How To Keep Families Together in Rural DRC
I was walking across the courtyard of Restore Elikia when I caught an image out of the corner of my eye. There were four ragged children that I didn’t recognize scrambling in the dirt. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what they were doing. Then it dawned on me.. they were scrambling to pick up single peanuts that had fallen in the dirt the day before where we had been shelling them. My heart dropped. These four little ones were so hungry they were digging in the dirt to find what couldn’t be more than a handful of peanuts. When they saw me watching them, they rushed off into the bush, afraid of what might happen to them for “stealing” food. I found one of our local partners and inquired about these kiddos and found out their father had died several years before from a simple medical problem that no one had the resources to fix in our rural village. No one had seen their mother in quite a while… she had become ill and was too frail to get out of bed. These kids were now on their own. Drinking dirty water from a nearby stream and scrounging for scraps of food wherever they could find it.
Our Restore Elikia team made a home visit and found things to be much the same as we had anticipated. The home was dilapidated, with rain water flooding in through holes in the roof, leaving a puddle of water covering the floor and lapping at the edges of the sleeping mat where the mother laid. There was no food in the home nor a single cooking pot to prepare food. The mother explained with blank eyes that she had gotten ill with diarrhea from drinking bad water and didn’t have the money to buy medicine. She and her children had been malnourished since her husband died, so it didn’t take more than a day or two of illness before she couldn’t get out of bed. She simply did not have the strength. She said she was just laying there waiting to die and knew her children would probably follow shortly after her. Restore Elikia was able to step in and help provide medications, slowly nurse this sweet mama back to health over weeks, and care for the medical and nutritional needs of the children in the meantime.
This situation opened my eyes in so many ways. These four kiddos were no more than a few days from becoming orphans, and with some basic support, they were safe with their mama. I also realized how limited access to clean water was in our village and how food security was a huge problem for pretty much every family...and because of these things, the smallest of problems could be catastrophic for a family. Restore Elikia started to work to make changes to address these issues. We dug two deep wells, and families only pay a nominal fee to get clean water, which we use to make needed repairs on the wells. We started a Families Feeding Families program, where a family in the US or in our local village with means could purchase a pair of chickens, goats, or pigs that were then gifted to at risk families in our area. The first offspring of each gifted pair come back to our farm at Restore Elikia, from which we feed the orphans in our care as well as meet the needs of families in emergency situations. After that, the families that received the animals use them as a source of income and food for their families. We developed Elikia gardens and fish ponds where moms and dads without other choices to feed their families can come and work for us. In exchange for their work, they take a portion of the food from the garden as well as fish home to their families. Other food from the garden and fish ponds again feeds our Elikia orphans and is available for help in emergency situations. We have an emergency medical dispensary, to help provide medicines at cost to vulnerable families. It's amazing to watch families working with pride to meet their needs.
I’ve always believed that kids best thrive in a family. So from the beginning, Restore Elikia was formed to work on community development, all with the aim to prevent children from ever becoming orphans. Despite our clean water, food security, health promotion programs, and educational grants to vulnerable children, there are still some kids that just can’t remain in their home situations. As I watched the first kiddos come through our doors for permanent care, it felt like we had failed. I knew then, that while they couldn’t stay at home, we HAD to make Elikia be as close to a home as possible. I truly believe that health and healing aren’t possible if a child feels isolated or alone. They need a family to show them unconditional love. SO, Restore Elikia isn’t a traditional orphanage. We are working to build a “village”. Small homes form a semi-circle around a large community building. In each home lives a widow who raises 5-6 kids as her own. The “families” come together for meals and educational and play time in the large building. Mama V is one of our widows that lives at Elikia Village and is a mother to some of our kiddos. She came along with her two biological daughters, who also still live with her. As I watch her, I’m constantly amazed. She just loves ALL her children so well. I love watching her kiddos grow and thrive with her support. When I thanked her for working so hard, she laughed. “This isn’t work. This is life. And I’ve never felt so blessed.”