What I wish I had known before deciding to take care of orphans in Uganda.

-an honest reflection on running an ‘orphan care’ project. Written by Corrie Fraser, Kids Club Kampala UK Director.

Since beginning our Ewafe Project for abandoned children I have learned many new truths, some more unexpected than others. Some may say that responding to a seemingly endless need is saint-like, others that it’s incredibly naïve but either way once you’ve jumped in the river you have to keep following its course.

When I was involved in founding an organisation almost 9 years ago running Kids Clubs in two communities in Uganda with a few hundred children, I initially thought that this small project would remain as just that, a small project. So when it continued to grow and new projects developed from within the communities I just continued to go with the tide; fundraising more and more and supporting more and more communities to lift themselves out of poverty. Before I knew it, we were running 18 Kids Clubs every week, feeding thousands of children, helping families generate a sustainable income and setting up drop in education projects for out-of-school children. At this point I was still a student and all my spare time was used up by fundraising events and craft sales, whilst all of my holidays were spent flying back to Uganda to monitor the projects and discuss with our team in Uganda. We were struggling to fund all the projects we were running and every month was a challenge.

So 5 years on, when more and more children were turning up to our Saturday clubs and drop in education centres and telling us that they had nowhere to live, were sleeping in the local church or hadn’t seen their mother or father for weeks I’m not sure why we thought we had the capacity to help them, but we felt something had to be done. When working in the slums, need always outweighs capacity to help and emergencies happen every-day. Many people have told me over the years to stop taking risks, to consolidate our efforts, or to ‘follow the funding.’ You may call me naïve, but how can you allow an 8 year old child to live in a slum all alone without trying to do something to help? 

We began fundraising to buy land and begin building an emergency home for abandoned children. We were blown away by the generosity of the people who donated towards this project and within one year we had built the home. Now we had a safe place for children to stay whilst we searched for their family members. Many children had family members in far off villages, some had been sent to live in the slums with relatives or friends in search of the possibility of education. Others had been sent to work as maids or ‘house girls/boys’ for families who eventually cast them out onto the street. We began searching for their families, working with police, calling local village leaders and travelling long distances to remote villages based upon children’s own memories or fragments of information. To our surprise we began having success with reintegrating children. Some families had lost touch with their children and presumed them dead, others had assumed that the friend or relative they had left in care of their child would still be taking good care of them and were shocked to hear of their child’s ordeal.

Reuniting families has been a huge joy for me and I assumed it was the most natural thing an organisation could do. When you take in a child surely the first thing you do is investigate their story? Where did they come from? How much do they know? Could they be reunited with their family? But as I discovered this is actually not the priority for many orphanages in Uganda and indeed all over the world. Although I was perplexed and saddened by this fact I initially didn’t see it as an issue I needed to fight, I just continued to run our project in the best way possible, putting children first and making sure we did the best for each child. When I met people who supported orphanages that made no effort to reunite children with their families I would say nothing, stay quiet, not wanting to risk offending them and passing off the error of their care model because ‘their heart was in the right place.’

Since then, two things have changed how I now respond. Firstly, we started receiving referrals from the local social services of children who had been rescued from orphanages that had been closed down. These children had not only had no chance to search for their families, but they had also been neglected and the orphanages had made no effort to find any information about where they had come from or who they had lived with. This angered me and it also made it extremely difficult for our social workers to make any progress in the search for these children’s family members. With no information to go on where could they begin? The second thing that has changed my attitude is the issue of funding. It is extremely expensive to run orphanages; feeding, clothing, educating and taking care of the medical needs of children long term is a costly business. But thousands of NGOs are running orphanages across Uganda and they are receiving donations from somewhere, they are managing to find the funding. It takes a fraction of the cost to search for families, hire social workers, train foster families and continue to prevent family breakdown in the first place but organisations who run these kinds of programmes are finding it increasingly difficult to fund them. I have met with many amazing organisations and individuals who are passionate about strengthening families and supporting children to live in families and not in institutions but all have the same problem. It’s not as attractive to donate to foster care as it is to an orphanage.

We have been reintegrating children with their families now for around 2 years but we have a number of children in our care that need foster families. However, we don’t have the funding to train these foster families, to hire more social workers to oversee the children’s placements or to provide ongoing family support to these foster families. This means that there are children in our care who shouldn’t be still in our care, children that should be in foster families and this is simply not good enough. Why did we find it so easy to build our home and launch our project but we now find it so difficult to fundraise for foster care? And why are orphanages who do not prioritise families for children still receiving donations? I spend a lot of my time applying to funding bodies and searching for new funding opportunities and it has shocked me how so few of them support foster care initiatives, we are running out of places to turn to.

Our Ewafe Project for abandoned children is a sensitive one, when you are suddenly tasked at being responsible for a child’s life and wellbeing it shouldn’t be taken lightly. What an incredible privilege to take care of a child in their time of ultimate need and vulnerability. You may think that an abandoned child without anywhere to go is in need of help and any kind of help is better than none! However there are numerous ways in which harm could be done to such a child even by a well meaning individual or organisation. Long term institutionalisation is damaging for children. No matter how nice the clothes, how comfy the bed or how great the education, nothing can replace living in a family. Institutionalisation is known to have detrimental effects on a child’s physical and intellectual development and health. And these are just the effects it has on children; whole societies also suffer. Raising children often outside of their own cultural settings and creating a generation of care-leavers is a huge loss to communities and societies as a whole. We should be strengthening families and communities, not isolating their children from society.

So when someone tells me about an orphanage, institution or orphan care centre I now respond differently. I gently ask them where do the children come from that you support? Do any of them have known family members? Is there a family reunification plan? Are there foster families available for these children? When I describe the Ewafe Project to others, I am delighted when someone asks me these questions because I know they truly care. If you support an orphanage please, please ask these questions.

If you would like to be part of the change from orphanage to family please help support our foster care program by donating. Click here to donate