An Unexpected Journey to the Streets
– The baby of the family, painfully shy and partially deaf. That was me, growing up in Derbyshire, and later Buckinghamshire with my loving parents and older sister. A long way away from the African streets where I focus so much of my time nowadays. I left high school with improved hearing, determined not to let my shyness define me. I packed my things and headed to Sheffield Uni to study History.
I received an incredible education and I was adamant that when I qualified, I wanted to give something back by volunteering for a significant period of time. This was sparked from a trip to South Africa when I was 16: I saw huge houses surrounded by security systems and barbed wire, across the road from families cramped in one room. It highlighted the disparate inequality of opportunities in the world. It was a huge eye-opener for me. Much more so than my usual family camping holidays in France had ever been!
The opportunity arose for me to work with an Education Charity in Uganda. It was there I met Helen and Mike. We saw the full extent of poverty; children living on the streets with no adult care, food or education. Every day we witnessed violence and abuse towards the children, due to the fact they were living on the streets and thus associated with crime and drugs. There is no social care safety net in Uganda. The three of us knew we could not simply turn a blind eye, so S.A.L.V.E. was born, to try to do something to help.
S.A.L.V.E. was officially founded in February 2008 with the motto “Support and Love via Education”. I was 23 and like Helen, British. Mike is Ugandan. We sought help from our friends and families to get the project off the ground. We rented a small house that we used as a half-way home for children coming off the streets. I went on to work at Oxfam and to do a Clore Social Leadership Fellowship in global Homelessness while running S.A.L.V.E. voluntarily in my spare time. Starting S.A.L.V.E. changed my path and I wanted to learn how I could best support the charity to do the best job it could to advocate for children living on the streets.
Our aim, if safe and possible to do so, is always to reintegrate the children with their extended families. Where this isn’t possible, we try to help them into foster care. We believe children grow up better in families rather than institutions. The youngest child we have seen on the streets has been just five years old. Usually, they are between ten and sixteen – but many of them don’t actually know their birthday and how old they are.
The main reasons for a child ending up on the streets are poverty and/or abuse. Poverty is often a consequence of losing a parent; either due to a parent passing away or their parents separating. If it was the breadwinner of the family who was lost, then the family struggle to survive. Abuse is also common, especially from stepparents who don’t want to raise the children of the previous relationship. We see a lot of children fleeing cases of domestic violence and parental alcohol addiction.
You have to pay for education in Uganda, and secondary school is particularly expensive, meaning many children miss out as their parents simply can’t afford the fees. Often the children we meet are so eager to learn, and their main motivation for being on the streets is to earn money to go to school.
Last year we helped 73 children off the streets and to resettle back home within a loving family and we have an 88% success rate. We have helped more than 400 children to leave the streets since we started S.A.L.V.E.
While on the streets children can buy drugs such as airplane fuel (Mufata) for only 200 shillings (5 pence) which they huff from a rag in a plastic bottle, whereas a proper plate of food costs 2,000 shillings (50 pence). The drugs are a coping strategy; they make them feel warm and strong while also satiating their hunger.
Our charity has snowballed over the years as more and more amazing people have joined us and believed in our vision of “No Street Called Home”. We now have a range of programs including a Street Outreach team that build trust with children on the streets on their own terms through street walks, a sports program, and 2 Drop-In Centres offering food, medical care, education, counseling and more. We recently opened a separate center for girls as they are more hidden homeless.
Building trusting relationships is absolutely crucial. This can take a few days, but some children can take years. Each child has a bespoke program depending on their needs. They are all with us voluntarily, but the alternative may mean jail for them, as sleeping on the streets is an offense punishable by up to 3 months in prison.
We show each child that they have unlimited potential, alongside the importance of learning to be part of a community again and how to respect others. We teach them that change can take time and won’t always happen straight away, but with hard work, they can succeed. We teach them not to run away from their problems and to face them head-on. For children who have been reintegrated back into their family, we follow up with them at home.
We are a partnership charity, because we believe that no one organisation can (or should) do everything. As in life on a human to human basis, in charities partnership is also key. We must work together for the best outcome.
There are so many ways that you can get involved and help. Here are three to get you started:
- Donate – your kindness can send a child to school for a month (this costs £20) or can integrate them back home to their family including three follow up visits (this costs £100).
- Volunteer your time – whether in Uganda, the UK or from home anywhere in the world. You can use your skills to help us!
- Be an advocate – share the children’s stories and highlight what is really happening on the streets.
I would like to finish by telling you about a day which really touched me last year. Two of our social workers were reuniting two children with their families at opposite ends of Uganda. One had lost their daughter to child trafficking and another lost their son during a riot – both children ended up on the streets. Both families had been planning the funeral of their respective child on the same day that we reunited them. For these parents to find out that their child was not only alive but in good health and being reunited with them was incredible. The families were overjoyed with emotion and it left me with a deep sense of joy.
It is days like this that keep me and the other members of our incredible team going. It’s harrowing to be such close witnesses to so much pain, violence, death, and trauma. But the upside – when we see real, positive change and you can help a family come back together and a child to be safe and happy again – makes the challenges all worthwhile. It motivates us to keep going, to boost each other and remember that we are all part of an extended global family of people who doesn’t believe anyone should have to live on the streets.
This wasn’t the journey in life I expected to take, but no matter how dark and difficult the road has been at times, I am glad that it did.
EDITOR / Alice Maia