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For the Children of Sierra Leone

By:  Megan Zhang and Lynn Tao

People understand orphanages, they get that picture,” Curtiss said. “But when you tell them how important it is that children are raised in families, and that that funding is necessary to keep those children in their families, people have a hard time understanding how their dollars are going to get used.”- Melody Curtiss

Children playing

A quarter of the citizens of Sierra Leone, the 10th poorest country in the world, are malnourished and almost 50,000 children live on the streets. The average life expectancy is only 52.2 years - the lowest in the world. Add a civil war recovery that hasn’t stabilized even two decades after, and it’s clear that life in Sierra Leone often doesn’t meet the minimum necessities. Crucial organizations in Sierra Leone assist vulnerable children and families and support programs that provide health care. Melody Curtiss serves as Executive Director and Laura Horvath serves as Director of Program Development and Community Engagement of such a nonprofit organization -- Helping Children Worldwide. 

The residents of Sierra Leone suffer from lack of health care, poor living conditions, and prevalent diseases such as HIV and malaria. Curtiss and Horvath work diligently in their roles to improve conditions in Sierra Leone via assistance programs and mobile clinics, truly living up to their nonprofit name. 

“My job is to be the link between the board of directors, the governing body that sees to the implementation of the mission and vision that they have set out for the organization, from programming development ideas …  to work development in terms of reaching out to donors, creating opportunities, and expanding connections to the community,” said Curtiss. “And I work details like budget and hiring and day to day operations of the organization.”

“I'm the bridge and the liaison between the work that we do here in Virginia and two different programs in Sierra Leone that we support, [Mercy Hospital] and [Child Reintegration Center],” Horvath said. “…  In addition, we do mobile outreach clinics to people who can't get health care; nutrition programs and prenatal programs; and HIV, AIDS, and malaria prevention.”

    One of the programs Helping Children Worldwide has established in Sierra Leone is the Child Reintegration Center (CRC). Founded twenty years ago as an orphanage, the CRC transitioned in 2016 to become a program supporting children separated from their families and trying to reintegrate them back home. Most of these children, dubbed “street connected kids”, live on the streets and struggle to survive.

    “The CRC is the first orphanage in Sierra Leone to have fully transitioned from an orphanage to all family based care,” Horvath said. “And when we did that we had 40 kids in the orphanage and about 300 kids that we supported financially that lived with their families at the time. Now, we support almost 600 kids, and they all live with families.”

    One of the most crucial factors in transitioning was getting adequate funding to support the children that reintegrated back into their families. Most of the funding had to come from donations, but with this fairly new idea, donors needed an explanation of how exactly their funding would help.

    “People understand orphanages, they get that picture,” Curtiss said. “But when you tell them how important it is that children are raised in families, and that that funding is necessary to keep those children in their families, people have a hard time understanding how their dollars are going to get used. All of those things are really important, and we have to message that to donors. That takes some strategy because you have to be able to bring people along with these new ideas.”

    Helping Children Worldwide is now leading the rest of the world into the new idea of a Child Reintegration Center. Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Gender and Children’s Affairs and many others around the globe have now recognized Helping Children Worldwide as a model for what to do next.

    “They’re now coming to us to say, hey, we've got a project,” said Horvath. “We have a home, a children's home and we don't want to have a children's home anymore. But we don't know how to make that transition. We don't know how to turn it into something else. We don't know how to reintegrate kids. The CRC knows how to do all of those things.”

One of the projects Child Reintegration Center has taken up is the Princess Project, a project that rescues girls who have been separated from their families and become involved in prostitution.

“They rescue these girls, help them recover, take care of them, and find them a loving home. It’s a difficult process, teaching parents how to bond with girls who have gone through so much trauma, but we're committed to it because these girls deserve a loving, safe, and permanent family who knows how to love them.”

    Another one of Helping Children Worldwide’s projects is supporting Mercy Hospital, the only hospital in Sierra Leone that never closes down.

    “[Mercy Hospital] is not closed now during the pandemic. The Children's Hospital and several other hospitals in Sierra Leone have closed due to deaths of personnel, but Mercy stays open,” said Curtiss. “They stayed open during Ebola and never lost a patient to Ebola. They stay open and they provide care to the destitute.”

    One of Helping Children Worldwide's largest contributions to Mercy Hospital is providing a majority of the funding the hospital needs to stay open and take care of their patients. Mercy Hospital is one of the only hospitals in Sierra Leone that can provide their patients with the supplies they need.

“What people don't understand about hospitals in low resource countries like in Sub Saharan Africa is that the hospital doesn't feed patients,” Curtiss added. “Most hospitals do not have full pharmacies. They don't have some of the things that one would expect pretreatment, so patients' families have to stay somewhere, often camped out just in the open, and go and get them food, drugs, whatever it is they need even while they're in the hospital, but not at Mercy Hospital. And that's because of the assistance that they currently get through helping children worldwide.”

Helping Children Worldwide also sends mission teams over to work with the medical teams in Sierra Leone so that Mercy Hospital has the resources it needs and the means to get past different barriers.

“We convene panels of experts to work directly with the people on the ground,” Curtiss said. “For instance, there is a relationship between medical professionals here and with the medical professionals on the ground. They work through problems in Sierra Leone together, talking about what is needed, what resources are not available yet that need to get to them, how to manage these problems. We send mission teams over with medical expertise that work with them on the ground, and again, the experience they get back is as important as what they take over.”

The COVID-19 outbreak has adversely affected many countries around the world, but for Sierra Leone residents, these impacts are magnified by a lack of healthcare treatments, underlying fears of the pandemic, and justified suspicion of healthcare outreach staff. 
“Just like conspiracy theories about COVID-19 around the world, there are many conspiracy theories in Sierra Leone as well,” Curtiss stated. “They have very raw and real memories of the Ebola epidemic about five years ago … that fear is still very close to the surface for them. The first weeks of their lockdown, I felt like I was dealing with a lot of PTSD. People became fearful that medical personnel were actually injecting COVID into patients.”

Thankfully, the healthcare service staff on hand made the proper accommodations, first establishing trust with the residents before slowly educating them about COVID and safety guidelines. 

As Horvath said, “When providing healthcare services, the outreach staff made the decision to avoid anything that would require injecting a patient, because they knew people were afraid. They brought buckets and soap and hand sanitizer and masks out to the villagers and taught them how to use them and taught them about social distancing, how to protect themselves … until they earned the trust of those in the village and they were able to resume more normal outreach services.”

Despite facing challenges and obstacles, at the end of the day, to Curtiss and Horvath, the most rewarding part of working with Helping Children Worldwide is being given the capacity to make a difference in a child’s life: by helping them find a loving family.
“People look at those of us in the nonprofit world and think that we're doing some kind of magic. We just connect donors to the opportunity to be generous; I think the majority of people want to do good work in the world. [With us], you can see … the impact you have on a person’s life.”

“[My passion] is in the work around reintegration and family permanence. Children have a basic human need, a right, to a family that loves them. I think [Helping Kids Worldwide] has one of the best orphanages in the world [for this purpose]. Being able to work alongside staff in Sierra Leone and get those kids safely home, that gets me up every morning.” 
Curtiss and Horvath provided some very important advice for students who are considering volunteering or starting their own non-profit organization.

“Think about what inspires you. Finding a high quality nonprofit and interning or volunteering with them is a great way to start. If you can connect that to your academic career path, this builds your resume, your experience, and connects you to a part of the world that you might not otherwise see.”

“I wouldn't worry about your career path. Do whatever it is that you're called to do. All that matters is that you set aside a piece of your life to make a difference. However small or large that piece is in your life, just follow your heart and you'll find the right way to the right people.”

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