Water cooler moment: How would you use your sabbatical?

A work sabbatical can provide employees and employers a number of significant work benefits, including a wider perspective on the world around us. One of our team, Rob Cooper has recently taken a three month sabbatical working in an orphanage in South Africa. We wanted to find a bit more about this amazing experience, read the full interview below:

Rob please give us some background to the orphanage – where is it, how many children does it house and what are their age ranges?

The Unakho orphanage I visited is for children pre-school to 19 and was set up by Pastor Julius Bonani and his wife Irene 16 years ago in the Gugulethu township of Cape Town. In Pastor Julius’ words:

“I originally planned on starting a church in the Barcelona area of Gugulethu, and then I was going to move out and leave the church to be cared for by someone local. The area was rough, and there were many gangs present, but no churches dared to plant here.

However when God brought a little girl to us, an orphan who had no one else, we took her in. That was just the beginning. Today we have 30 children we care for. We house, feed, wash, and provide a loving family for these children. We love these orphans as our own.”

What is a typical background of the children?

The children come from a variety of backgrounds, many of them have been abandoned by their parents and have no other place where they can be looked after. Some were taken from their parents due to physical abuse, and some are truly orphans who had no other family members to care for them.

What was it that made you want to help at the orphanage, Rob?

Our Christian faith guides us to pay attention to the needs of those on the margins of society. Having previously visited the orphanage, we have always felt drawn to the children and we feel that although it is in a very small way, we can make a difference in their lives.

What did you do whilst helping at the orphanage and how did this helps the children?

This year we spent time with the pre-school children at the orphanage, playing with them and teaching some very basic English. There are eight pre-school children and unfortunately the Bonanis have not had the finances to put these children into a proper pre-school. The idea is to visit these children regularly to help them develop some of the skills that they would be taught in a pre-school environment, such as counting, rhythm games, singing, colouring in, etc.

How have the children responded?

Like all children, they love attention. We were able to give them some one-on-one time even with the language barrier, they speak isi-Xhosa which can provide us with some challenges! 

What happens to the children when they leave the orphanage? What kind of future do they have?

Some of children are taken back to family members when they were in their teens however experience has shown that due to behavioural issues their future can be quite uncertain. One of the young men successfully finished school recently and is now in university. He still lives at the orphanage and will be welcome to stay as long as he needs to. Once the children reach their mid-teens, it’s really up to them as to whether or not they can remain at the orphanage. If they begin making poor choices and Julius and Irene think they are becoming bad influences for the younger children, they will have to leave. At that point, their futures are quite at risk.

Is there any kind of fostering system in SA and how does it work?

There is a foster care system in SA, with foster parents receiving financial support to temporarily care for at-risk children. The system is overwhelmed and there are many stories of people taking in children just for the money, but not caring for them.

What other help does the orphanage need?

Regular, monthly financial support is an ongoing need. Projects do arise from time to time, such as at the beginning of the school year there is always a need for stationery and shoes, as well as uniforms.

If anyone reading this feels they can help the orphanage what’s the best thing they can do?

Supporting Julius and Irene in prayer is one thing they can do. If someone wants to support them regularly through monetary donations, they can contact Tim Black tim-leslie_black@reachafrica.org for the details about how to do this.

Is there anything that people can do for orphans in general in SA?

That’s a tough one. Massive transformation needs to take place in the country so that people can overcome the horrendous living conditions, get a better education, and have greater hope. As long as poverty, unemployment, poor education, and basic inequality remains as high as it is, there will be many people who are unable to properly care for their children. HIV and AIDS is still a tremendous contributing factor to the number of children growing up without parents, so HIV prevention campaigns and education must be a priority.

What does the future hold for the orphanage?

Julius and Irene are both about 70 years old, but their daughter and son-in-law are living there and are quite involved in caring for the children. Presumably, they would be able to take over from Julius and Irene when the time comes that they are no longer able to manage. It is not a formal orphanage in the sense that one normally thinks about an orphanage. It is in an informal settlement, has no indoor plumbing, receives no direct government support (a small percentage of the children receive a monthly government grant), and really operates on faith. Whether the Bonani’s daughter and son-in-law have that kind of faith or not will remain to be seen.

For further information on the work that Julius and Irene do, here is a link to their website: http://www.unakho.com/about-us.html

How would you use your sabbatical?