OXFORD, Ohio – In her book Reckless Faith, Beth Guckenberger explains the motivation she and her husband Todd had for moving from the United States to Mexico to start a charity organization.
In the mid 90s the couple was on a routine church-sponsored mission trip in Queretaro, Mexico. They quickly grew tired of painting the same old walls and meeting with the same old apathy amid the youth group they were accompanying, so, frustrated, Beth and Todd decided to find a place where their labor could be put to better use that day.
The Guckenbergers soon found an orphanage, and the man running it informed them that the children living there had not eaten meat all year. Beth and Todd brought hamburgers, cooked them for the children and watched as the kids grabbed as many hamburgers as they could carry and hid the meat under their beds for later.
Beth says that this small moment caused a definite shift in the way she was willing to spend her energy and resources.
“Today, when people look at our organization and ask about strategy, vision casting, projection, and planning, we just smile. It would be tempting to spin it all so it seems more polished. But the truth is, it started with a little girl hiding a hamburger under her mattress,” she writes.
Husband Todd Guckenberger explains in an interview with the author that failure for Back2Back is allowing the cycle of poverty to repeat itself.
Todd points out the importance of sustainable development for the nonprofit. While failure means a continuation of poverty’s cycle, success means raising orphan children to become adults who return to their communities with the ability to make valuable contributions as independent, self-sustainable individuals.
Back2Back uses a 5-point Child Development Plan, consisting of spiritual, physical, educational, emotional and social development to determine what the organization does and does not do in providing individual, holistic care to orphans.
“At Back2Back we seek depth of care over width of care. Examining each child’s specific situation and needs is more important that the volume of orphans served,” Todd explains.
In addition to spiritual guidance, counseling, shelter, clothing, food and medical attention, education is heavily emphasized at Back2Back, and each child is provided with tutors and scholarships. The Hope Program exists specifically to help young adults 15 years and older graduate from secondary and post-secondary schools. Since 1999, 25 individuals have earned university degrees through the Hope Program.
Todd reports that “we have students with degrees in law, nursing, graphic design, culinary arts, education, architecture and business. Many graduates return to their community to invest in the children there who are going through the same kind of things they experienced.”
Social development is another big focus at Back2Back, involving financial literacy, interpersonal communication skills, coping mechanisms and work ethic. A one-to-five scale metric is used on an individual basis to measure where a child stands in each of the five development areas, and to create specific goals to get the child all the way to point five on the scale, signifying healthy development.
Addressing the effectiveness of Back2Back, Todd concedes that institutional orphan care has a tainted reputation. UNICEF clearly favors alternative care to institutional care, yet Todd argues that in some situations, when examined on an individual basis, institutional care may be the best option.
“In the absence of other options institutional care is better than no care at all. Also, It could be more beneficial to keep siblings together in a children’s home rather than splitting them up in different foster homes, even though the care they would receive in the foster home may be more concentrated,” Todd speculates.
Yet Back2Back does not want to stop its work at group homes. The organization is working hard to incorporate alternatives like foster care and adoption into its operations. Todd and Beth have worked with the state of Nuevo León, where Monterrey is located, to develop a foster care infrastructure that was nonexistent at the beginning of 2013.
The Guckenbergers are seeking to eliminate the bureaucratic process of foster-care by basing the system on faith-based motivations instead of financial incentives. Also in place are a thorough application process and a 16-hour family training period.
Todd reasons that this system is doubly beneficial: “it cuts group home budgets while placing children in Christ-centered, nuclear family environments. On the spectrum of care we see adoption and foster care as favorable to group homes, but group homes are way more favorable to life on the streets. Better to live in a dorm room with ten to fifteen other children than to live on the streets of Monterrey.”
Back2Back Ministries melds genuine care for orphaned children with sound administrative, logistical and financial practices. The name of the organization signifies its desire to partner with locals in order to best meet the needs of the communities where it works.
Back2Back’s “Ministry Partners” include churches, pastors and leaders in the communities where the nonprofit operates, as well as churches in the United States that provide donations and mission trip volunteers.
Additionally, the nonprofit is accredited by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. Todd emphasizes the importance of this status considering the council’s stringent requirements of transparency and integrity.
The charity is clearly progressing. Todd mentions that besides a new presence in Haiti and the very recently developed foster program in Nuevo León, more fundamental evolution is occurring in the organization as well. For example, the two pillars of emotional and social wellbeing were grafted into the Child Development Program as recently as 2011.
As the executive directors of Back2Back Ministries continue to seek out ways to better provide holistic orphan care 17 years into this venture, they reveal an impressive amount of dedication and maturity in guiding the nonprofit toward even greater service.
– Kayla Strickland
Sources: Back2Back, Phone interview with Todd Guckenberger Guckenberger, Beth. Reckless Faith: Let Go or Be Led. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008.
Photo: Beth Guckenberger