Monday, March 16, 2009

Caring for Orphans and Vulnerable Children

This group of beautiful children are the orphans who go to school and live at Children's Relief Ministry orphanage. Bottom right, kneeling, is the young woman, Hawa, who is the first CRM orphan to finish High School. As mentioned in other entries in this blog, Hawa has applied to the University of Liberia for admission as an undergraduate student. Her plan ultimately is to go into nursing, receive her RN and remain at CRM as the resident health care professional. She has been at CRM most of her short but difficult life and she is a big sister, surrogate mother and wonderful role model for the other orphans who clearly love her.

Keeping children healthy in Liberia is challenging even in the best of circumstances. The problems are compounded in institutional settings like CRM with 70+ children, extremely limited resources and minimal facilities.

Several years ago Browntown Church raised funds for construction of latrines at CRM where the toilet facilities consisted of holes in the ground shielded on three sides by blue, plastic tarps strung up on poles. Construction of the five-stall latrine facility with donated funds was a major improvement. Pictured above at the latrine area is CRM's matron who supervises care of the orphans. She is cheerfully responsible for a daunting amount of laundry among other enormous responsibilities.

The young man pictured was quite amused that we had our cameras out in the latrines. He hurried back to his class to report loudly that the visitors were "taking pictures of the toilet!". The solid wall on the left of this narrow passageway is the backside of the main classroom building - so close that we could hear the students' hilarious reaction to visitor interest in latrines!

This facility is a major improvement over open holes in the ground surrounded by tarps flapping in the breeze.

Food for the orphans is prepared in this open air kitchen area and all cooking is done over the charcoal cooker pictured. We were so very impressed at the large vats of rice turned out perfectly on this appliance every single day. Also, Liberian doughnuts which are basically yeast bread rolled into a twist and fried in palm oil on this same charcoal cooker - an ocassional treat for the children. There is no refrigeration and fresh fruit is a periodic addition to the staple diet of rice. Protein sources are mainly fish and chicken. Fish is readily available (dried and fresh) although not in the quantities needed to meet the daily nutrition requirements of 70+ children.

Rice is donated by various groups, individuals and regular monthly rations are subsidized by NGOs.

Lack of running water makes regular handwashing and hygiene somewhat problematic. Water for the orphanage and school is accessible from a large pump in the school courtyard. Water for drinking, cooking, laundry and latrines all comes from the pump. A large open barrel is kept behind the latrine area with a bucket for "flushing" the latrines. A large open barrel is kept in the kitchen area for cooking and an open container with a dipper is kept at the well for drinking and rinsing hands and face and/or cuts and scrapes from playground activity.

Internal parasites are a continual problem for children in Liberia. It is particularly difficult in an orphanage where so many children live so close together. Purging medicines are always needed and always in short supply. Fungus which also thrives where living quarters are close, is also a problem and there are never enough anti-fungal treatments available. Respiratory ailments are very common. In the dry season when the famous red African dust flies it is an irritant to air passages and in rainy season when the extreme rainfall and humidity make the air ever-damp, mold spores, viruses and bacteria thrive causing colds and lung ailments.

Life expectancy in Liberia is among the lowest of all nations on earth, hovering right around 40 years old. High infant mortality rates, high risk of death and injury for little children who are exposed to the above health problems and all sorts of other accidents (open barrels of water and charcoal cookers, for example, are only two of thousands of commonplace hazards that pose risks for infants and toddlers) makes childcare and child survival difficult in Liberia. While all children in Liberia may not be orphans, all Liberian children are vulnerable. The United Nations acronym, OVC (Orphans and Vulnerable Children) applies to every child who lives in Liberia. What is remarkable is the resilience, perseverance and hope that Liberians have for their future.

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