No Child Left Behind debate. Sometimes we are told that we are being too idealistic and that the principles and strategies we propose are “divorced from reality,” but I wholeheartedly disagree. I’ve met with leaders all over the world who are supporting and growing family care in their communities, and I’ve heard the testimonies from hundreds of children and families who have been served well. Communities can be mobilized and strengthened in ways that lead to a stronger safety net for families and their children.

Q:  What is your favorite memory from your time in the Administration?

There are so many favorite memories from my seven years serving in President Bush’s administration.

This memory especially stands out for me because it includes my beloved Mom and a signature piece of bipartisan legislation we worked on for many months in the Domestic Policy Council. It was the day of the signing of the Promoting Safe and Stable Families bill on January 17, 2002. Margaret Spellings gave me the great opportunity to meet briefly before the signing with President Bush and Mrs. Bush to discuss the importance and significance of the bill, and how we believed it would help to transform the lives of so many children and youth in the United States. In his remarks, President Bush honored Dave Thomas, who had just passed away days before the signing, for his long-term commitment to ensuring children have families. The children standing on the dais were thrilled to be celebrating their adoptions with President Bush and in front of Tom Brokaw who was taping the NBC special, The Bush White House: Inside the Real West Wing. And in the middle of the audience, was my dear Mother, beaming as she heard the President say, “When someone thinks a child is the most important person in the world, that child will grow up to be confident, and loving toward others. She'll make her community stronger, and her nation better.” During his speech, President Bush also honored families who answered the call to adopt, to share their lives and love with children, and who built strong families through adoption – like my own.