26 September 2019

Reflecting on 25 years of hope for children: Marie Claire’s story

Marie Claire in 2019

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.

Hope and Homes for Children is the creation of a remarkable couple, Mark and Caroline Cook, who believed that all children should have the chance to grow up in loving families, never orphanages. In 1994, when our work began, we stood alone. Today, the organisation that we have built together is at the forefront of a growing global movement to make orphanages history.

In this occasional series, we feature people who have played a crucial role in that journey and revisit the stories of just some of the children who have inspired us all. 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 urgent and essential today as it has always been.

From a numbered cot in an orphanage to the heart of a loving family

Marie Claire spent the first ten years of her life struggling to survive, neglected and ignored, in Rwanda’s largest orphanage. Your generosity meant that we were able to close that institution and find a wonderful new family to care for Marie Claire. That was five years ago. Since then, their love and support has changed her life. This is her story.

Marie Claire was just a week old when she was discovered, cold and alone, abandoned on the ground in a village in the north of Rwanda. The kind woman who rescued her, breastfed her and watched over her but sadly, she could not afford to keep her. When no trace of Marie Claire’s birth mother could be found, the authorities decided to send her to an orphanage; the oldest and largest in Rwanda.

 

The orphanage where Marie Claire grew up

The room of numbered, plastic cots where Marie Claire was housed in the orphanage. Photo © Chris Leslie

 

Life in the orphanage
Marie Claire would have been too young to notice the guards standing by the locked rusting gates, as the car bumped down the long dirt-track, towards the low-rise buildings of the orphanage. Nor would she have understood the sense of desperation and loss that hung in the air as she was handed over to the staff. All that would come later.

Marie Claire’s home was now a small room, filled with row upon row of plastic cots, each with a number above it. With up to 25 babies to see to at any one time, this was the only way that the staff could tell one child from another. With over 500 children to care for, they did what they could but babies like Marie Claire were lucky to be fed even once a day. Left alone in a filthy, sodden nappy for hours on end, she soon learned not to cry because it did no good; no one ever came.

Never comforted, never hugged, never cherished, Marie Claire clung to life and somehow managed to survive. As she grew older, she was moved out of the nursery, first into a room with a single old mattress, which she shared with four others toddlers and then to a bunk-bed in a dormitory with several dozen other girls. During all her years in the orphanage, she never had anything or anyone to call her own.

 

The orphanage where Marie Claire grew up

As Marie Claire grew older, she was moved into a dormitory in the orphanage that she shared several dozen other girls. Photo © Chris Leslie

 

Daring to hope
Against the odds, Marie Claire grew up to be a caring and inquisitive little girl. She had a strong personality and would often ask challenging questions about life in the orphanage. She helped out in the kitchen and laundry and always came near the top of her class at school. Her intelligence was clear to both the adults and the children around her.

When she was nine, our team of local skilled professionals began working with the Rwanda Government to close the orphanage where Marie Claire lived. She watched closely as, one by one, her friends left to rejoin their birth families – who now had the support they needed to care for them – or to join new families through fostering or adoption. Now all these children had someone to love and protect them.

Marie Claire was determined not to be the “one to sweep the compound,” as she put it. In other words, to be the last child to leave the orphanage. Every day she asked our team, “What are you doing to find my family?” “When will I have somewhere to call home?”

Our family tracing experts had already been hard at work, trying to find Marie Claire’s birth family but, when all leads failed, our team began the search for the right new family to care for Marie Claire. “It would make me so happy to have a family. I would be very happy to hug my mum, even though we haven’t met each other yet,” Marie Claire told them. And in September 2014, her dream came true.

 

Marie Claire with her step mum, Immaculate, in 2015

Marie Claire enjoying life with her new step mum, Immaculate, in 2015.

 

A family and a future
Marie Claire’s prospective foster parents, Joel and Immaculate, already had a three year-old son of their own and Immaculate’s younger sister lived with them too. The couple both worked at the local school—Joel as a teacher and Immaculate as a secretary and book keeper. To help boost their household income, the family also ran a small shop. Immaculate was adopted herself and had always been grateful for the love and care she’d received from her adoptive mother. She felt it was only right that one day she too would foster or adopt a child.

But however much Marie Claire longed for this change too, leaving the orphanage to join her new family, was going to be enormous step.

Our team in Rwanda took the time and care to make sure that Marie Claire and her new family were fully prepared for the move.

They began by telling Marie Claire a little about her potential new family and offering to arrange a meeting with them at the orphanage. When this went well, the team began taking Marie Claire to visit Joel, Immaculate and their children at home. She watched television with her new brother and began speaking regularly on the phone to Joel who told her about his work at school and what the rest of the family had been up to.

Finally the day came when everyone was ready and Marie Claire left the orphanage to begin her new life. It’s hard to imagine how this must have felt. She had arrived there with nothing and left almost the same way, carrying her few possessions in a small bag.

 

Finally the day came when everyone was ready and Marie Claire left the orphanage to begin her new life. It’s hard to imagine how this must have felt. She had arrived there with nothing and left almost the same way, carrying her few possessions in a small bag.

 

 

Marie Caire in 2016

Marie Claire, shown here in 2016, has blossomed as a teenager growing up in a new family.

Fitting in to family life
It isn’t always the case, but Marie Claire took easily to family life. Her humour and willingness to please, combined with the love and patience of her new parents, helped her to settle in quickly.

It wasn’t long before she felt comfortable calling Joel and Immaculate “mum” and “dad”.

Over the months that followed, our team continued to monitor Marie Claire’s progress through phone calls and visits. “I’m so happy. I have a mum and dad who love me, I thank God for such a wonderful family,” she told us.

Marie Claire continued to do well at school and made new friends easily. She has always loved to sing and joined the local church choir. Over time, she has become a cherished member of both her family and her community.

“We are blessed to have Marie Claire here in our family. She is a very kind daughter and she has attracted many friends to our family. It’s pleasure the way she interacts and plays with her little brother and brings other children here”, Immaculate confirmed.

Today, five years after she left the orphanage, Marie Claire has blossomed into a positive, responsible teenager who helps her parents by fetching water, cooking, cleaning and serving in their shop when her mum is busy.

 

“I’m so happy. I have a mum and dad who love me, I thank God for such a wonderful family,” she told us.

 

Like many girls her age, she takes pride in her appearance. “Marie Claire loves clothes and she is very excited when she gets new ones!”, Joel confides.

Marie Claire is especially close to her Immaculate, who is very proud of her and committed her future wellbeing. “I will continue to guide Marie Claire in life and she will continue to be resilient because I loved her very much,” Immaculate assures us.

And Marie Claire has ambitious plans for the future. She would like to become a doctor. “We learnt at church that helping people who are sick or needy brings blessings and opens heaven”, she explains.

Because of your kindness, we were able to work with the Rwandan government to find the right family or community-based care for all 527 children and young people who lived in the orphanage where Marie Claire spent the first ten years of her life. It was closed for good in April 2015.

Without your support for our work, Marie Claire would still be confined to an orphanage, with no-one to love or care for her. Instead she is where every child belongs, happy and flourishing at the heart of her family and her community. Thank you.