Start At Homeby Ella Grimwade / 22.01.2014
It is very easy for a charity, particularly a childrens’ charity, to inadvertently adopt a patronising attitude towards the individuals they set out to help. Even with the best of intentions, it’s all too easy to think “we know what’s best for them”. There’s no disputing that children are vulnerable, and that without guidance they can get themselves into dangerous and harmful situations, but they are still people. Children are incredibly astute, sensitive, and often far more aware than we give them credit for. When dealing with trauma at an early age, the feelings and wishes of the child need to be taken into account. This is not an age where children should be seen and not heard. Many of the children I spoke to in the Home From Home foster houses said it was their relationships with friends, siblings, and neighbourhoods which they cared about and that helped them to feel safe – things NGO’s so often fail to protect, especially when they have become ‘institutionalised’.
Home From Home (HFH) is a local charity founded in 2005 by Pippa Shaper and Jayne Payne. After years working in childrens’ homes, these two mothers recognised the importance of maintaining meaningful relationships. This understanding inspired the “cluster” foster home model where up to 6 children are cared for by a “mother”, ideally in the same locality. By basing these cluster homes within the local communities, children are often able to stay with their siblings, attend the same schools, maintain friendships and connections which would otherwise be lost. As little disruption occurs in their lives as possible whilst ensuring that their health, safety, and futures are secure.
HFH is a registered Child Protection Agency and Cluster Foster Care Scheme, Non-Profit organisation, Trust and Public Benefit Organisation. From the outset they have worked with local government, adhering to rigorous (bureaucratic) procedures and annually releasing reports and financial audits. The paperwork is tedious and time consuming, but Pippa’s business background, and her opinion that “being an NGO is no excuse for being ineffective” has ensured a prompt and efficient organisation, and enabled them to continue to grow – they now have 33 homes in the Western Cape.
The Charity’s stipulation to rules and translucency has kept it clean on paper, but the balance between integrity and impact can be hard at times admits Pippa, especially when a donor offers you much needed funds, but with ‘conditions’ attached. HFH has had its fingers burnt a few times, but principle has always won through in the end, even if it has meant slower growth than had they sold their souls. One of the things which keeps them on the charitable straight and narrow, asides from the steely determination of its matriarchs, is working within communities. There is a team of social workers who keep the lines of communication open between the HFH office staff, the mothers, the children, and the communities they are based in. Everyone’s voice is valid and everyone contributes. This alliance of bodies all working toward protecting the children helps to maintain the charitable integrity and keep the organisation in tune with the childrens’ needs.
At its core, this charity really is about the children. The private office at the HFH headquarters is wallpapered with images of the children under their care and the “mums” who care for them, and Pippa does the rounds regularly, checking in with mothers and children alike. From school, to health concerns, to who they want to win the rugby there is a genuine interest in what the mothers and children have to say. One of the striking things you notice, is that although each home has the same physical amenities, no two are alike. Just like ours, each mother has a unique parenting style, from mothers who insist on tidy bedrooms and being home by 6, to mum’s who clean the whole house themselves but have a stricter TV allowance. These are real families, or as real as they can be. Asking the eldest daughter of one home whether she liked her mum I got that wrinkle-nosed non-committal shoulder shrug universal in pre-teens; “she’s ok, she won’t let me out sometimes”. Well you know what they say, you can’t choose your family.
HFH is not an international NGO. Although exhibiting phenomenal growth, it is a community based, community developed, initiative with its feet deeply rooted to the ground. Given HFH’s ability to make a genuine difference to children without losing its integrity, you can’t help but think maybe when it comes to charities, small is beautiful.