Every big thing in the world

2012-11-23 00:00

THE story of the SOS Children’s Villages (CV) started in KZN in 1996 with just 16 children who were abandoned at state hospitals like Edendale Hospital. “Dr Neil McKerrow, a paediatrician at Edendale, saw the need to build a facility to take care of these children, so he contacted the SOS Children’s Villages organisation in the United Kingdom. He also campaigned to get the government to donate land for a facility,” explained the local SOS Children’s Village director, Michelle King. Funding was sourced overseas and a CV was built in the Grange, consisting of 15 family homes and a pre-school for 125 children.

SOS in South Africa is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, but the international story started long before that in Imst, Austria, in 1949 after World War 2. “The founder, Hermann Gmeiner, opened the first village for orphans left homeless after the war. He developed SOS’s family-centred child-care concept based on the four pillars of a mother, a house, brothers and sisters, and a village. Gmeiner himself was orphaned at the age of nine and raised by his older sister,” King said.

The village in the Grange is home to 13 “core care co-workers” or house mothers who are trained child-care workers, four youth co-workers and nine “SOS aunts”. These women are also child and youth care workers who relieve the 13 mothers in the family households. Between these 26 adults, they care for 108 children in family homes of six to 10 children aged from infants to 18. There are also 24 young adults in four youth homes, and 32 living in nearby communities whom SOS is supporting as they make the transition to independent adult life. Department of Social Development grant funding stops when children reach 18, but the organisation continues to support its young people until they are able to live and function independently.

The word “independent” and “independence” figured often in King’s conversation. “We offer children at risk long-term family-based care. Our purpose is to raise children to be independent adults equipped with all the necessary life skills to become contributing members of society. They may come from family contexts that are lacking, but that does not mean they cannot have opportunities to make the best of themselves and their lives,” she said. From a young age, children are taught to help with chores around their family home like washing up, cooking, cleaning and washing their own clothes. They attend a range of local schools, including Pelham, the Ridge and Grange.

King explained that the children who live at SOS were orphaned, abandoned or vulnerable children who had lost or risked losing parental care. Some were removed from homes where they were at risk and placed in the village by court order. “We work closely with the Department of Social Development to monitor and offer training and support to families so that the children can be placed back in their homes if the conditions improve sufficiently. In addition to orphans, many of our children come from homes headed by children, siblings and grandmothers, who need support and empowerment to manage the responsibilities of running a home. We offer an outreach programme to support and strengthen the families of the children in our care as well as the wider community. The programme is called the Family Strengthening Programme, which operates in areas like France informal settlement, and Slangspruit,” she said.

King explained the difference between child-headed and sibling-headed households: “Child-headed households are those where a child is looking after other children who are not siblings, like cousins or orphans, while sibling-headed homes are families where older children look after their younger siblings.” She said that SOS helps abandoned children try to trace their families, and facilitates the adoption of orphans.

The village staff is active in development and outreach programmes. Preschool teachers conduct holiday skills training sessions to build the capacity of teachers in community crèches, particularly the informal settlement of France. In a hydroponics vegetable project, nine women from France grow and market tomatoes and mushrooms, generating income for their own families. Another successful project is a series of self-help groups which involve women in small-scale savings and income generation.

Despite difficult circumstances, many children who have passed through the local SOS Village have gone on to make a success of their lives. These include:

• a young woman who is a model and public relations practitioner in Johannesburg;

• a happily married young mother;

• the head chef of a top Johannesburg hotel;

• a trainee nurse close to completing her degree;

• an almost-qualified somatologist;

• a trainee project manager;

• a community development student; and

• a mechanic supporting his younger siblings.

These examples seem to bear out the success of SOS’s mission and vision: “Our mission states that ‘We build families for children in need, we help them shape their own futures and we share in the development of their communities’,” King said. “Our vision is ‘Every child belongs to a family and grows with love, respect and security’. It is very rewarding working with the children, but you have to believe in our mission and vision as it can also be difficult and demanding work,” she concluded.

* Surnames withheld to protect identities.

SUNDAY sees the start of the 16 Days of Activism of No Violence Against Woman and Children Campaign. This international campaign takes place every year from November 25 (International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women) to December 10 (International Human Rights Day). The period includes Universal Children’s Day and World Aids Day. As part of this campaign, The Witness will be publishing stories about some of the care facilities available for children in KZN.

AN SOS press release drew attention to the pivotal role of women in the organisation. Many of the house mothers at the Grange village have their own families as far away as Harding, Durban, Port Shepstone and Richard’s Bay, but live and work full time at the village. The statement said: “… at the centre of this highly successful international family-based care organisation, are the SOS Children’s Villages women — women who devote their lives to caring for and raising children whose own biological mothers are unable to do so — either as a result of extreme poverty, terminal illness, death, abuse or neglect.

“The SOS Children’s Villages pay tribute to all the women involved in the organisation and the local communities. From social workers, SOS mothers, village directors, fundraisers, co-ordinators and admin staff, the SOS Children’s Villages are filled with wonderful [women] who are doing an exceptional job. To them, it’s more than a job. It’s a calling. There are eight Villages and three Social Centres situated around the country and these are filled with [women who] have unbelievable stories to tell.” — SOS Children’s Villages.


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