She had seen the six children huddled together for a few days every time she walked to the Kampala market. They were different from other children living on the streets of the Ugandan city.
Most obvious was they hadn’t resorted to crime, drugs or prostitution, like most others. The other thing was their age. The youngest was one-year-old Juliana, cared for by the others, the oldest 10-year-old Christie.
After speaking to the children, Carli Travers, a graduate of the Douglas College social worker program in New Westminster, agonized about their plight as she walked the few blocks to her small apartment and her partner Robert Birungi.
She explained how she had given away the food she bought at the market to the six begging children.
They weren’t like the street children who had resorted to pick pocketing and other means to survive, she told him.
Robert, who lived on the streets of Kampala intermittently as a child, understood. He also knew the children wouldn’t last long. They would either die or become street entrenched.
They needed a home and to be cared for, stressed Carli.
Robert, who survived the street to become a university student, thought one day he would adopt one of Kampala’s thousands of children living on the streets… but six?
So the next day Carli, 24, brought them home to live with them in their apartment.
“I couldn’t stand to walk past them and not do anything,” she said. “I couldn’t say no.”
Carli still can’t say no.
Two years after rescuing the six kids, she has taken in another three off the streets and plans to care for another nine for a total of 20, including two of their own.
She immediately quit her job as a social worker to care for the children full time. The couple established the Abetavu Children’s Home, an orphanage of sorts.
But don’t call the children orphans.
All of them call her “Mommy” and Robert “Daddy” and they are a family.
“You could never ever tell them they aren’t brothers or sisters. They don’t know the difference even though they’re not blood related,” said Carli, visiting her parents this week in Port Coquitlam.
“They are all my children,” added Robert. “I see no difference.”
The couple marvel at the resiliency of the children. When they took them off the streets they learned the six were unrelated but banded together for protection.
The children found themselves on the streets for different reasons.
One was abandoned at the couple’s door, another left on the streets by a mother involved in the sex trade and one girl’s mother never returned home after leaving their shanty town shack for the day to look for food and work.
None of them had ever been to school and few knew how to sleep on a bed or use a toilet. The couple has been teaching them everything from scratch.
Adapting to school was one of the easiest lessons. Their minds were as starved for education as their stomachs once were.
Robert is especially proud of nine-year-old Marjorie. She is the best student in the school they attend.
But not everything has been that simple.
Paying for the children’s care is one of the biggest challenges. At first they borrowed $3,000 from Carli’s parents. A fundraiser was then held by her parents, providing $14,000—enough to pay for the home for a year.
The long-term goal is to fundraise $500,000 to buy a farm outside Kampala and build several homes and a school. They and nearby villagers would farm the land so they could be more self-sufficient.
Carli, who ran as the New Westminster-Coquitlam Green Party candidate in the 2004 federal election, knows it’s the right thing to do, and not just for her personally.
“We’re providing children with a family and a future, a chance to become a citizen of Uganda who can help change things in a positive way,” she said. “Break that cycle of poverty.”
• Carli and her husband Robert have an important event tomorrow (Friday) with a fundraiser at the Coquitlam Christian Centre (2665 Runnel Drive, Coquitlam) from 7 to 9 p.m. Ugandan arts and crafts will be sold through a silent auction to raise money for the home.
To contact Carli, email her at email@example.com.