A new school year – a new start
For children whose lives have been turned upside down by abuse, neglect or abandonment, school can play a huge role in providing stability and continuity. More than that, it provides a space to be a child among other children, a 'normal' experience in the middle of events that have made the child feel 'different'.
The start of the new school year (in January) is therefore a time of great excitement! There are new clothes (school uniform) and a new start, and lots of new possibilities to make a new start.
And meanwhile - the little ones stay at home with their carers and say good bye to their bigger brothers and sisters
Christmas is am unusual time at Fikelela's Children's Centre - it is quiet!
But for the best of all reasons - all the children are enjoying a family Christmas.
December is often the time that school-aged children finally go to live with extended family or foster families, as it is the end of the school year. This year we found 26 children 'forever families' - and took in 26 more! There is a shortage of places for children who have been abandoned or abused, so we are always full.
For the children who can't go to a 'forever family' there is still a family Christmas. Sometimes extended family are able to have their grandchild, neice or nephew for a visit, but are not able to give them a home full-time. Those with no extended family go to stay with staff members and join in with their family celebrations.
Then, just before school starts again in January, the noise levels rise again!
One of the challenges of working with orphans is that the mother has often lost touch with the extended family. Sometimes this is due to the stigma of HIV, or of falling pregnant, and the fear of rejection by family members.
Some of these extended family members live is distant rural areas in other parts of South Africa, and making contact is a challenge.
What a joy last month when our auxiliary social worker was able to escort two siblings on the 12 hour bus drive for them to reunited with their grandmother who had never met them. After initial nervousness at meeting this 'strange' granny, the children began to bond, and it was a joyous time for the family. They knew their daughter had passed away but had no idea where the children were.
Our social worker and auxiliary social worker often have to become detectives to track families down, but the hard work is worth it!! Thank you for your support through GlobalGiving.
"It takes a community to raise a child" comes to mind when I reflect on my visit to Fikelela.
Fikelela is being run by a group of very caring, thoughtful, hardworking individuals. Rachel, the project leader, picked me up from my residence and drove me to Khayelitsha, where the centre is based. On our way to the site (about a 20 min drive from town), we both chatted about our passion for philanthropy.
Rachel shared that a friend of hers, Villa, had been the inspiration behind Fikelela; Villa had always dreamed about opening a home for children who were HIV+, called "Villas for Hope". Villa passed away from AIDS, and Rachel has since kept that dream alive.
Rachel may be the visionary behind Fikelela, but the centre's operations are heavily driven and overseen by Kate, a social worker by training. Over some very delicious tea, she outlined the program's vast operations, of which there are many moving parts: child developmental activities led by Kate, play and care by the staff carers, medical services (TB and HIV/AIDS testsing, general health check ups for which they partner with local clinics), a variety of art activities and fun outings for the children. What struck me about Kate was her unwavering love and commitment to the children; every bottom line she described, whether fundraising, reporting, hiring new staff, working with other non-profits, social works, and government agencies, were all articulated via impact on the children.
After speaking with Rachel and Kate for a bit, I received a tour of the facilitites. The girls and boys each have their own separate quarters, rooms with individual bunk beds and cribs with their names on them. I arrived during nap time for the younger ones (2-4 yrs), and the older kids were still away in school. I didn't want to snap photos of the children as they were sleeping, but I did capture one little girl, Nikkie, who had woken up early and wanted everyone passing by to pick her up! Her smile won me over.
Even the bathrooms have towels and toothbrushes labeled with the children's names. Kate explained that children naturally want to feel special, and in a group as large as theirs (up to 40 children at a time), Fikelela tries to affirm them as individuals in as many ways as possible.
The children have a wonderful playground at the back of the centre. They're even getting a pool very soon, donated by a supporter of Fikelela. They have bikes to ride around on, and indoors, an assortment of toys and games.
I spoke with a few "carers" (women who tend to the children -- bathe them, feed them, play with them etc), too, and was moved by how much love they expressed for their work. One of them, Pindiwe, has four children of her own; she works at the centre three days a week, and on the days when she isnt, tends to her children. I accompanied her as she prepared a daily booster (immune system strengthening drink) for a few of the children. When I asked her how she could love so many children at once, she replied, "I just really love children. I can't help it. They make me so happy."
A good number of the kids that come to the centre are HIV+. Yet, the centre is literally bubbling over with love, laughter, and joy. The few children that I saw awake were smiling and happy. The staff were themselves upbeat and positive. And, in fact, Kate explained that they hardly ever disclose which of the children are HIV+. "Everyone is treated the same. If I wear gloves for one, I wear gloves for all. If I kiss one, I kiss them all. Visitors who come in to start mourning are asked to leave. I don't need them bringing in that energy. My kids are happy."
Everyone working there spoke frankly about the love and passion they have for the work they do, but were also realistic and forthcoming about challenges; despite having a stellar reputation with the department of social services -- who are constantly recommending them -- it's clear that Fikelela is an organization that is always working proactively to do better, for the sake of their children.
Villa, the woman who inspired Rachel, and consequently, the staff at Fikelela to care for children living with HIV/AIDS, would be so proud.
The Fikelela model offers short term residential care, after which children are placed with supported foster carers. This model is supported by the department of social development and we recently had the chance to present our model at the International Congress of the World Association for Infant Mental Health which was held in Cape Town.
One of the benefits of this model is the strong link between the centre , the foster carers and the local clinic where the children receive their anti-retroviral medication. It means that if there is a drop in adherence once the children are placed with foster carers (they don't receive their medication on time) this is picked up by the local doctor and Fikelela is able to support the foster carers to improve the way that they give the child their ARVs.
Over the last quarter we have been able to care for 32 children in our short term residential care and 8 children have been place either with foster carers or with extended family members. Over the summer our kids have stayed very healthy and we are coming into the colder season now where we tend to see a few more heath issues arise!!
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