Raising and caring for our children

By Thembelani Mkhize

In Africa there is a long-standing principle that a child is raised by a community and not just the parents, which many of our generation have forgotten. After taking a visit to the Pietermaritzburg Children’s Home on Teak Road, in Woodlands, I found that they still practised this way of living – and not only did they have the spirit of ubuntu, but the education to go with it.

The PCH has been in existence since 1886. It was founded by Mary Elizabeth Cook and was named after her before it was changed to Hilltops Children’s Home which was located in Clarendon. The Pietermaritzburg Children’s home was formed after the merger of a number of institutions and project, including Hilltops, in the early 1990s, and the operations moved to Woodlands.

Orphaned and vulnerable

A registered non-profit welfare organisation, it provides a home for children who are orphaned and vulnerable, as well as children who are infected and affected by/with HIV & Aids.

PCH accommodates children between the ages of 4 and 20, with the children allowed to remain at the home until the age of 21, should they be completing their grade 12.

It’s the oldest children’s home in the province with more than 130 years of history and memories.

Kids from the age of 4 are taken in by the home and need to be provided with a caring, stimulating environment. Pictures, above and top: Aaron Burden/Unsplash

“Being a childcare specialist is sometimes mistaken for being a full-time house mothers or nanny” says Fiona Balgobind, the facility’s manger. “We are qualified child care practitioners and we don’t just let anyone have access to our kids,” she added.

I learned this as soon as I got to the gate of the facility, where I was not let in until security confirmed that I had made an appointment through the PR manager Sinethemba Mzobe and I was in fact a journalist.

Fiona explained that security is a major priority for them and they have a responsibility to ensure the safety of the children at all times. She also said people regularly came looking for work at PCH without having the required qualifications. People looking to work in the sector have an avenue through FET colleges, where they can study for an N4 qualification in child and youth care, and through other tertiary institutions where they can acquire diplomas and degrees.

Understanding the individuals

Working with kids is not just about making sure they have eaten and done their homework. One of the social workers, Ntokozo Mhlongo, explained that knowing the psychology of a child’s development is crucial when working with most of their kids: “They all come from different situations and backgrounds, so we have to understand each and every one of them individually, so that we know how to deal with issues they face, as they have become like our children.”

The home offers a life skills and educational programme, career guidance training, recreational and spiritual activities. It currently houses about 80 youngsters.

I got a chance to meet one of the children, who we will call Einstein because of his love for science and his clear intellect. Einstein was quite a shy kid who spoke in a quiet voice, but after I told him that his lowest mark was my highest when I was back in high school, he laughed and seemed to lighten up a little. I gave him one of my drawings as a gift and proceeded with my tour.

The PCH prides itself on introducing its children to a healthy lifestyle, where they eat organic food planted at the facility. They take part in a variety of sports and recreational activities such as football and their choir group recently performed at the Durban ICC.

Vegetables growing at the Pietermaritzburg Children’s Home. Picture: Thembelani Mkhize

Like any institution, particularly in today’s tough economic environment when potential donors and funders might be watching every penny, the home faces challenges, one of their biggest being with their relevant government department (social development).

“Working with the department is quite difficult, as they do not always understand child and youth care and often generalise it between private and public care. The financial support they provide is insufficient to the needs of the children. They provide only a little more than 50% of what each child needs,” says Fiona.

The home hosts regular fundraising initiatives such as the recent Mandela Day collections initiative and always welcomes support from donors and sponsors.

Click here to read updates on initiatives PCH is involved in to increase awareness about its operations and help raise funds.

Most of the staff also worry about funding and believe there needs to be more support from the government. Another serious issue cited was research, or the lack thereof, into the field of child care.

Although there are always concerns for the future, Pietermaritzburg’s residents can take pride that there are dedicated souls who are working in the city to improve the lives of some of its less fortunate children.