Caring for children in distress

2012-07-11 00:00

IT TAKES vision to see a crisis coming before its even struck. That’s what helped Thandanani evolve from a child-care group working in one hospital in the early nineties, into a community-based support organisation.

On Monday, an opinion piece by Diana Coke applauded the work of Dr Neil McKerrow, who came to the rescue of the orphaned children during the Edendale Hospital strike. “He was feeding them, changing nappies and generally acting as nurse to over 60 children,” she wrote. I was glad that she mentioned McKerrow. The leading KwaZulu-Natal paediatrician was not the easiest interviewee, and didn’t like the idea of taking any credit for Thandanani’s work.

In 1993, McKerrow went on an HIV/Aids study tour to Uganda, Zambia and Kenya, at the invitation of Unicef, to see how those countries were dealing with the HIV/Aids pandemic. He realised Thandanani’s efforts needed to refocus on the effect HIV/Aids would have on children.

Thandanani chairperson at the time, Professor Philippe Denis, conducted a similar tour of African countries, and it became clear that the organisation would have to tackle the issue head-on. They formed an Aids orphans sub-committee to brainstorm and plan a way forward.

Between 1994 and 1995, McKerrow and Annelies Verbeek conducted a research project in the Midlands to assess the community response to children separated from their parents, including children orphaned by Aids. The report was critical for its time, and the findings made it clear that South Africa would not escape the social consequences of the epidemic.

The research concluded that South Africa was going to have so many orphans from the Aids epidemic that traditional foster care would not be able to absorb all the orphans. “Home environments will be eroded, and with fewer resources for children, fewer children will achieve their full potential,” wrote McKerrow and Dr Verbeek. “It is, therefore, crucial to find alternative models of care to cater for the needs of emerging children in distress in a manner that will facilitate normal growth and development. The alternative models of care must be acceptable to the affected communities, meet the needs of the children, and be affordable to all parties.”

Thandanani realised that the number of “children in distress” was rising dramatically, and they felt the urgent need to find alternatives to institutionalisation as a solution for the placement of these children. They decided that they were going to be proactive about the impacts of Aids on children.

Thanks to work by Thandanani’s Denis, Rosalie Clarke and Msizi Mfeka, the organisation was ready to evolve. This was symbolised by its official re-launch on November 29, 1996, at the city hall in Pietermaritzburg. The honorary president of Thandanani, Archbishop Denis E. Hurley, opened the launch, saying: “The HIV/Aids pandemic is of such a proportion that an organisation cannot think in terms of welfare; that is, working directly to find homes for children orphaned by Aids. The only hope of bringing some relief to the situation is by promoting community involvement. Now, it must be community development and not direct welfare.”

The seed had been planted for a new Thandanani. The research had been done, and there was clear evidence that there were many children and communities who were being sorely affected by HIV/Aids and who needed assistance. To help them, Thandanani realised they needed to get the communities on board, using a new developmental model.

My late father, Dan le Cordeur, stepped in to assist. Through his workshops, Thandanani came up with a model of development facilitators (DF) that would assist community volunteers to care for the children in need. “I was looking at something that would transform the situation and empower the community to look after these kids,” he explained. Through workshops and community networking, the development facilitators sourced and trained volunteers within the communities to identify children in distress.

Thandanani grew quickly after its launch. It moved into its offices in 46 Langalibalele Street — where they have remained ever since — and appointed key new positions such as its director, Linda Aadnesgaard, as well as development facilitators.

Aadnesgaard became the new leader of Thandanani, and helped grow the organisation for over seven years. Her skills as a fundraiser ensured the organisation was well-known and cared for, while the volunteers grew in their roles in the community. “Everyone knew about Thandanani, wherever you went in the world,” she explained. The French chose to support them and in 2002, they nominated Aadnesgaard for the prestigious Légion d’Honneur, which was eventually won that year by Miriam Makeba.

Apart from ensuring the growth of the organisation to respond to the growing need in the community, Thandanani worked as an advocacy group, challenging the country’s stance on HIV/Aids. They pioneered a new model of care for children, which has been used by many other organisations around the country.

In 2004, a crisis hit Thandanani that no one saw coming. In 2003, Aadnesgaard had indicated to the board her desire to leave the organisation. A transition plan was not implemented effectively and when she left, the wheels seemed to pop off. Fundraising had not been properly maintained and the new management found itself penniless.

Interested members of Thandanani came together to help keep the organisation together, using emergency funding methods and evaluating the overall efficiency of the work on the ground. During this period of crisis, Duncan Andrew (who became the director) and Larry Tooke (who became chairperson) were instrumental in not only turning the organisation around, but advancing it to new heights.

“What kept the organisation alive at that time, was the passion and dedication of all involved,” said Andrew. “The commitment and time people gave to the organisation was quite remarkable, considering the nature and extent of the crisis. Without this belief and commitment, the organisation would not have survived. The crisis actually brought the organisation together.”

Andrew worked hard to analyse the extent of the work on the ground, and helped Thandanani reformulate its mission to build the capacity of the communities to respond to the basic material, physical, cognitive and emotional needs of their orphans and vulnerable children.

Since then, Thandanani has shifted its focus from developing “self-reliant care and support systems in each community”, to developing “self-reliant families who are better able to meet the care and support needs of their children”. This helped to address the rising number of vulnerable children needing support, as well as the demand for increased services by many donors.

Volunteers are given responsibility for monitoring and addressing the needs of the orphans and vulnerable children in a number of households. They do this through regular home visits. Where difficulties are identified, the volunteer takes on the role of big brother or big sister, and develops personal relationships with the children that they monitor. This provides the children with regular access to caring and supportive adults, who have a personal interest in their wellbeing and development.

Thandanani continues to be a beacon of hope and development. “We’re not just an organisation that puts a finger in the dyke and tries to respond to the problem in that way,” said Andrew. “We put our finger in the dyke, but we want to change the circumstances so that there isn’t a leak. It’s to find cost-effective ways of doing that, which is our challenge.”

 Children at the Forefront: The History of Thandanani Children’s Foundation by Matthew le Cordeur and Thandi Davies will be launched on August 17.


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