It is late April, and summer is fading into fall in Johannesburg. I am sitting at the kitchen table with the front door wide open, slicing a heap of pineapples for lunch, but I’m working pretty slowly. Three sets of small hands keep reaching onto my cutting board and taking leftover bits and pineapple hats. One little girl says, “The pineapple burns my mouth!!!” – but when one of her sisters grab another slice, she keeps eating.
Later, I am sitting on the porch with my legs dangling off the side. I can smell sausages on the grill, and pineapple slices that have been marinated in coke (after grilling, they are delicious, believe me!). In front of me, a handful of kids are playing a lazy game of soccer on the lawn.
It reminds me of late summer barbecues, watermelon, swimming pools. It’s a perfect family Sunday.
But this family has over thirty kids. And with parents, staff, and our large team of volunteers, the number of people on the property for those three weeks was easily over sixty. But amazingly, after just a short time with them, we felt like family.
Since being at Footprints P.L.A.Y. Children’s Village in Johannesburg, this crazy loving family that vaguely poses as a children’s home, I’ve been reflecting a lot on what it means to even be a family. It’s true that two parents and a manageable number of kids do not a family make. In fact, some of the children at Footprints were rescued out of abusive foster or adoptive homes. Even in my own circle of privileged internationalites, who come from so-called nuclear families, too often we see that ‘the centre cannot hold.’
At Footprints, the perspective is that beyond material needs, children need consistent care, attention, and loving boundaries. If they receive that love from steady people in their lives, why not call it family?
People who have been involved with orphan care know that the best way to raise a child is by placing them in a family unit as soon as possible. There is a much-needed shift away from orphanages for long-term care and towards quicker processes for fostering and adoption.
But what happens, as in South Africa, when the adoption system fails? Take Jonah*, for example, whose foster parents wanted a girl and who then literally treated him like a dog — he slept outside in a doghouse and was fed once a day. Or Shayla*, a little girl whose adopted parents (yes, adopted, they had gone through the whole process already) decided they didn’t want her anymore. Both of these children are now at Footprints, a place too big to be a traditional adoptive family, but too loving to be anything but a home.
Yolanda is the heart and vision behind Footprints. A counselor and pastor with her own adult kids, she has witnessed so many orphanages across Southern Africa that fail to actually raise children. Sure, the kids go to school, have meals, and sleep safely, but if a child can leave an orphanage at 18, and not even be able to cook a simple meal for himself, let alone have a purposeful vocation, there must be more that can be done.
However, the gravest threat is that there is not enough investment into character. In many orphanages, there is too much transience, too much moving around. Too many caregivers either don’t want or don’t know how to walk with a child through the myriad of choices each day that require integrity, honesty, and kindness.
So her family started taking in children, one after another… Somehow, over the past decade and a half, they have over thirty children from a few months to fourteen years old. And each one of them calls Yolanda, “Mommy.”
“Sometimes I think ‘Mommy’ has to be one of the worst words in the world!” says Yolanda. “It’s also one of the best words, but even if I’m in the store and I hear someone else’s kid say ‘Mum!’ I turn around and think it’s one of mine!”
With a sense of humor and dogged perseverance, she and her family have gathered long-term volunteers, caregivers, and a network of friends to help. Life isn’t easy. There are real financial pressures for the basics — tuition, food, utilities, transport. But money is also hard when their heart is to give the kids an experience where they won’t be caught in a deficit mentality that plagues many young adults who come out of charity programs in Africa, a mentality that states they only deserve second best and hand outs. So the kids have drawers of their own stuff. They get a new gift for their birthday, and friends take small groups of them on outings, like a rugby game, or the zoo.
On top of the daily financial needs, they are also keenly aware of the imminent needs in the nearby Johannesburg townships. Local pastors call to see if there is space, because yet another baby has been found in a trash bin or left on the church doorstep. With personal ties to such desperate stories, their vision is to expand and bring in more ‘parents’ to Footprints who will commit to raising children.
Spending three weeks with them was nothing short of life changing. Well, let me say that I hope it will be life changing, because God knows He needs more people to be parents and more kids to have homes. I’d thought linearly for a long time about family. I’m thankful for radical people, like the ones I met in South Africa, who think laterally as well.
*Names have been changed for privacy
You can contact the amazing people at Footprints for more information, like Sylvia (coordinator and photographer extraordinaire) or Yolanda (officially Director, but mom to all). Footprints is currently piloting a sponsor-a-child donations program, so if you have an inkling to give, please check out their website or their Facebook group to find out how!