Gap Year Alumni: Kevin Hermann

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Please tell us who you are, what you do, and how you got there.

I’m Kevin Hermann, I’m 24 and living in Charlottesville, Virginia. I was born near Lagos, Portugal, and then grew up in the Charlottesville area. After high school, I took a gap year, traveling around the world to Oceania, South East Asia, South Asia, and Europe, where I spent my time backpacking, volunteering, and working. I returned to study English Literature at the University of Virginia, after which I ended up traveling for a bit in the Near East and India again, and then moving to Europe, settling in Germany. I kept exploring–bread baking, gardening, factory work, tutoring English, kitchen work–and then returned to my roots in Portugal last summer to work on the farm where I was born. I returned to the States this past fall.

Upon return, I returned to my old high school and gave a presentation encouraging students to embark upon their own journeys. Afterwards, all of these students swarm me afterwards saying, “Oh man, that’s my dream! How can I make that happen!?” I sat there and thought, “Okay, so I’m a gap year consultant now??!?!?”

I made some phone calls, and ended up on the line with Ethan, and we had such an inspiring and heartfelt conversation that before I knew it, I was at the Gap Year Conference in Boston, volunteering for the AGA, and getting a chance to meet all of the lovely folks taking part in this movement!

Since that first talk, I’ve been speaking at other schools to students, to college counselors, to parent teacher organizations, you name it. Right now I’m also writing copy and web content for a travel company and a few other projects, and this summer I’m leading an international trip for teens to get my feet wet in gap year world in order to better understand if this is something that I seriously want to pursue.

Why are you so passionate about the concept of Gap Years?

Above all, I’m gung-ho about the concept because of the profundity of my gap year experiences. I learned so, SO much about myself, about life, about humanity–it transformed me in ways that I’m still figuring out.

I also see the transformations that so many people around me undergo when they take time to explore something that they’re passionate about. People who are engaged in experiential education, or have traveled extensively themselves, or have simply take time to pursue something other than what the status quo feeds them are humble, driven, honest; these people care. They have gigantic hearts. And that’s a quality that I find to be one of the most important signals for us to follow and cultivate as a society.

People who do this develop parts of themselves that aren’t necessarily shiny on a resume, but that will be instrumental to leading a balanced, fulfilled life. A life rich with a sense of purpose, and an understanding of aliveness. And whether we realize it or not, I think that’s what a lot of us are striving or yearning for–that sense of aliveness, of truly living life. A certain vibrancy or intensity. And I think Gap Years are about figuring that out for yourself. There’s not really a handbook or guidebook for that, but that’s precisely what’s so unique about this process: those who do go engage fully in their own humanity in ways that we fail to in many of our social structures. They nourish parts of themselves that we tend to overlook.

I think one of the biggest hurdles we’re running into as our technology ramps up the speed of our communication and number of connections is that we’re failing to really connect with ourselves and others. And I see a lot of my friends in my generation suffering as a result–most are quitting their jobs after two years working, because they aren’t feel fulfilled. I can’t tell you how many of them say this wish they had taken more time to really consider what they wanted. Not only that, but I think we’re hungry for genuine connection; we’re starving for what I like to think of as a bone-to-bone contact with life. And I think the Gap Year is a perfect vehicle for experiencing that because it’s a natural byproduct of getting way outside of your comfort zone.

What did you experience on your Gap Year that changed the course of your life?

Bhaaa, that’s a tough one.

I think what changed me the most was simply being alone and surrounded by so much otherness.

And making mistakes. Getting stuck in negative thought patterns. It was really, really difficult and heavy at times. I think I probably spent more time down in the dumps than on top of mountains, and that was a very real and necessary experience to have. Because most often I couldn’t run away from it because despite the fact that foreign cultures can be incredibly stimulating, they don’t provide the type of escape mechanism and comfort that the home environment and friends and family do. I couldn’t just binge eat and watch my way out of feelings, or couldn’t just go play basketball with some buddies, or get stoned to forget about it all (okay, well, I probably could have, but that really didn’t seem like an option at the time). So I just had to deal with shit. And that was about as real as it got for me then. I suffered a lot, and mostly at my own hands via negative self-talk, so I didn’t really have anything or anyone to blame, and there often wasn’t someone around me that I could complain to, so I had to swallow that a lot of the suffering I was experiencing was at my own hands, which was a profound realization to have at 18.

That and the fact that I began to question everything. Constantly. I couldn’t turn it off–I questioned what I was doing, who I was, what life was about, what my impact was, why other people act the way they do. And it was incredibly unnerving to live in such a perpetual state of uncertainty, but eventually that skepticism turned into a kind of long-term state of meditation, because I was constantly having to let go of my preferences, my habits, my judgments. I got to a really raw place as a result. Real pure, just from all that letting go. And that’s a state we rarely achieve in our modern lifestyles because we’re so attached to all of our possessions and our friendships and we’re constantly consuming something–probably media–that perpetuates our sense of identity and the narratives we’ve been constructing subconsciously our whole lives about who we are. Now, just pull the rug out from under all that, and that’s the state I’m talking about. That first trip just broke me down, and in the best way possible.

How that affected the course of my life is hard to say, because I can’t clearly pull apart who I was before I took that trip, and who I became as a result of it because I really first became conscious as a result of my gap year. That was the first time where I put down my steady preoccupation with sports this or grades that or party this weekend or whatever and began taking an honest internal inventory. Okay, well as honest as an 18 year old male can be with himself these days haha. No, but seriously, immersing myself in otherness–something as simple as not understanding the language surrounding me–naturally ushered me inward. It was the first time when I truly confronted myself, and had the opportunity to not only consider my identity, but also that I could craft it. There was this really palpable sense of oh, okay, I can really be whoever I want right now. And so many different situations gave me that opportunity to redefine how I wanted to be, which was revolutionary at the time because I had spent my whole life reacting to things, rather than responding, which requires a different level of agency. Now, I can’t say that I was always successful in this, but I think the process in and of itself was most important.

And so I was having “A-HA!” moments left and right. Asking so many questions created space for new connections to be made, so there was this constant process of waking up to new concepts, to sides of myself that I didn’t know were there and that surprised me in wonderful ways–I found out I was a writer and photographer, because that’s what I naturally did every day, for example. And I also experienced the sides of myself that I wasn’t so keen on accepting, but I also began to understand that if I wanted to grow and learn and progress as an individual, it was vital that I begin to accept those parts of myself. I’m only realizing a lot of these things in the aftermath of those experiences, and those processes are still very much so underway. If anything, it’s only snowballed since then.

Basically, I began to wake up, to grow up, to evolve a bit.
It was radical. I can’t even conceive what my life would look like right now had I not made the decision to leave. I really can’t.

So that experience of being alone and coming into contact with people from all over the world punched out the walls of what I thought was possible and gave much wider horizons to my imagination–it expanded my sense of myself, the world, life, love, everything. I experienced a richness in life that I really savored, and have always sought out since then, whether that be in conversations, in the beauty that I’m surrounded with every day; it gave names and faces to things that I hadn’t directly come into contact with, yet somehow knew intuitively. It gave me a new language and way of being in the world. It was–more than anything, I think–a really profound, spiritual experience. And depending on your belief system and what you’re about, I think that’s the most valuable and important experience any human being can have on this earth. To have a taste of that at 18 forever changed the trajectory of what I believe, how I see the world, and what I want to do here, and in ways that I’m still figuring out, and that I believe I’ll be slowly figuring out for the rest of my life.

As you travel around talking to young people about taking a Gap Year what are you hearing?

Fear. Both logistical, and emotional. People don’t know what it is, how to go about doing it, etc., and they’re also terrified of the unknown, of something outside the status quo. That goes for both parents and students, although both cases are a bit different. Add the providers, and it’s an incredibly complex triad of needs, desires, and fears.

I think as an organization, the AGA can play a huge role in empowering people, and really usher in a new paradigm for how we educate our young adults. Empowering those who have the resources to take the leap, and those who don’t to create the opportunity for themselves by tapping into the wealth of resources at hand. To clap people on the back, and show them that if they work for something and put some sweat equity into their own lives and their own passions, that they’ll not only feel incredibly proud upon completing whatever it is that they set out to do, but that they’ll learn invaluable lessons from their failures as well. I think the AGA can do a lot of heavy, in-the-trenches lifting in terms of policy and formal frameworks.

Providers can keep providing their excellent services, especially by ensuring safety, but also making sure that there’s real substance to their programs. This time frame is one of the few opportunities that we have to experience a true rite of passage, because that simply doesn’t happen anywhere else in our culture. And providers need to create a structure and program that asks the right questions, puts kids in difficult situations, and allows them to learn from their own mistakes while providing insightful and guiding mentorship along the way.

Parents would do well to let go a bit. To let kids learn to define success for themselves. I assume what parents want for their kids is for them to be healthy, and figure out a way to support themselves doing something that’s meaningful for them; I don’t think that with our current system we’re achieving that as readily as we could be, and a gap year is, again, the perfect antidote.

We need to support kids in their coming of age by providing them with a sound structure, but also by allowing students to make mistakes for themselves–I can’t tell you how many things I’ve been told that only made sense once I royally screwed those very things up.

If you could tell a young person setting out on a Gap Year one thing, what would it be?

JUST DO IT!!!!! (Assuming I get royalties from Nike for saying that ;))

Really though–jump, dive, leap, whatever. Not much good comes from living a life prescribed for you, so go on, get outta here, vamanos!

I trust that if you put yourself out there, if you challenge yourself, explore with curiosity, and get outside of your comfort zone, you will learn exactly what you need to learn at this point in your life. Not only that, but you’re going to thrive. Really–for the rest of your life, you’re going to have this unbelievable foundation of experience that will keep you grounded in a few tenants that all world religions hold dear–for example, you’ll feel a sense of connection with everyone, with all of humanity. And you will naturally develop a deep sense of trust in life and in yourself, which is invaluable. That’s probably what I learned most on my travels–to trust in life. If you develop and strengthen that, then I guarantee you that the quality and depth of your life will reach beyond what you know is possible. If you do this, you’ll get to the heart of what it means to be a human being on this planet.

10 Ways to Maximize Learning On Your Gap Year

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Every morning on your Gap Year, you’ll need to wake up and renew your commitment to maximizing your learning potential every day. Now, this is no easy feat. Some days, staying in bed and escaping reality will seem like the more attractive option. But don’t fall victim to Gap Year learning exhaustion, which includes side effects that make you think sitting in your room all day on your laptop is an appropriate way to spend your time.

Here are a few things you can do every day to maximize learning on your gap year, without tiring yourself out.

Get Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable

In our culture, feelings of discomfort, boredom, awkwardness, embarrassment, or irritation are actively avoided (for obvious reasons). For instance, rather than stating how we really feel, we skirt around a tough subject. Rather than enjoying a pleasant evening watching TV with Gran, we pull out our smartphone and half-watch, half-hold on-going text conversations about nothing. Rather than taking a foreign language class and sounding stupid, we stick to English and never raise our hand in class.

On your Gap Year, you shouldn’t avoid these rubs. They’re hard. They’re juicy. They’re where the learning lies.

Smile at Strangers

You never know when a smile can turn into a conversation which can turn into a home-cooked meal which can turn into a lifelong friend. If you commit to smiling at strangers every day, you not only might learn something new about the culture you’re living in, but you’ll probably learn a thing-or-2 about yourself, too.

It’s psychological, too. The more we smile at people, the more warmth we feel towards them.
It’s hard to demonize foreigners as “others” when you’re so happy to see them. Keep smiling and watch your worldview and perspective expand, too.

Commit to Using the Target Language

We know it’s hard, but it’s such a small thing that can really make a difference. The more you commit to using the foreign language, the easier it will become over time. Start small and work your way up as you learn more terms, see the language in action, or better understand accent or tonal nuances unique to your gap year destination. You’ll be sounding like a local in no time.

Stay Strong & Healthy

While another late night with your travel buddies might seem like a good idea in theory, be conscious towards your health and fitness while on your gap year. Drink lots of water. Take time to raise your heart rate or stretch with some yoga. Eat your veggies. All those annoying things your Mom told you to do as a kid… now’s not the time to reject them. Being mindful towards your health will allow you to stay mentally, physically, spiritually, and emotionally welcoming to the lessons of your gap year. Don’t burn the candle at both ends and then wonder how you ended up in bed with a debilitating cold for 10 days.

Break Away From the Group When You Can

While it’s fun to share experiences with friends and it’s likely your gap year program will have a buddy-system rule, you should advocate for time to explore areas independently, too. This individual experiential education allows for more unique interactions with others – after all, you’d be intimidated by a group of foreigners, too. Wandering alone (while still be hyper-aware of your surroundings and keeping your wits about you!) will open up opportunities for observation, engaging with the culture in new ways, reflection, and reciprocity.

Read a book at night instead of scrolling through your phone.

Ah yes, reading. A tried-and-true method for learning. Here are some great ideas for books to read while on your gap year:

  • A book written about your gap year destination
  • A book written by an author from your gap year destination
  • A historical fiction novel written about your gap year destination
  • A book outlining current relations between the USA and your gap year destination
  • The Harry Potter series

So much learning disguised as a healthy way to fall asleep each night.

Get Walking

Don’t just cruise past things in a taxi or on the bus. Resolve to walk your Gap Year destination on foot. Go down alleyways, take the long way home, visit more far-flung neighborhoods. Nothing turns a foreign place to a home as much as familiarity, and seeing it all from the comfort of your sneakers is an excellent means to that.

Don’t go on a walk with expectations of what you’ll see. Strip your mind of your stereotypes; recognize your surroundings more objectively. Observe your conclusions and store them away for future chewing.

Put the Camera Away

Documenting your experience with your camera is awesome. However, rather than being a useful tool for creating memories, it can actually serve as a barrier between you and the others around you. Think about it. Your camera automatically identifies you as a tourist, which can lend itself to a “visitor” mentality instead of a “one of the guys” mentality.

You don’t need to use your camera every day on your Gap Year. Maximize learning by looking at what’s around you with your eyes rather than with your lens.

Decide That Everything is Interesting

With the right frame of mind, the world around you will come to life (and stay alive!). While participating in your new communities, decide to observe everything with wonder instead of judgment. Not only will this make you more open to learning, it will allow you to appreciate your new lifestyle in a new and meaningful way. Rather than constantly focusing on things that don’t make sense (like how the bureaucracy is horrible or the lack of lines insane), this mindset will free you.

Converse & be Proactive!

Small talk or long discussions are all fair game. Open that big mouth of yours and get talking – to anyone, about anything (assuming cultural appropriateness). Conversations, whether with strangers or friends, will always lead to something learned. A new way of looking at things, a new fact, a new thought that pops into your head. Everyone you meet has something to teach you; don’t let your shy character or fear of sounding silly hold you back from receiving these lessons.

What other small things can you do each day to squeeze every ounce of learning potential out of your Gap Year?

Post AGA National Conference Round Up

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If you weren’t at the AGA National Conference last week in Boston you missed out, big time!

What was already an energetic, high test three days packed with inspiration, information and boots on the ground networking between program providers and IECs went from high gear to rocket-ship take off with the White House announcement that Malia Obama will be taking a Gap Year before she attends Harvard.

The press started calling, and showing up. While Ethan Knight and the board members of AGA fielded calls and interviews we shuffled the round table discussions to include one on Malia Obama’s Gap Year and how to leverage that news within the field. And, of course, AGA tweeted our congratulations to Miss Obama and her parents, offering to help in any way we could!
round tables

The Highlights

This year’s AGA National Conference doubled in attendance size from last year, which doubled the energy and enthusiasm too. With Richard Weissbourd, Senior Lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, co-director of the Making Caring Common Project and author of Turning the Tide Report we were privileged to hear from one of the most influential minds in education. His commitment to changing the college admissions process and legitimizing Gap Years as a learning experience infused a sense of hope and urgency in the evolution of higher education.

Educational Seminars were were presented on Mental Health (by Stephen Barnes & Gary Robinson) as well as Ethical Volunteering (by Willy Oppenheim) with shared goal of bettering the field overall and improving the ways that we serve students and impact communities.

Panel Presentations focused on Effective School Outreach (Marie Schwartz) and Why Students Take a Gap Year (Nathan Scott) allowed for Q&A between Gap Year providers, and IECs with experts in the field as well as Gap Year alumni.

The bulk of the “sessions” for the conference took place round table style. Instead of speakers at the front of the room, the participants gathered around a table and discussed the topics based on their own knowledge and experience. Over and over we heard attendees saying how much they enjoyed this interactive format and how productive they felt it had been in collaborating with one another. This flexible format also allowed us to make room for the emerging news and work together to create strategies helping everyone forward.
receptions

Receptions

The two evening receptions, hosted Sunday evening by GoOverseas & Ridge Mountain Academy, and Monday evening by TeenLife were the perfect way to unwind, share some food and drinks with new friends and move the conversations and networking to a more relaxed venue. The atomspheres were fun and funky and in both cases folks talked long and stayed late, a sure sign of a good time had by all.

School Visits & Gap & Go

The final day of the conference we split up into two groups. One team went on a series of school visits where there was an opportunity to talk with actual students about the Gap Year concept and the programs available. The other team headed to the Westin hotel where the IECA conference was getting underway to network with educational consultants and participate in a “speed dating” of sorts between Gap Year providers and interested IECs.

Thank You & Next Year

To all who made the pilgrimage to attend, thank you so much for spending the time with us. As always it is a pleasure to network within this community of passionate world changers. Time and again we are reminded of why this work is so important and sharing it with all of you is a pleasure.

We hope very much that you’ll join us next year… do stay tuned for the announcement of when and where. If you have any post conference feedback for us, we’d love to hear it, and don’t forget to fill out your post conference surveys.

What Does Responsible International Volunteering Look Like?

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Women's Emancipation and Development Agency (WOMEDA) Executive Director Juma Massisi (seated, center) facilitates conversation among women and Amizade students in Kayanga, Tanzania, as part of research that supported a successful United States Agency for International Development grant award for WOMEDA.

Women’s Emancipation and Development Agency (WOMEDA) Executive Director Juma Massisi (seated, center) facilitates conversation among women and Amizade students in Kayanga, Tanzania, as part of research that supported a successful United States Agency for International Development grant award for WOMEDA. Photo Credit: Rachel Molenda

Record numbers of students are choosing to study, travel, and serve abroad through Gap Year organizations, alternative break programs, and tour agencies. Voluntourism, volunteering and traveling a foreign country at the same time, has become a popular rite of passage for high school and college-aged students.

As a former study abroad participant and international volunteer, I can vouch for the personal, professional, and academic benefits of these intercultural immersion and exchange programs. These programs supplement classroom lessons through experiential learning opportunities and build student global awareness.

My personal experiences have also made me aware that short-term service trips can create more problems than they solve. While walking through the tourist areas of Nepal, it was impossible not to notice the leaflets posted on busy street corners advertising volunteer opportunities in local orphanages. Messages of “Touch a life…save the world!” accompanied pictures of smiling Westerners surrounded by crowds of Nepalese children. Similarly, during a semester in South Africa, I encountered promotions for “drop-in play time” at a township group home, offering student volunteers a brief chance to interact with marginalized community members. Even an alternative break trip to Mexico included a short afternoon excursion at an orphanage, where hugs and picture taking were encouraged before boarding the bus back home.

Examining Motivations & Costs

Students have a long list of motivations for engaging in international service. They pursue a unique experience to learn about another culture. They look to to develop new skills to build their resumes/CVs. They want to create and share memories while also making a contribution.

Gap Year and alternative break program providers as well as travel agencies tailor their offerings to fit these desires. A quick internet search shows that various kinds of volunteer placements are included in adventure travel itineraries, rather than packaged as a separate experience. As the quantity and variety of international service programs have increased, the “marketplace” of options has turned student experiences into “products”. In this market economy, attention is given primarily to the development of the student, catering to the buyer’s expectations, and fulfilling specific learning objectives. All this comes at a cost to the host community.

Why Orphan Based Tourism is Damaging

The argument here is that equal attention must be given to the local community, particularly when working with vulnerable populations like children. As interest in international service increases, there are more opportunities to volunteer within residential care centers such as orphanages and children’s homes. Over 60 years of research shows that growing up in residential care (also known as “institutionalization”) can have a negative impact on children’s health, development, and life chances. Orphanage volunteering not only promotes the expansion of these facilities, but also makes children vulnerable to abuse when volunteer background checks are not required, creates attachment problems in children who are exposed to short-term visitors, and perpetuates the myth that many of these children are orphans in need of adoption. (1) In reality, it is estimated that more than 2 million children live in institutional care (2) and that four out of five children in institutional care have living parents. (3)

Interest in this type of volunteer experience can create an economic demand for more “orphans” and lead to the active recruitment of children into residential care facilities in order to attract foreign volunteers and financial support. As a result, well-meaning individuals and organizations can be responsible for fueling the separation of children and parents, keeping kids out of school to entertain tourists, and aiding corruption by those who are using these children for financial gain, all in the name of “service.”

Volunteers not only have a direct impact on children in these residential care centers, but also perpetuate a greater, more systemic problem. In staffing and funding such facilities, volunteers sustain overuse of an alternative care model that should only ever be a temporary solution for a child. (4) The lack of understanding about the damaging impact of institutionalizing children and of more positive alternatives means that people do not hesitate to support such institutions.

Engaging in a Responsible Way

The main challenge here is that the general public, which is engaging in these experiences and driving the demand, is overwhelmed with international service program marketing but lacks resources to understand how to engage in a responsible way. This discussion is meant to kick-start a conversation and drive the demand of appropriate volunteer opportunities out of small, academic pockets and into larger circles.

The Importance of Education

First, we need to emphasize the need for appropriate education leading up to the student’s international volunteer experience. If potential volunteers do not consider their options carefully, understand cultural  contexts, and ensure their skills and experiences meet the needs of the host community, volunteering can be wasteful, and at worst, harmful. Students must approach international service opportunities with a “learning before serving” mindset by completing cultural orientation before arriving and engaging in critical reflection throughout their experience. If international service opportunities are compared to an internship in the student’s home country, students should expect to learn before “doing”, instead of the common practice of treating foreign volunteers as experts. Individuals who are not qualified to work in a particular capacity in their home country (ie. providing medical care, aiding in social work, etc.), should not take on this role while in another community.

Responsible preparation also ensures students are globally competent to make ethical and responsible choices. This requires teachers to be informed global citizens who are comfortable globalizing their curriculum. Professional development opportunities, including cultural immersion educational trips, on-site trainings, webinars, online membership networking groups, and ready-made educational materials all help prepare educators to bring discussions about global issues into their classrooms.

Best Practices

Second, adhering to best practices will avoid perpetuating the very disparities and stereotypes international volunteer programs are working to eliminate. If you are a student pursuing an international volunteer opportunity, it is important to be mindful of the red flags to look for when considering a program. Alternatives, such as learning abroad and adventure touring programs, are open to students looking for an international travel experience, while online virtual exchanges link classrooms across the world, allowing students to collaborate on a project addressing a common social issue.

However, the argument is more than simply saying “no” to volunteering abroad. Both individuals and organizations looking to develop appropriate international service opportunities for students can benefit from guidelines of best practices. Standards like Fair Trade Learning offer an alternative global educational partnership exchange that prioritizes reciprocity in relationships through cooperative, cross-cultural participation in learning and service opportunities. Fair Trade Learning programs highlight the goals of economic equity, equal partnership, mutual learning, cooperative and positive social change, transparency, and sustainability. Instead of volunteering in an orphanage, these best practice guidelines promote developing mutually beneficial and sustainable relationships with community organizations that support positive parenting and family-based care systems.

Appropriate Support

Finally, efforts to encourage ethical and responsible volunteering require support. Groups such as Better Volunteering, Better Care, an initiative led by Better Care Network and Save the Children, connect a range of global actors and raise awareness of issues surrounding orphanage volunteering. Individuals or organizations interested in learning more about this initiative, or contributing to its development, are encouraged to contact the Better Volunteering Better Care team at volunteering@bettercarenetwork.org.

This post is part of a month-long spread of articles aimed at raising awareness around the issues of orphanage volunteering #StopOrphanTrips. The campaign ends on June 1st, International Children’s Day, with a call to volunteer travel organisations to remove orphanage trips from their product offerings. Please consider signing the petition. For more information visit www.bettervolunteeringbettercare.org.

  1. Better Volunteering, Better Care. (2014). International Volunteering in Residential Care Centres.
  2. UNICEF. (2009). Child Protection Report Card.
  3. Brown, K. (2009). The Risks of Harm to Young Children in Institutional Care. Better Care Network.
  4. United Nations General Assembly. (2010). Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children.

Photo Credit: Rachel Molenda