DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Let's go now to the Honduran city of Tela, where it is a big day for Naomi Rodriguez (ph). The 15-year-old is competing in a pageant at school. She's chosen two outfits for the contest. But first, she's helping to make breakfast.
NAOMI: (Speaking Spanish).
(SOUNDBITE OF METAL SCRAPING)
GREENE: This could be the morning routine at many houses in this small Central American city, but this house is special. It's a home for orphans, and as NPR's Jason Beaubien reports, it's part of an international network built around what matters most when it comes to raising kids.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: The day starts early at the SOS Children's Village in Tela, Honduras. It's 5:30 in the morning. At house No. 9, Naomi and her SOS mom, Sandra Hernandez, are chatting about Naomi's upcoming school day while the two of them make traditional Honduran tortillas called baleadas. Sandra's pounding the balls of dough into plate-sized patties. Four teenagers, including Naomi, live at the house. We're not using any of the minor children's real names because they're wards of the state. The youngest boy is sweeping the backyard. Naomi is helping to cook. Two of the older boys are still asleep.
SANDRA HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
BEAUBIEN: Sandra, who's 45, lives in the house full-time. When she takes her annual vacation, an SOS aunt comes to stay with the kids for a week or two. Sandra says the SOS model gives these children a home that's like a natural family.
HERNANDEZ: (Through interpreter) It helps them a lot because they're not isolated.
BEAUBIEN: SOS Children's Villages is a global nonprofit that runs nearly 600 residential care facilities for kids in 135 countries. The structure of an SOS Children's Village is actually quite simple - kids who've been separated from their biological parents because of death or abuse or neglect are put in, quote, "family units with a single adult caregiver." Those houses are grouped together as an SOS Village. The houses in Tela are two-story, cinder block buildings. Each has a kitchen and a living room on the ground floor and four bedrooms upstairs. Naomi says her friends from school like coming over because she has such a nice house.
NAOMI: (Through interpreter) When we have group homework, they come over because they like coming here.
BEAUBIEN: For Sandra, being an SOS mom isn't just a job. This is her family. She was placed in an SOS Children's Village in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa at the age of 3, and she grew up there.
HERNANDEZ: (Through interpreter) I lived the same situation as them.
BEAUBIEN: She says one of the most valuable things she learned and that she tries to pass along to the kids in her care is the importance of having strong daily routines and strong moral values. Naomi grabs her bag with her outfits for the pageant, says goodbye to her mom and heads off to school.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BEAUBIEN: On this day, Naomi's classes have been suspended as the school celebrates the 69th anniversary of its founding in Tela. Naomi is one of a dozen contestants in what's essentially a beauty pageant to see who will be crowned Senorita Aniversario - the queen of the school festival.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).
BEAUBIEN: As she walks out onto the stage, the announcer declares that Naomi's hobby is studying, and she hopes to become a doctor.
BEAUBIEN: Naomi was placed at the SOS Children's Village when she was 2 years old and has been with Sandra since she was 7. Her math teacher, Jennifer Gamez, says Naomi's one of the best students in the school.
JENNIFER GAMEZ: (Through interpreter) You explain something once and she gets it. If she has a question or a doubt, she asks me about it. And her behavior is excellent.
BEAUBIEN: Gamez says she's been impressed with many of the students from the SOS village. The organization will reunite them if possible with biological relatives. But the overall goal is to construct a new family for these kids and to make this SOS village their home. In recent years, the idea of raising kids in orphanages has been slipping out of favor. But Duke University professor Kathryn Whetten says her research shows that orphanages aren't inherently bad.
KATHRYN WHETTEN: We see the same continuum of bad and good care in the group homes as we see in the family settings.
BEAUBIEN: For the last 12 years, Whetten has been following 3,000 kids who were orphaned or separated from their biological parents in five low-and-middle-income countries. Half the kids are in institutions of some kind - government-run orphanages, private group homes. The other half have been placed with extended family members. Whetten has found that the orphans who do well tend to be in stable living conditions, where kids feel connected to other residents.
WHETTEN: So creating a family-like environment is what is really important. And that can happen in a family setting, in a small home, or it can happen in an orphanage/institution/group home like SOS.
BEAUBIEN: In the early afternoon, when Naomi gets home from the Senorita Aniversario pageant, Sandra is waiting anxiously for her on the porch.
NAOMI: (Speaking Spanish).
BEAUBIEN: Sandra wants to hear all of the details of the event.
NAOMI: (Speaking Spanish).
BEAUBIEN: Naomi tells her how everyone was yelling and cheering when she walked up onto the stage. She laughs as she describes how all her friends were sure she was going to win. She made it all the way to the final round and was one of just three finalists.
HERNANDEZ: (Through interpreter) But you'll still represent the school tonight in the festival. That's a big honor.
BEAUBIEN: Later that evening, after the boys get home from school, Sandra recruits kids from all 12 of the houses to help clean up an overgrown section of the SOS compound next to the soccer field. As the sun fades, the kids rake up piles of cut grass and leaves. They chase each other around. They sing pop songs. One of the teenage boys is keen to show that he can carry a bigger bag of leaves and dirt than anyone else. Eventually, the work party degenerates into a soccer game.
BEAUBIEN: Sandra has just scored her third goal of the game, but the kids are insisting she was offside. And what could be more fun than arguing about whether or not someone is cheating at backyard sports? It feels a lot like a big family picnic. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Tela, Honduras.
(SOUNDBITE OF BALMORHEA'S "MASOLLAN")