An update on Holt’s child welfare and adoption program in Uganda, including new partners, the opening of a new Holt office, and one opportunity we couldn’t resist!
by Robin Munro, Senior Writer
Over more than five decades of caring for children, Holt has left a legacy in countries around the world. From our founding program in South Korea, to Russia, China and Romania in the 1990s, to brief forays in Central and Latin America and long-standing partnerships in India and Southeast Asia, Holt has through the years cared for hundreds of thousands of children in more than 30 countries.
But not until the year 2001 – 45 years into our 56 year history – did we step foot on the continent of Africa. By the end of 2001, HIV/AIDS had orphaned more than 11 million children (80 percent of the world’s total) in sub-saharan Africa. In this region alone, estimates for the total number of orphaned children – from all causes – stood somewhere around 34 million.
The need for Holt’s services had become overwhelmingly clear.
In no better place did we begin serving children in this troubled region of the world than in Uganda – a country so devastated by the AIDS epidemic that over half the population is under 18 years old.
Part of Uganda’s youthful makeup may be attributed to the country’s birth rate, which is the second highest in the world. But it is also home to an estimated 2.7 million orphans, who have each lost one or both of their parents to disease, armed conflict or other ills chronic to this East African nation. Uganda is, in short, a country of children – many of whom have no one to take care of them.
As Holt discovered when we arrived here over a decade ago, grandparents or relatives often take on the responsibility of caring for orphaned and abandoned children. Other children live in makeshift shelters, with an older child acting as head of household. In recent years, orphanages have sprung up throughout Uganda to meet the needs of homeless children. As a result, more and more infants are also now brought in by dying parents or relatives who are unable to care for them.
Although orphanages serve a vital purpose, Holt has always viewed them as temporary care centers. Not long-term solutions. Rather, our first goal is always to keep children – and help them thrive – in their own extended families.
In 2001, Holt began our work in Uganda by partnering with an indigenous NGO to help strengthen vulnerable families in and around Kampala – particularly those affected by HIV/AIDS. Alongside our partner organization, Action For Children (AFC), Holt’s Uganda staff began developing programs to give parents the tools and resources they need to support their children – keeping them off the streets, and out of institutions. We provided income-generating activities for struggling parents such as livestock to grow and sell. We began an educational program for young children. We offered counseling and visited homes to check on the family’s health and wellbeing.
Ultimately, we helped families work toward the goal of “atenge” – a Ugandan term for “standing on one’s own feet.” A family that has reached atenge has established a safe, stable home for their children. When they achieve this goal, they also graduate from the program.
Over the past 11 years, Holt and AFC have helped hundreds of families achieve atenge. In other words, nearly 3,000 children who might have become homeless have instead remained in the loving care of their families.
To build on our success with AFC, Holt recently began to explore new ways to serve children and families in Uganda. One way of expanding our Uganda program is through new partnerships with organizations similar to – but serving a different population from – AFC.
About six months ago, Holt’s Africa program director, Sarah Halfman, visited an orphanage in Jinja, the second largest city in Uganda.
Although we strive to keep families together in the communities we serve, not all children can remain in the care of their birth families. For these children, orphanages are often the only care alternative available in Uganda. For organizations like Holt and AFC, they also offer an access point for helping orphaned and abandoned children. The orphanage Sarah visited in Jinja, called Arise and Shine, had the potential to become a new Holt partner.
Sarah was immediately blown away by both the quality of care provided to the children and the dedication of the staff members – who earn nothing for their efforts. “Every person who works at Arise and Shine is a volunteer,” Sarah explains. “They operate on a shoe-string budget. And they don’t turn children away.”
Sarah was particularly impressed with the resourcefulness of the executive director, who recruited her staff from an extensive and revolving network of national and international volunteers. When the volunteers returned home to Europe or Canada, they would take with them small crafts made by women’s groups that Arise and Shine had organized and supported. When volunteers sold the crafts in their home countries, they would then send the profits to the orphanage. In this way, Arise and Shine managed to not only fund their operation, but to move into a larger care center in Jinja shortly before Sarah’s arrival.
After meeting with the director, Sarah felt confident recommending that Holt enter into a partnership with Arise and Shine. “I thought, if they could do that with no money, imagine what they could do with a little bit of money!” she says. Two months later, Holt disbursed a first grant payment to our newest partner in Uganda. While the executive director can now afford to pay her staff, she will not collect any salary herself.
“This, I’ve found the most impressive about Arise and Shine,” says Sarah. “That they are a small group of dedicated individuals providing their time to a great cause.”
In October, Sarah returned to Arise and Shine for her first visit since Holt began supporting the orphanage in Jinja. “It’s amazing to see what they’ve done since we sent our first grant 4 months ago,” she says. “They’ve increased capacity for children at the orphanage and now have more than 25 children in care, including four with special needs.”
They’ve opened up a preschool, set up a small clinic and hired a nurse. They purchased cows, goats and chickens to provide regular eggs, milk and other dairy products – adding protein and other essential nutrients to the children’s diet. Where before they functioned on minimal amounts of electricity, they can now afford to light the care center and power their computers for many uninterrupted hours. They have even created and fully stocked a physical therapy room for children with disabilities.
As the program director for Uganda and Ethiopia, Sarah is one of the fortunate Holt staff members who regularly travel to the countries we serve. As she is instrumental in designing and implementing Holt’s programs in Africa, she also directly sees the impact of the work we do in country. She plays with the children made healthier by drinking the milk from cows and goats that Holt provides vulnerable families. And she shakes the hands of mothers and fathers who wish to show their gratitude for the assistance Holt has given them – and who now glow with pride that they can support their children.
At Arise and Shine, Sarah felt especially moved to see the change Holt has created in the lives of 25 vulnerable children in Jinja, Uganda. “To be able to go in and – from the first visit to 6 months later – visibly see the improvements we’ve made, that’s pretty cool,” she says.
In the coming years, Holt hopes to work with Arise and Shine to create a family preservation program in the community surrounding the orphanage – much like the first program Holt created in Kampala with AFC. Holt also hopes to design a foster care program to provide the highest quality care for children waiting to be adopted, or to be reunited with their families. While orphanages offer a temporary care solution, Holt has always sought to place children in the care of well-trained, loving foster families. In foster families, children receive the one-on-one attention so critical to development – and so hard to find in an orphanage setting. As Holt has created this opportunity for thousands of children in countries as varied as South Korea, Thailand, Romania and India, we hope to also provide nurturing foster care for children in Uganda.
But not just with Arise and Shine and AFC.
Taking on Arise and Shine as a new partner has inspired even greater change in Holt’s Uganda program. “When we saw Arise and Shine, we realized we wanted to work with multiple partners,” says Sarah. “We wanted to reach a broader scope.” To accomplish this, Holt would need to establish an independent, in-country presence in Uganda – and not rely solely on our partnership with AFC. “We wanted to assess ourselves and manage our partnerships independently,” Sarah says.
Opening a Holt office in Uganda would also better equip us to fulfill Holt’s mission, which can be difficult to do through the lens of another organization that also, understandably, has its own goals and mission.
“When we open an office, we have more control over the program. Everything we do falls in line with our mission and our values,” Sarah explains. “We can provide more comprehensive information to adoptive families, and better support our staff.”
In October 2012, Holt Uganda officially opened! Since that time, four families that started their adoption with AFC completed the process with Holt Uganda. For an adoption program that has slowly developed from a pilot project into a working system over the last four years – placing 13 children since 2008 – four more children home is major progress! Holt’s partnership with Arise and Shine has also doubled the number of children referred to Holt for placement. Holt’s Uganda team was able to quickly match several of these children, and will soon begin home-finding for two sisters from Arise and Shine who are waiting for a loving family of their own.
Among the top priorities for Holt Uganda is to assess new orphanages and potential partners that will allow us to expand services to more children and families in need. As with Arise and Shine, Holt will strive to create both family preservation and foster care programs with each of our new partners. We will also continue family strengthening and adoption services alongside our founding partner, AFC.
“AFC has been a long-standing, stable partner,” says Sarah, “and we would not be in Uganda without them.”
Over the coming years, as we help families care for their children – and find families for children who need them – most of our work will stay fairly centralized in and around Kampala.
“Jinja,” says Sarah, “was just an opportunity we couldn’t resist.”