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Bonding with at-risk Ethiopian teens, over cookies and nail polish

It’s been six weeks since we spent time with our favourite teen girls in Ethiopia. With one of our directors (Menbere) leaving this week for a visit, I find that I’m missing these special girls that we got to know. I don’t think I’ve ever met a more determined, sweeter group of young ladies, and I’d love to tell you about our visit.

A tiny bit about our program first: Vulnerable Children Society’s New Life Teenage Sex Trade Worker Retraining Program is a year long supportive program, helping girls indentured in the sex trade escape, and build new lives for themselves. Tawnya and I (Arnica) were eager to meet the newest cohort of young women, who had just started the program in June.

We met the girls at their new group home, a spacious new building that accommodates the ten girls we support (on the top floor) and ten girls supported by a US NGO. They’ve moved out into the outskirts of Addis, distancing the girls form the dangers of Entoto, the Stadium and other dicey districts. As the groups of girls we’ve met before, they were shy and on their best behaviour, treating us to coffee ceremony. I personally find that formal visiting stifling… Heaven knows how difficult it is for the girls to have us, the faces of the organization that sponsors them, sit in their living room. So we brought some icebreakers… Temporary tattoos! The Canada flags were a huge hit!

Vulnerable Children Society' s New Life - Teen Sex Trade Worker Retraining Program in Addis Ababa

The giggles started then, although, understandably, there were a few suspicious scowls. We can’t forget that these girls have been through unimaginable horrors, and are justifiably nervous around strangers. Tawnya and I then handed out the little gifts of nail polish and hair tools we brought with us, and the nail polishing began. The girls’ house mother, a quiet woman named Mulu, was delighted that she too had some new – orange- nail polish.

Vulnerable Children Society' s New Life - Teen Sex Trade Worker Retraining Program in Addis Ababa

We were soon treated to some delicious coffee, made by one of the girls. Addis said it wasn’t her favorite chore to do, but she did it with care. The girls take turns at everything, from cleaning and cleaning to serving their guests. Note the tattoo on her arm.

Vulnerable Children Society' s New Life - Teen Sex Trade Worker Retraining Program in Addis Ababa

The most amazing part of our visit for the girls are the letters that we brought with us. 20 teens from an International Development course in Prince Edward Island wrote the girls, with the hopes of starting a penpal relationship for the duration of their respective programs. It was incredibly meaningful to several of the girls. They had never received a letter before, and were astounded that astounded that young strangers their age, all the way in Canada, cared enough to share about their own lives and wanted to know how they were doing in Ethiopia. Over the next two nights, the girls worked hard on their return letters. Even Tigist, who never learned to read in her rural home, and certainly didn’t working in Addis, got a friend to scribe for her and sent a note back.

Over the next few days, Tawnya and I got to know many of the girls as individuals. We attended their lessons, ate supper cooked by them in their home, sat and chatted in the living room, shared stories of family and I even got to teach them something from home. Of the twenty girls in the program (ten supported by us,) fifteen are in cooking school right now. The other four are learning hair dressing and one is in design school. Since all of the girls supported by Vulnerable Children are in cooking, we volunteered to teach them to make some ferengi food… Foreign recipes to increase their employability at guest houses and restaurants. When I asked the girls what they wanted to learn to make, one tentatively told me “chocolates.”

Well, I thought chocolaterie was a bit difficult for their first sweets lesson, so we settled on cookies.

Vulnerable Children Society' s New Life - Teen Sex Trade Worker Retraining Program in Addis Ababa

With peanut butter and chocolate chips in hand, the next day I taught them two kinds of cookies. Tawnya would have been right in there, but she was terribly under the weather. So with help from our translator/public health nurse Meron, I taught the girls about the funny things called cups and teaspoons. What fun! The dear kids braved my teaching methods. Remember, I speak only Amharic Lite and traditionally teaching in Ethiopia is not interactive. We made several batches of the cookies in teams. They put much of the dough in the fridge to make later (not on fasting days!) so they could all sample them. Delicious! The only person who appeared unimpressed was the oldest girl, Ada, who hadn’t let out a hint of a smile since our arrival.

The last day we visited the girls, we popped by their house announced. They were all lounging around, playing games and watching TV, obviously not in their best clothes as the times we had stopped in before. This time, there was no formal coffee, but some honest conversation.

We asked the girls about their dreams for the future. We went around the circle, as they shared their own hopes: of finding a cooking job, designing her own clothes, starting a family and living in an apartment with a friend. Finally, we got to the oldest, Ada, who had a scowl on the whole time. She looked at us, and defiantly declared that she was going to start her own cookie business, and sell the cookies to foreigners at guest houses around Addis Ababa. Then, ever so gently, she grinned.

Vulnerable Children Society' s New Life - Teen Sex Trade Worker Retraining Program in Addis Ababa

An hour later we were sharing hugs with all the girls in the courtyard. Much to my surprise, Ada made a beeline for me. We hugged and hugged and cried and cried. I can’t believe what that girl has been through, but I believe with all my heart that she is going places.

In fact, all of them are. These girls, thanks to support from people like you, hard work and determination, are building new lives for themselves.

Think of a girl or a woman in your life, and consider donating in their name to help teen girls in Ethiopia this holiday season. We want to give another ten girls the life changing experience these teens have experienced.

with gratitude,
Arnica
President, Vulnerable Children

Healthy happy kids at the Love and Hope Centre

This time of year in central Ethiopia, the days are mildly warm, the sun is shining and the meskel flowers are in full bloom. It’s the end of the big rain season, and there is a daily vibrancy of growing things.

Vulnerable Children Society Ethiopia Helping Kids

Tawnya and I (Arnica) arrived at Vulnerable Children Society’s Love and Hope Centre three days ago. It had been a year since either of us had visited, and we were wowed on our first steps through the gates. The centre courtyard, which formerly housed a vast expanse of red dirt and a tarped shack for cooking, was full of gloriously growing. The vegetable gardens that our volunteer Stefan started six months ago had been producing beets, collards, lettuce and other vegetables for the children to eat for the last few months. The difference the gardens made was amazing… The whole centre felt alive and welcoming, even before the children arrived from school.

We spoke first with the guard who had taken on the gardens has his project at the centre. Ethiopia can be quite hierarchical, but I was very pleased to learn that he had started a gardening club, and several of the children were regularly attending the gardens under his supervision.

Our next exciting visit was the new cooking building. Vulnerable Children funded this wonderful improvement to the property last year. The new metal cooking area enables the guardians who cook for the children on a rotating basis to prepare nutritious food out of the sun and rain. When you are cooking for 70 children each day, it nice to have a place to store food and plates, chop and stir and prepare the lunches. The children just started at a new school that likes the children to stay onsite during lunchtime. So instead of all the kids showing up for lunch, the guardians were cooking 70 to go lunches, delivered to the school by community members. In discussion with the mothers and grandmother on this month’s shift, we learned that the lunch boxes provided by the families varied from metal tiffins to leaking plastic plates. So we mentally added new lunch boxes to our sponsorship wish list!

Also in the courtyard are a bathroom, two showers, and outdoor taps for washing feet and brushing teeth. The children started to filter in, and the foot washing shifts immediately began. When the centre opened a couple years ago, we realized that many of the kids had never had a bath or a shower. So we place a lot of emphasis on hygiene activities, with teeth brushing, foot washing and even weekend showers on the weekly schedule. No doubt these hygiene activities help keep the kids in good health. And should they get sick, our centre reimburses families for their child’s medial visits, prescriptions and dentistry. Basically, kids who attend our Love and Hope Centre have extended health care through our program.

After foot washing, it was an outdoor day. The social worker, Walalign, broke the kids into shifts for playing. To our amusement, one of the teams was the “keep the ball out of the garden” team! So two groups of kids played, one cheered, and one held hands in a line along the garden to protect the vegetables. And then they would switch. How fun!

The Love and Hope Centre’s gorgeous veggie garden, homemade lunches, routine washing and physical activity are growing some wonderfully healthy and happy kids in Kality, one of the poorest urban communities in Ethiopia. Thanks to much too our Love and Hope sponsors, whose ongoing monthly contributions are making a world of difference to 70 beautiful, deserving Ethiopian children.

Want to make a world of difference to an Ethiopian child? Become a Love and Hope Sponsor!

In the next couple of days, we visited some of the children’s families in their homes with Woinshet (the centre coordinator,) participated in an afterschool art class, labelled 70 toothbrushes, showed the nutritionist our nutrition oak shop adapted from Harvard, had coffee with the guardians, and planned technology classes for the older kids. But you’ll just have to stay tuned for those news and pictures!

VCS Directors land in Ethiopia and visit projects helping kids and teens

Love and Hope after school centre for poor kids in Addis Ababa, EthiopiaWarmest greetings from Ethiopia! Two days ago, Vulnerable Children Society‘s treasurer Tawnya and I arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s buzzing urban hub in Eastern Africa.   I stepped off the plane to the familiar scent of spiced chilies and diesel fumes. It’s my umpteenth trip to Ethiopia, but each time I get off the plane, it’s the same – a breeze swaying the palms, horns honking, taxi drivers jostling to get my attention, the sounds of melodic Amharic in my ear, and a feeling of coming to a second home.

Tawnya and I usually visit our society’s projects in Ethiopia every year; however, it’s been a year and a half since I’ve been able to visit the kids and teens that we serve. We are both excited to see how the gardens are growing at the Love and Hope Centre, featured above.

Our awesome volunteer Stefan spent 5 months here this spring, helping the afterschool centre guards and parents build a demonstration garden and spread food security in the community. I can’t wait to talk with the moms and neighbours, and see how their own crops are doing.

Vulnerable Children Society's adapted Harvard Healthy Plate for EthiopiaWe brought a new program with us teaching about balanced diets, using a culturally-appropriate version of Harvard’s Healthy Plate.

I can’t wait to see what the women who cook for our 70 kids think about it, especially in light of the crops they are now getting from our onsite garden.

The other project we will be spending time at involves ten special girls, who joined our Teenage Sex Trade Worker Retraining Program just a month ago. The girls are going through a year-long program, living in a group home, getting lots of counselling and intense vocational training. We heard from our partner organization, Hope for Children in Ethiopia, that the girls are learning about cooking and hairdressing right now.

raduates of Vulnerable Children Society's teen program, working in a restaurantSo Tawnya and I are hoping to do the same nutrition workshop, as well as a workshop on cooking for ferengies (foreigners,) to increase their chances of the girls getting jobs in the exploding guest house tourism industry.

Some of the program graduates are already working at hamburger restaurants and guest houses, so it’s a great chance to these 15-19 year olds another employable skill.

To the right: Zenebu and Alemtsehay with their new careers at Lemon Zest Cafeteria. We are so proud of them!

We invite you to follow along with our journey! We can’t send newsletters from Ethiopia, because the wifi is tooooo sloooowwww. But we can post to Instagram  and Facebook, and write blog entries! Please check out our social media accounts and see what we are up to.   Now out for a delicious meal of injera and tibs… oh yes, I can smell those roasted spices already!

Melkam Addis Amet from Ethiopia! Happy Ethiopian New Year!

Thanks for following along… Arnica and Tawnya

The real reason I go to Ethiopia

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A few nights before I left for Ethiopia, I was sitting at the supper table with my kids. Out of the blue, one of my nine year old daughters asked, “Why are you going to Ethiopia, Mommy?”

I was surprised she asked… As long as we’ve been a family, I’ve been traveling back and forth to the place of her birth. “To help kids in Ethiopia, sweetheart.”

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I could tell that my oversimplified answer wasn’t cutting it, by my daughter’s skeptical look.

“Well, you know that I work on fundraising and running programs from home, right?” She nodded. ” Well, when Tawnya and I go to Ethiopia, we check on those programs. We see how the kids and the staff are doing. We talk to them about what they need, what is working, and what we can help them improve on. This is important to take care of the money our donors give us, and for the government, because the government wants to know where the money is going. (I skipped the details of our charitable designation by the CRA.) But most importantly, we want to help our partners do the best they can for the kids. So we share ideas, and start new things. Like, the teen girls we help are starting to write to Canadian teen pen pals. How cool is that? I’m setting that up this trip. And we are teaching best nutrition to the ladies who cook for the kids in our program, to make them healthier.”

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My kids like details, and this settled her question.

But kids have a funny way of awakening more questions in ourselves. Yes, the oversight and program development are the surface reasons I got to Ethiopia each year, and they are the most important. But the parallel truth is that I love going to Ethiopia. I love the gentle rumble of Amharic (and Tigrgrn, and Oromiffa, and…) that I first hear in the airport lounge. I love the way plants grow in little plots on every little corner, and cobbled streets threaten to break your ankle. I love the smell of Berbers and turmeric, and the sizzle of sheep ribs delivered to your table. And I love the kisses and shoulder bumps from my friends and the warm acceptance of me, the foreigner, in this place that doesn’t seem foreign to me at all.

From the first time I spent a couple of months in Ethiopia, I added it to the short list of places I call home. I guess that belonging is also why I toil away at the computer for hours back in Canada…. Once you belong to a place, you have a responsibility to it and its people. Ethiopia is a huge part of my children who were born there, but it is a piece of me too, connected to my family, my friends, and my passion for helping kids and families.

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So that’s why I go to Ethiopia. Since I am writing this en route, my husband will have to read the second part of this to my curious daughter. I hope you will follow along on our trip over the next couple of weeks, and find a little place in your heart for Ethiopia too.

Arnica Rowan, President, Vulnerable Children Society
En route to Ethiopia, via Dubai

New Kitchen Facilities at the Love & Hope Centre in Kality

Last February visit, the staff at Vulnerable Children Society’s Love and Hope Centre in Kality asked us if we would provide funding for a new kitchen. The existing kitchen was used every day by the guardians of the kids who go to the centre. But a 8’x8′ structure was not sufficient to feed 70 hungry kids every day! We approved the funding, and are now happy to report that the centre’s staff and some fabulous volunteers with one of Canadian Humanitarian’s expeditions have completed a permanent kitchen.

Kitchen at Love and Hope Centre in Kality, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

According to Deb Northcott, the expedition leader, “the guys built a structure to give shade to the children, replaced many of the taps on the water center, and helped construct a smokeless oven in their new outdoor kitchen! Lots of fun!

This now captures the smoke and takes it out a chimney so the women can cook the hot meals for the children without being faced with a smoke filled room. AWESOME job!”

 Kitchen at Love and Hope Centre in Kality, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

The Love & Hope Centre in Kality provides hot meals, tutoring, medical care, community, clubs, a safe place to play, love and hope to 70 deserving children in Kality, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The centre is funded by Vulnerable Children Society and managed by Canadian Humanitarian, both registered Canadian charities.

Learn more about how you can help the kids at the centre!

Ethiopian Group Birthday Party

Originally Published On:Step Up Dive In

Ethiopian Group Birthday Party

So what exactly is a Ethiopian Group Birthday Party you might ask?! Well just gimme a few short lines and I’ll explain it to you.

Love and Hope Center – Kality

Group Birthday Party
Apart from the tarp falling from time to time… all went well

Volunteering for the Vulnerable Children’s Society in Addis Ababa, the majority of my time, up until now has been spent at the Love and Hope Center in a section of town called Kality. Actually, it’s more so in Akaki 08, but being as I can’t say 08 in Amharic, (one of my many issues in the commute) I’ve resorted to calling it Kality.

At this Center, we have 70 kids, meeting them has been not only a highlight of my time in Ethiopia, but truly one of my highlights in all my travels.

December 25th, that’s an important date, no?!

So, the manner in which the Ethiopian calender operates has utterly confused me to great end… there’s no hiding that. I’ll get into the nitty gritty of it when I explain when they actually celebrate Christmas and the New Year in the next post… but for now, let’s just say that on December 25th in Canada, we were not celebrating Christmas here… Instead we were celebrating a group birthday Party.

Group Birthday Party
Rife with excitement

You see, with 70 children, it is almost impossible to have a separate birthday for each child. Add to that the fact that the documentation of some births is less than 100% accurate, resulting in many children not knowing their actual birthday, and you’re left with a bit of a conundrum.

Many of these children (or all of them) have not had the opportunity to celebrate a birthday in their young lives, as it’s a privilege left to the haves, and they have fallen into the have-nots category throughout their years.

The solution? You guessed it, the group birthday party at the Love and Hope Centre. Canadian Humanitarian and Vulnerable Children Society arrange four group birthday parties, one falling every three months. In order slightly coordinate with the gracious donors in the west, the group birthday party this quarter falls on December 25th (in the Canadian calendar).

Blah, blah, blah… What’s it like already?!

Okay, okay… enough of the paperwork and logistics. I’ll do my best to bring you there. The staff at the center set up the chairs outside with a tarp above (for shade) and face them all towards the two large desks on the concrete porch.

A sound system is set up, balloons are puffed up, modest gifts (quite modest) are wrapped, cakes and cookies are bought, and through a utterly hectic run-around we’re finally set up.

The kids arrive after school rife with excitement. They all receive birthday hats, and sit in the chairs. 17 children had birthdays within the last three months, so they are the focal points of the day. Their parents/guardians have been invited, and sit in the chairs to the side, while the 17 of them go in for some face-painting and other preparations.

Finally they come out, and sit in the 17 chairs that have been spread between the two desks on the porch. There’s a short dance presentation from the kids in the dance club. The kids, are filled to capacity with excitement and nervous anticipation and many of them start getting up to join in the dancing…

The sound system is booming, the kids and guardians are dancing and apart from the tarp falling down a couple of times, it’s a jolly, rocking-good time.

Finally it’s time to cut the cake. On one side 8 of the children hold a knife together and try to all, somehow, coordinate smiles and adequate pressure to cut the cake in unison. Much of the same is repeated on the other side, though now it’s 9! Regardless of the pending disaster that one might expect, the cake is cut perfectly (a.k.a. the cake is cut and no children are rushed to the hospital with gaping knife wounds)

Finally, the cake and cookies are handed out, along with other little snacks… more dancing, more face-painting, more running around… and basically a pure, joyful chaos breaks out. Eventually night falls and the kids have to go home, much to their dismay… so much so, that many of them try to hide in the nooks and crannies of the center (there aren’t many)… but after a painstaking half hour, they are all discovered and sent on their way.

Group Birthday Party
Handing out the presents

The 17 of them, heading home with their little gifts (whistles, and plastic paddle-balls) and the other 53 with cake and smiles all over their faces… It’s one of those experiences that can’t help but warm your heart, as you’re overtaken by the joy that they all share.

And, where you arrive and think… ‘it’s odd that none of them would know what it’s like to experience a birthday solo, where they are the sole receiver of all the attention’… you somehow leave thinking… ‘maybe it’s odd how we never experience what it’s like to share such a day with many of our friends’. After all, who doesn’t feel at least a bit awkward as the center of attention at his/her birthday party… Wouldn’t it be nice to share that attention with 16 of your friends in a group birthday party?!