By Jo Smith “These kids have opened my heart. They have given me back more than I could ever give.” Beyond the Orphanage began and grew because of the hearts, minds and skills of brilliant people like Dr Donna Helm-Yost. The Arizona based educational psychologist has over twenty years experience working with children from kindergarten to young adults,...Read now
By James Jeffrey
The Beyond The Orphanage drop-in-centre in Addis Ababa provides children with a range of activities and services—and a second home.
The group of eight children arrived at the Beyond The Orphanage Organisation (BTOO) drop-in-centre on Friday afternoon amid a flurry of enthusiastic chatter, greetings and kisses on cheeks.
They had come to the centre after finishing at their respective schools, as they usually do Mondays through Fridays, braving the unseasonable afternoon downpour—Ethiopia’s rainy season doesn’t start until July—and resulting muddy track leading to the centre.
The kisses—a traditional Ethiopian greeting involves shaking a person’s hand while kissing the right cheek, then the left one, followed by the right one again—were for Martha Kafato, a social worker with BTOO and who oversees the running of the centre in Arada, a low-income community close to the centre of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital.
Once greetings were exchanged the children sat down for an hour of tuition in which Meuba, whose day job is as a lawyer, helped them with whichever subject was troubling them at school. An array of exercise books spanning Maths, English, Biology and Chemistry covered desk tops.
Extra tuition is just one service at the drop-in-centre, which also provides seminars, workshops and training to the children and the guardians entrusted with their care, computer classes, a library, one-on-one counselling, and emergency accommodation.
And in addition to the centre containing offices for administrative work to ensure the smooth running of BTOO, an independent agency developed by Beyond The Orphanage Foundation (BTO) as the primary vehicle for delivery of its programs in Ethiopia, it also plays an important intangible role in the lives of children who have lost one or both parents.
“They feel they are really secure here and can be at ease,” Martha says. “This is more important than any activities.”
BRIDGING A GAP
Even though the children are supported by guardians who care for them, it is not possible to replace the unique and natural love of a parent and BTOO’s children will always be vulnerable because of that gap in their lives, Martha explains.
So staff at the centre try to bridge that gap and provide the children with further evidence that they are indeed loved and cared for.
Also, when conflict occurs at home, the centre provides the children with an alternative where they can find someone to confide in, Martha says.
Guardians are typically aunts or grandmothers, with some in their sixties or older, which can result in clashes between traditional, conservative views and the sort of perspectives typical of energetic teenagers.
“Material poverty doesn’t hinder your desires,” Martha says. “The chemistry is still functioning in these teenagers—they want to enjoy life.”
In addition to offering a sympathetic ear, the centre strives to teach children life skills needed to flourish, and children are encouraged to share their experiences and learn how to open up.
“When they rush up and tell you a big secret it makes your heart grow,” Martha says.
MORE THAN JUST BRICK AND MORTAR
A transport container served as BTOO’s first drop-in-centre when BTOF started operating in Ethiopia in 2007. This was followed by a proper building, although it became cramped once BTOO started helping more children.
Two years ago the organization began renting the present two-story building that serves as the drop-in-centre today.
On the first floor are classrooms and the library, with administrative offices on the second floor. There is also a basement containing the computer room and counseling room.
“Although the new building is more comfortable the most important thing is the staff,” says 15-year old Meron, who experienced both previous incarnations of the drop-in-centre.
The centre’s library is particularly popular with Kidist, Burteukan and Nathanial, two sisters and a brother in their early and mid-teens who live with their aunt and grandmother after both parents died from illness.
Kidist tells me in her good English that she likes reading story books and learning new words. Her favorite book is Pinocchio, the story of the wooden boy who came to life and whose nose grew every time he told a lie.
Her sister, Burteukan, tells me she is a keen footballer who supports Manchester United, and so she takes from the library books about sports and football. Their brother, Nathanial, says he only reads science books and wants to be a pilot when he is older.
REWARDS ALL ROUND
“I love the kids,” Meuba says of why he comes to tutor for a fee far smaller than his lawyer’s salary. “They’re social, loving and have a good sense of humor.”
He started tutoring after originally coming to the centre to speak at a Saturday session—these typically involve guest speakers—two years ago and clicking with the children. Following his talk, staff at the drop-in-centre got in touch with him and told him the children wanted to see him again.
Meuba has been coming to the centre up to four times a week ever since.
At the end of the day’s tuition, exercise books were packed away in eager anticipation of dinner. Meuba along with Kidist, Burteukan and Nathanial accompanied me down the track outside the centre to the main road to catch a minibus.
The rain and mud of earlier were gone, replaced by the gentle sunshine and fresh air typical of Addis Ababa before sunset.
Once beside the busy main road we said our goodbyes, and the three siblings headed off home for dinner—and possibly afterwards to read their books and dream of flying, or maybe even playing for Manchester United.
By James Jeffrey