Reflecting on 25 years of hope for children: Mark and Caroline’s story
This year marks our 25th anniversary and what better moment to reflect on all that’s been achieved for children during that time, thanks entirely to the generosity of our wonderful supporters and the dedication of our staff around the world.
In the early days, Hope and Homes for Children stood alone in believing that all children should grow up in loving families, not loveless institutions. Today, because of your kindness and commitment, we stand together at the forefront of a growing global movement to make orphanages history
In this occasional series we feature just some of the people who have played a crucial role in that journey and the children whose lives have been transformed because of your generosity, since Hope and Homes was founded in 1994.
We hope that these reflections leave you not only encouraged, but reminded, that our vision of a world without orphanages, and your support to achieve it, is as vital today as it was then.
“We have been in hundreds of orphanages around the world, in none of them have we found love.”
Hope and Homes for Children exists because of the courage, conviction and energy of two remarkable people: our founders, Mark and Caroline Cook (pictured above, at the opening of our first office in 1994, on the farm in Wiltshire where our headquarters are still based today). Here they explain how love for children inspired their work from the beginning and why it remains at the heart of the organisation they created:
Twenty-five years ago, at the height of the Bosnian war, we flew into the besieged city of Sarajevo to try to help children who were struggling to survive alone in the Bjelave orphanage there.
The building was in a terrible state. It had sustained hits from mortars and heavy weapons and some of the children had been injured. About 20 babies were crammed inside the only warm room in the building. They were never allowed to come out of their cots. They were pretty silent as they always are in these places but all their little arms would come up, just wanting to be picked up, just wanting to be hugged. And we did pick them up but the worst thing was when you wanted to put them down again because they just clung to you and clung to you. That was what was so awful about Bjelave and what was so awful about every orphanage that we ever went into.
Both of us had a loving family and a very happy childhood and we are fortunate enough to have two boys of our own and now four lovely grandchildren. We are very privileged. It was not until we witnessed the suffering of the children whose lives had been torn apart by the war in Bosnia that we really appreciated our good fortune.
We promised the children in Bjelave that we would do all we could to help them and Hope and Homes for Children was born.
We have been in hundreds of orphanages around the world since then, in none of them have we found love.
Today, Hope and Homes for Children is a respected international charity, working to reform child care systems around the world, but we started on a farm in Wiltshire! Our headquarters is still there today.
The early years were exciting—intoxicating, even. Nothing seemed impossible. We saw a need in a country and went out to try and help. After every country visit we came back re-energised and increasingly passionate.
From the beginning we had an unshakeable belief that, if our work was good enough, the money would come to support it and make it possible. This is clearly a rather risky premise on which to start a charity! We had no business plan and no experience – looking back, we feel somewhat embarrassed by how naive we were!
At first, we worked to rebuild and refurbished orphanages but, prompted by one of our earliest recruits, a bright young lawyer called James Whiting, we began to asking the children what they really wanted. It did not matter what race, colour or creed they were, or whether they were living in an orphanage, on the streets on in the sewers, their answer was always the same: “Please, please find me a family.”
Mark asked one small boy on the streets of Khartoum what he thought a family and a home were and his answer was “Love”. That response was to have a defining influence on the future focus of Hope and Homes for Children.
Mark asked one small boy on the streets of Khartoum what he thought a family and a home were and his answer was “Love”. That response was to have a defining influence on the future focus of Hope and Homes for Children. Previously we had rather presumed that the most important things that these vulnerable children needed were food, a roof over their heads, a safe place to sleep and an education. But the children themselves guided us to the heart of our mission—they desperately wanted and needed the love of a family.
What we came to realise was that it didn’t matter how poor people were, it was still better for children to be reunited with their parents, their siblings, their grandparents and that our money was best spent helping to build a room or improve sanitation at home, so that a child could be with their families again and feel loved.
Love became the key to our work and we have quite unashamedly focused on and talked about it ever since.
Over the last 25 years, our commitment and that of Hope and Homes for Children, to do what’s best for children has never wavered. And thanks to steadfast supporters like you, wonderful progress has been made.
In Romania especially, the transformation is extraordinary. When we closed our first orphanage there in 1999 and rescued 96 babies from the most appalling conditions, Caroline wished out loud that we could do the same for every child, trapped in those dreadful Soviet era institutions. Today, ‘Caroline’s Dream’, as it came to be known by us, is close to coming true. Romania is set to become the first country where we work to complete the journey from a child protection system based on orphanages to one where children and families have the support they need to stay together and safe and loving alternative care is available through fostering and adoption for children who cannot be with their birth families.
Our mission now is to be the catalyst for the global elimination of institutional care for children. What we have helped to achieve in Romania, because of your support, is providing the inspiration and the momentum for change in other countries around the world.
Only this spring, a high level delegation from India, including a Supreme Court Judge, visited our team in Romania to see first-hand the impact of our work and how systematic reform of national child protection systems can be achieved over time.
In Rwanda too, extraordinary progress has been made to close orphanages and find a family for every child, including children with disabilities. When the leaders of the Commonwealth meet in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, next year, we will use this progress to lobby all fifty three member countries to commit to end the institutionalisation of all children by 2040 and of the very youngest children, under the age of three, by 2030.
In Romania especially, the transformation is extraordinary. When we closed our first orphanage there in 1999 and rescued 96 babies from the most appalling conditions, Caroline wished out loud that we could do the same for every child… Romania is set to become the first country where we work to complete the journey
We have not done this alone; it really has been a wonderful team effort. Our UK staff and overseas country teams have been truly amazing in their total commitment and their incredible hard work, often in very difficult situations. Always their love for children has sustained them and spurred them on. And most importantly you, our supporters, have given us the resources to make it all possible.
Over the last 25 years, literally thousands of people have become part of the Hope and Homes for Children ‘family’ and have contributed in hundreds of different ways. It’s amazing and humbling that so many of you have been with us right from the start. You believed in us, supported us and gave us the strength to carry on.
As we celebrate our anniversary this year we are not only reflecting on the achievements of the past but we are look ahead to the next urgent and exciting stage of our journey together to realise our vision of a world where children no longer suffer institutional care.
As one of our early supporters, Lord Bill Deedes, once kindly wrote, “The candle that Mark and Caroline Cook have lit seem to offer precious little light in the darkness that threatens to envelope many of the world’s children. But if others light similar candles, it will grow less dark. There is no knowing what the love Hope and Homes for Children seeks to arouse in the human heart might achieve in a hard world.”