Serving street kids and orphans

In the past week Britt and I visited two excellent programs that help kids in different ways.

St. Vincent de Paul Community Development Organization

The St. Vincent de Paul Community Development Organization runs a school in Kibera slum in Nairobi, where most people are unemployed and family life is unstable for a variety of reasons. HIV is prevalent, and thus HIV orphans are everywhere. Because families make so little money, few are willing to take in orphans, even when their parents are relatives.

At the same time, people in the community want to educate their kids. There’s a huge demand for affordable but high quality schools. Most good schools in Nairobi cost thousands of shillings a month in tuition, where a family might only earn a few hundred shillings a day. Multiply this by the large family size, and you can see why most kids go to cheaper, informal schools – which appear to me to amount to little more than a day care service. There’s one particular school at stage 42 in Kibera that I notice every time I pass by. There are more than a 100 kids in that 4 room building, and nearly all of them stand on the balcony overlooking the street, watching people pass by. They’re not learning, and they aren’t even in the classroom most of the time. I’ve only spotted a teacher there once. This is “schooling” in parts of Kenya.

St. Vincent’s managed to combine these two problems and address both at once. In order to send your child to their good school, a family must be caring for an orphan. Only then, can the family’s biological children be invited to attend. The staff interview every family to make sure everyone is committed to the child’s education.

Even with the screening, many children come from difficult environments. When a child doesn’t come to school, they send out a social worker to visit the family and find one why. They keep records on the problems. Lucy – their director, knows all the children and can speak about any student’s history and ongoing challenges, aspirations with eloquence.

Recently when I visited, Lucy insisted that I hear one of her older student’s stories.

Both of this boy’s parents died of HIV a few years back. He went to live with his auntie. He really wanted to stay in school, and she promised him she would pay his fees if he scored a 400 on his exams at the end of primary school (Grade 6). This is a very high bar. Only a handful of all the kids in Kibera’s 100,000 plus students did this last year.

He didn’t make it, and his auntie tossed him out at age 11 to make a living. She couldn’t or didn’t want to take care of him. She gave him 20 Kenyan shillings (25 cents!) and wished him good luck.

Miraculously, he made it to Nairobi and then to Kibera on his 25 cents – about half a day’s jounrey from home. There he lived on the street for a time and some man took the boy in, gave him a home, and got him enrolled at St. Vincent’s.

“You see now why I wanted you to hear this story?” Lucy said.
“David,” Lucy promised, “We will never abandon you. Whatever happens next year, St. Vincent’s will see that you are taken care of.”

This is real poverty. Sacrificing everything for one’s kin is hard.


In Kampala, RETRAK (Inspiring street children) tackles the problem of runaway street kids differently. They have a centre in the part of town where many kids are sleeping on the streets. At night they serve these kids by going around town and inviting them to come to their shelter. But Isobel (the country director) is adamant that the goal is not to get them merely off the streets, but reintegrate them back with their families.

Youth come to their centre for food, a nurse, and a safe place to sleep occasionally, and the staff tries to recruit them into a program that gives them catch-up classes and life skills. Most of these kids were going to school, and lack of school fees is a common reason they leave home. The most common reason is that one parent died, and a step parent is now abusing them. In fact, RETRAK studied the problem and learned that when both parents die, the child is generally cared for by relatives much more, and the kid doesn’t run away – but when a step-parent is involved, abuse is more likely and occasionally the child is simply thrown out.

Reintegration requires helping the student relearn how to behave with other non-violent members of family and community. It is a muti-stage process:

Life on the streets is tough. Girls are quickly snatched up by pimps and turned into prostitutes, and boys learn to interact with their fellow street urchins through violence and domination. But they can learn how to be civil again, and RETRAK trains them in useful skills – like farming or goat herding – so that they can pay for school fees and help the family when they return.

The final step is tracking down the family. This can take days to months. But at the end, RETRAK staff meet the family and figure out exactly why the boy ran away in the first place. Once that issue can be resolved, they return the child.

Through follow-up meetings, they believe they are achieving an 85% success rate. Last year they got about 130 boys off the streets in Kampala.

Both organizations inspire me. They, like hundreds of other organizations, have a common goal of helping the youth. However, not all organizations apply a structured approach, and then refine it until they know it is working better. Isobel is quick to point out that they are not institutionalizing the kids. She sees other organizations taking kids off the streets, but failing to get them back into a family. Lucy, likewise, spends a lot of her time managing kids mental health, and not just their academic performance. But by including social work in their program, their kids, over time tend to outperform other schools in Kibera!

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