30 January 2018

The Accidental Orphanage

The money raised through the End the Silence campaign will allow us to pioneer the first closure of an orphanage for children with special needs in Rwanda.

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In July, Boris Pomroy, Head of Major Partnerships and Brand, visited the work of Child’s i foundation, our partners in Uganda, to see why support in both Uganda and Rwanda is so badly needed. Here is his report about an orphanage started ‘accidentally’.

Mark is a short, stout man in his late thirties. He never meant to open an orphanage. He sees himself as more of a business man but today he is the director of an institution for children with special needs in one of the largest cities in Uganda.

It’s not until you hear Mark’s own story that you really understand how he has ended up on this small, dusty plot, working every hour for children and families who no-one else wants to care for. Growing up, Mark was very close to his cousin, Isaac. They were the same age but Isaac suffered from epilepsy. He had been completely ostracised by his own family and the wider community who associated his fits and seizures with evil spirits.

Mark’s parents took Isaac in but kept him shut away in a small room. They trained him to turn his face to the wall when visitors came, believing they might “catch” his condition if they made eye-contact. But Mark would not give up on Isaac. He did his best to care for his cousin and maintain their friendship.

As Mark grew older and more confident he would take Isaac out for trips into the city and to the local villages. Over time, attitudes in the community softened towards Isaac. People began to come to Mark, asking him to care for their own children with disabilities. That is how Mark came to find himself in charge of a make-shift institution for children with special needs.

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Today, there are 18 children and young adults, aged between four and twenty two years old, in Mark’s care. They have a wide range of conditions and disabilities from mild physical impairments to severe learning difficulties. The building where they live is very run down with dark corridors and bare classrooms and just two cramped dormitory bedrooms – one for the younger children and one for older ones, boys and girls together.

With no official funding, Mark faces a daily struggle to keep the place going.

Richard is one of the youngest children here. He is about 5 years old, full of energy and desperate for attention. Richard was born with only one, very short arm and a partial hand. Despite his disability, he is a very independent and dexterous little boy. He can use a knife and fork to feed himself and he can string beads, using his feet and toes where necessary.

Although Richard is desperate to communicate, his speech has been delayed because he spends all his time with children and young adults who have learning disabilities and can’t speak. And so Richard is growing up in silence.

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The Accidental Orphanage

Like most of the children in Mark’s accidental orphanage, Richard has a family but, without support, they can’t afford to look after him. His mother visits when she can but the family live a long way from the city and she has other children to care for so it’s not easy. Mark recognises that his institution isn’t the right place for Richard or the other children to grow up. But at this point, they have nowhere else to go.

With the right support, we hope that Richard will be able to return to his family, to grow up loved and protected, learning and developing, alongside his brothers and sisters. If that isn’t possible, then we will look for the right safe and loving specialist foster family to care for him.

This is why our End the Silence campaign is so important. Together, we can reach over 120,000 children across Rwanda and Uganda who are currently confined to orphanages or at risk of being separated from their families. And we can pioneer the first closure of an institution for children with special needs in southern Africa.

Mark’s dream is to transform his institution into a non-residential rehabilitation centre where parents can come and develop new skills to support their families and where children can access the specialist care and rehabilitation they need.

As we left the accidental orphanage in Uganda, I asked Mark what had happened to his cousin, Isaac. He paused and then explained. One day, Isaac walked with him to the crossroads where Mark caught a motorcycle taxi to college. As Mark rode off, he turned and waved to Isaac who waved enthusiastically back. That was the last time he ever saw his cousin. Isaac, then 19, never returned home. No-one knows what happened to him. Mark thinks Isaac may have been knocked down by a lorry or he may have had a seizure and fallen into a pit-latrine.

Without your support, Mark’s vision for a better future for children with disabilities and their families would be no more than a dream. I believe that Hope and Homes for Children can make that dream a reality.