You are considered an adult when you turn 18 years, but are you?
Concerned about the fate of the young adults that left the home that her parents ran once they reached 18, in 2019, Rose Wambui registered a foundation to specifically support youth between the ages of 18-25.
But as fate would have it, Rose passed away the following year, in 2020, before this project, which was so close to her heart, took off. That same year, her parents, Peter and Jane Mutahi, took over the running of the foundation, keen to keep their daughter’s memory alive.
The couple lived and worked in Denmark, Peter as a lecturer at the University of Copenhagen, Jane as a nurse at Rigs Hospital in Denmark’s capital. The family home they had built in Kieni, Nyeri County, was therefore unoccupied.
A couple of years before their daughter’s death, they had converted this home into a children’s home, having returned to Kenya to visit in 1998 during which they noted that the streets were teeming with street children – what if they converted their rarely used house into a children’s home?
“We had a big house that was mostly unoccupied, we decided that we could house these children there, give them food, clothes and a roof over their heads,” Peter says.
However, it was not until 2001 that they completed the inspection, registration and rehabilitation process and received the first group of children, seven of them, who were between five to nine years.
They named the facility Lipela Children’s Home, initials from their names and those of their friends from Denmark, Lisbeth Bergholdt Hansen and Lars Blavnsfeldt, who helped them establish the children’s home. Currently, the facility has 45 children between one and 17 years.
The couple, however, realised that the children that they had received needed more than just basic needs. They needed love, care, protection, advice, guidance, education, among other necessities. But they mostly needed guardians.
Based in Denmark
“We were still based in Denmark and would travel back here to see the children often, when they were struggling or hurting therefore, we knew it and helped them bear it,” adds Jane.
They went on to employ seven people, including five caregivers, a teacher and a caretaker to look after the children in their absence The bond between them and the children was so great, they were like a family, and when they turned 18, the age at which the law required them to leave the home, letting go of them was heart-breaking.
“It was like giving up your own child. We receive very young children, imagine that from as young as the age of five, you have been with this child and therefore know everything about them, including their pain,” says Jane.
The couple was faced with another unanticipated challenge. Despite having prepared the children in advance about the foster care placement policy that required them to leave the home when they reached 18, the young adults they had sent out to the world started returning.
“The problem is that despite some of them having families who we reunited them with, this is the only home they have known most of their lives, and when they are scared or desperate, like sometimes happens to most people, they return home,” Peter, a father of two, explains, adding that they could not just send them away because they did not have anywhere else to go.
In the streets
“Some of them did not have families, and those who did found it difficult to bond with them, and so they found themselves in the streets alone for the first time in their lives, unprepared for that kind of struggle,” he adds.
They also realised that the young adults were not skilled enough to earn a living and support themselves since they had left the home before joining college.
They therefore found it very difficult to get jobs, and when they did, what they earned was barely enough to sustain themselves.
Another challenge was the fact that they were institutionalised, and were therefore not able to differentiate between genuine affection and when they were being taken advantage of, leading to some getting married to people they barely know and hurriedly getting children. Others started depending on drugs to cope or sank into depression.
“We had to help,” Jane says.
They do this by providing them with a home or extending them help where they are and monitoring their progress just like they would do with their own grown-up children.
They also use their networks to get them jobs and train them on financial management so that they can manage the money they earn better.
They also look for sponsors to pay for their higher education. Through the Rose Foundation, started by their first born daughter, the couple is currently supporting 20 young adults.
“Rose started the foundation after observing how much her foster brothers and sisters were suffering after leaving the home,” Jane, 47, explains.
After her daughter’s death, she resigned from her job and moved back to Kenya to run the home and the foundation.
Having learnt from previous experiences, she and her husband emphasise on teaching their charges skills such as cooking, farming, sewing and recycling from locally available materials as a way of empowering them before they leave the home.
Their aim is to empower the children so that they can be self-sufficient and independent when it is time for them to leave.
They also source for sponsors to pay their college fees for those who perform well, it is an effort that has paid off since a number of children from Lipela Children’s Home have joined university, college and various TVETs.
Work or home
Once they leave the home, they are given an option to either forge their way out there, or return to the home to work. They spend a month with their families and to acquaint themselves with the outside world, and if they adjust, they are free to stay on, but are welcome to return if they would like to.
“There are those that find it difficult to bond with their families, others fit and stay while there are those that get the jobs and start new lives – what matters to us is that they are happy,” Peter says, adding that most of them end up returning and are employed to work within the home. The home relies on its farm to provide at least 90 percent of what is consumed, therefore there is never a shortage of work.
“Since we cannot afford to pay for every child’s higher education, they work in exchange for pay, part of which goes into a savings account, the money is then used to pay their college school fees,” Peter explains.
Wilson Mutahi, 19, is one of the beneficiaries. He has called Lipela home for 13 years now. He completed secondary school in 2020, and having no family, he decided to remain and save up for a course.
“I was given the option to leave and I chose not to because I did not have anyone or anything to do out there. If I had left, I would be homeless, so I preferred to stay here and save up to do a technical course,” he says.
“I mostly take care of the cows. I like it. I wake up in the morning to milk them and I feed and tend to them all day. I appreciate the job because I know I will be back to school soon,” he adds.
Joseph Miano, also 19, left the home for one month after completing his Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education exams last year, but returned. Having lived at the home for 12 years, he found it impossible to connect with his family and left in search for a job.
After working a number of menial jobs, Miano returned home.
“Out there, I was earning Sh300 a day, which was to buy me food and pay for shelter, but it was never enough, I wanted to do better with my life. I came back here because I am assured of food and shelter and the money I earn goes to my education fund,” he says.
Vivian Nyambura,20, has been in the home for the last 14 years. Her dream to become a nurse was so strong, she returned to her paternal home in the hope that her relatives would take her to college, but this did not happen.
Two years down the line, she is homeless and jobless with no savings.
Jane maintains that while they are adults, returning means that they have to comply with the rules and schedule of the home.
“They cannot take drugs or have sexual relationships while they are here, for instance,” she says.
Not a smooth ride
It, however, has not been a smooth ride as the home has experienced numerous challenges, the biggest being funding.
The couple points out that since the government and donors do not fund those above 18 years, they have been forced to go out of their way to support them.
“When my own children turned 18, they did not stop needing me. They joined university, which I paid for, and I continued to feed, clothe and shelter them –how different are foster children from those that live with their families – how are they expected to survive after being kicked out of the only home they have ever known?” she asks.
“Many times, they call me and say that they do not have food to eat and we have to send them money, we still support those who are still looking for jobs, it financially demanding,” Peter adds.
But in spite of these challenges, the couple says that the home has been their greatest source of fulfilment, their biggest achievement, one that has given them unfathomable peace and joy.
“Despite having our own children, this home has given us so much joy and satisfaction because we have done our part and seek to do more,” Jane says.