The Miracle Foundation
How a summer trek in search of purpose led to an internationally acclaimed foundation straight from the heart of founder Caroline Boudreaux.
Written by Shelley Seale
Photography by Anushka Tikka
The first time Caroline Boudreaux traveled to India, she was a 28-year-old account executive at a television station, living the good life in Austin with a high-income job, new car and an active social life. Yet she felt hollow inside.
“I was sure there had to be more to life, but I didn’t have a clue what that was,” she says. “I knew in my heart I had a bigger purpose that I wasn’t fulfilling.”
Feeling at a crossroads, Boudreaux took a sabbatical from her job to travel the world with her friend Chris Monheim Poynor. The year was 2000, and the women were “chasing summer” around the globe. One of the many stops on their map was India—not because Boudreaux had pinned the country, but because Poynor had been sponsoring a child there and wanted to visit him.
“I didn’t even think the little boy was real,” Boudreaux says. “I doubted she was making a difference, and told her it was a scam.”
As it turned out the little boy, Manus, was indeed very real and living in the northeastern state of Odisha. The women were given an elaborate ceremonial welcome to his village, where Manus has been receiving Chris’s support and kept all the letters she had sent him.
Boudreaux and Poynor would soon discover that Manus was one of the lucky ones.
A few days later, they were invited to dinner at the home of a local family. Nothing could have prepared them for what they found when they arrived. Their host, Damodar Sahoo, had been taking in homeless children for several decades. By that night in May 2000—Mother’s Day in the U.S. more than a hundred children were living in the Sahoo complex.
The moment that broke Boudreaux was when a little girl toddled over and laid her head on Boudreaux’s knee. She picked up the small child, called Sibani, and rocked her to sleep, then carried her to bed. But what she found in Sibani’s bedroom chilled her. Thirty wooden bunk beds lined the room—and none of them had mattresses, pillows or blankets. The sound that Sibani’s little bones made when Boudreaux laid her down on the hard slats has stayed with her ever since.
She went to Mr. Sahoo and told him that she wanted to put mattresses on all of the children’s beds. “I don’t care what it costs,” she recalls telling him. “But he replied, ‘Would you mind if we got them clean water first?’”
The realization of just how little these children had—to the extent that safe drinking water and one nutritious meal a day were priorities well above a comfortable bed—hit her like a ton of bricks.
On that Mother’s Day 18 years ago, Boudreaux found her purpose in one moment, with a tiny child in a rural village in India. The seed for The Miracle Foundation had been planted, based on one simple but powerful motivation that fueled her: Children shouldn’t have to live that way. “It was simply unacceptable to me,” she says.
A few months later, she returned to Austin with renewed energy and began researching and filing paperwork to make her new nonprofit a reality. Donors stepped up immediately to help the vulnerable children that she was building The Miracle Foundation for. “Miraculously, people of all ages, from all walks of life, and from all socioeconomic backgrounds joined us on this journey,” Boudreaux says.
The first few years involved a lot of trial and error, and figuring out the best way to address the problem. “We understand so little of what people really need,” she says. “Perspective is one of the greatest gifts these children have given me.”
That perspective has evolved numerous times throughout her nonprofit’s history. For example, after a few years of working with several orphanages, Boudreaux learned that most of the children living in them were not, in fact, true orphans. They had families who cared about them, but who were too destitute to actually take care of them.
“The driver for foster care is very different between parts of the world,” Boudreaux says. “In the U.S., it’s abuse or neglect. In the developing world, it’s poverty. The family is simply too poor to provide for them. People like to fund orphanages; it feels so good to help kids. But what happens inadvertently is that orphanages are becoming magnets for poor families who see the institution as a place that can take better care of their kids than they can. They look at orphanages and think, wow, they have people bringing in fancy food every day for the kids, they have a computer lab, they have tutors and nice people to take them on trips.”
An unintended consequence of this well-meaning work is that it can actually increase the numbers of children living in institutional homes. “Eighty-five percent of these kids have a living parent that could care for them if given a little help. If you empower that person to take care of the children, they often will.”
From a goal of providing these children with medical care, healthy nutrition, caring housemothers and a quality education; the mission has morphed into one of placing the children back with parents or loving relative homes, where possible, rather than them living in orphanages in the first place—and then equipping these families with the assistance they need to provide.
“The goal is to make sure institutions are only there for kids who truly need it; the ones who don’t have parents or relatives that can take care of them,” Boudreaux explains. “But they’re always better off in a safe family who wants them.
In spite of the overwhelming support that she received, Boudreaux has faced many challenges along the journey. The biggest of those is doubt: both self-doubt, and the doubt of others.
“It’s hard to keep believing when so many people tell you it can’t be done. But you press on. The real job is changing people’s mindsets. There is something comforting about the status quo. People think, ‘the poor will always be with us,’ or ‘it can’t be done,’ or ‘that’s just the way it is and the way it will always be.’ They want to be—and want me to be—practical, but there is no room for practical or comfortable when you’re doing this work.”
In spite of the obstacles that The Miracle Foundation has had to overcome through the years, Boudreaux says she wouldn’t do anything differently if she had the opportunity. “Looking back on all my mistakes is painful; but then I think, wow, I wouldn’t have learned those important lessons and changed our approach if I hadn’t learned that.”
But Boudreaux is quick to deflect the reasons for The Miracle Foundation’s success to other people involved with the mission. “It’s all about the people; the board, our leaders, the team, the board, the donors, and, of course, the awesome amazing children. The reason we’re successful is that so many people are willing to give their time, talent and treasure so that others can thrive. Then, the beneficiaries do their part and we all win. It’s a beautiful thing.”
It might be surprising to learn that Boudreaux’s first piece of advice for someone thinking about starting a nonprofit is: Don’t do it.
“Unless you’ve got a challenge that no one else is working on, there are enough nonprofits out there that would love the energy, the money and the brain power that it takes to open and run a new organization,” she says. “I always recommend finding an organization that is helping the constituency that you are working on, and getting behind them.”
Boudreaux’s newest goal is to work herself out of a job, and The Miracle Foundation out of business, by eliminating the need for orphanages by 2040.
“After all the work we’ve been doing, last year I needed to take a step back and look at the horizon,” she says. “I wanted to look at the big picture, what is going on in this space on a global scale, and develop a bigger strategy going forward.”
What she realized was that while there were dozens of organizations throughout the world doing great work with children living without families, there was no leader in the space. “There are some great players, but everyone was working in silos, like we were,” Boudreaux says. “The Achilles heel of nonprofits is that we often don’t work together, and duplicate efforts. More and more governments are also figuring out that orphanages are not the answer.”
So once again, she changed course slightly and began contacting other organizations working on the same goal she had, inviting them to a Global Collective she set up at the London School of Business. This past August, more than 30 organizations and Boudreaux worked for four days at the conference, to develop common strategies and a game plan to place the world’s eight million children living without their own families back into loving homes within 22 years.
“Getting all those nonprofits together in one room was life-changing,” Boudreaux says. “If we are all going after the same thing, that’s how we’ll get there.”
One of her favorite sayings is that everything is impossible until it’s done. “We must go for the miracle, go for the impossible. Convincing people to change their mind and go for a world where all children grow up in a safe family and the end of institutional dependency is the toughest part. We must believe.”