A holistic local project is helping to nurture the material, physical, cognitive and emotional wellbeing of orphaned and vulnerable children
Wordless chatter emanates from one of rooms leading off the dimly lit lounge in an eight-roomed wattle-and-daub house in Dambuza Township, just outside Pietermaritzburg. It’s the sound of 22-year-old Khulekani* who lies largely motionless on his back with his emaciated limbs folded alongside him.
“It [the illness] happened when he was about 10,” said his older sister Awethu. “He seemed fine but then started to change. I think it was because our mother took drugs during pregnancy.”
Together with her 68-year-old grandmother, 27-year-old Awethu heads an eight-person household and provides 24-hour care to Khulekani as well as her own 10-year-old daughter and her orphaned niece and nephew. The family relies solely on five state grants which bring in just over R5,000 every month.
Awethu’s is one of hundreds of other vulnerable families in and around Pietermaritzburg for whom life is a daily struggle and for whom social grants represent a literal lifeline – the difference between starvation, destitution, ignorance and illness … and a fighting chance at life.
Two years ago, the family was invited to join the Family Strengthening Project run by local NGO Thandanani Children’s Foundation. The project recognises that the best way to help South Africa’s vulnerable children is to support their families.
“We believe that communities and families provide safe and nurturing environments for orphaned and other vulnerable children,” said Thandanani director Duncan Andrew. “Our goal is to build their self-reliance and capacity to provide for the children in their care.”
Founded in 1989 to provide care for abandoned babies at Edendale Hospital, Thandanani evolved over time, and in the mid-2000s, led the move away from institutionalised care of orphaned and vulnerable children to family-based care within their communities of origin. Since April 2010, the organisation has supported 12,131 beneficiaries across 1,987 households through its Family Strengthening Project.
The project is a carefully structured series of interventions which take place over a fixed period of three years, with the aim of moving families from instability to increased self-reliance with the ability to provide for the basic needs of the children in their care.
“The programme is holistic and comprehensive in that it has been designed to address basic material, physical, cognitive and emotional needs within the family,” said Andrew.
During the first three months, Thandanani undertakes an assessment of the family and its needs. Each family is then allocated a fieldworker who visits regularly to provide support and systematically helps to address the family’s needs.
An important first task is to ensure the family is receiving social grants for which they qualify. Thandanani’s social workers assist families in formalising the fostering of children and help them to secure the grants for which they qualify.
Where necessary to meet the immediate material needs, Thandanani provides food vouchers or parcels and household goods. In the longer-term the family is supported to grow its own vegetables, and adult members are invited to join micro-finance groups where they are encouraged to save, and are able to take modest loans which they can use to finance income-generating activities. Importantly, the groups also serve as a source of social support for caregivers.
To address their cognitive wellbeing, children are supported and monitored in school attendance and, where necessary, are provided with new school uniforms. Caregivers are also encouraged, through a home-based early learning programme, to engage their young children in intentional play aimed at stimulating their cognitive and emotional development.
Because so many of the children and their caregivers in KwaZulu-Natal have suffered hardship and the loss of loved ones, Thandanani provides a range of services and activities aimed at facilitating the emotional well-being of both children and caregivers. These include memory work, which enables families to process their grief and build supportive relationships amongst themselves and between family members and the fieldworker. There are also support groups for caregivers and younger children, and life-skills programmes for older children.
Given the prevalence of HIV and Aids and the general impact of poverty on health, Thandanani provides a range of health services and has reached over 60,000 people in the last five years. These services include health assessments, monitoring and general health education, home-based HIV counselling and testing, treatment support and compliance monitoring, as well as referrals to palliative care when needed. Thandanani’s aim is to maximise prevention and encourage early identification and treatment.
The programme has been well-received, as illustrated by the following participant’s comment:
“I was living in poverty, and then a Thandanani fieldworker came and asked me if I wanted help in my household… We didn’t have food, and then the food vouchers came… We didn’t have good blankets or pots or school uniforms for all the children, and then Thandanani were giving me those … after a while, the foster care grant came and that was because Thandanani was helping with that… Then they helped me start a vegetable garden… We did memory work with the children and they now know their family’s history… Everything [Thandanani] did came at the right time, and I am so thankful.”
Taken together, the four arms of the Family Strengthening Project model provide a package of services that helps families break the cycle of deprivation that entraps them, said Andrew.
“And in so doing, we give children the opportunity for a healthier, happier and more meaningful life.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities.