Pastor Roselyn Gitonga and the Second Chance Church in Kikuyu town believe that one doesn’t need a lot of money to change someone’s life, but just a willing heart. Roselyn and her church began the Mercy Train initiative to offer children from the neighbouring Soweto slum an education. Pastor Roselyn shares her mission of hope with MWAURA MUIGANA.
“They wake up early in the morning; quickly don their school uniforms, hopeful that their mothers will be there and in a sober state to give them breakfast. By 7a.m they are out of their slum dwellings and into the school bus, paid for by the church, to their different schools around Kikuyu and Thogoto. Apart from learning in school, they are assured of a mid-morning cup of tea and a hot lunch every day. At the end of their school day the bus drops them outside the Second Chance Church in Kikuyu town,” Pastor Roselyn Gitonga begins to explain what prompted her church to start a project to help children in Soweto slum near Kikuyu town.
Roselyn and two other teachers assist the children with homework before they go to their respective homes. “Since majority of their mothers are either not bothered, illiterate or don’t understand the need for education, the teachers and I take an initiative to help the children out whenever they have homework” says Roselyn.
At 5.30 p.m. the children take tea, snacks and fruits before getting into a session of devotion after which the younger ones – from pre-unit to standard three – leave for their homes. The older ones – from class four upwards – remain behind until 7.15 p.m. to catch up on their studies. Some of these children are behind in their schoolwork because they started school late.
“While this may sound like normal life for any child, for these children it is not,” says Roselyn. The children they take care of have been rescued from a difficult life of neglect and poverty. Some of their mothers cannot afford to give them food or would not be bothered to take care of them. Some engage in sex work, others are drunkards or trade in illicit brews. Other children have no one to take care of them, as their mothers are languishing in jail.
When the Second Chance Community Church was established in Kikuyu town in 2000, little did Senior Pastor Fred Geke and Roselyn know that they would be called upon to take care of many slum children and their mothers within the community they serve. The children were suffering and lacked basic needs and most did not live in an environment that offered love and friendship. The church came up with the Mercy Train initiative whose goal is to rescue children from the slums and offer them an opportunity that will define their future away from life in the slums.
As Roselyn, who is in charge of the project, and her colleagues interacted with the community, the children, aged between five and eight years, began attending Sunday school service. Their Sunday school teachers were shocked to learn that most of them had not been enrolled in school.
“On approaching their parents to find out why they didn’t take their children to school, we found out that they had no plans of educating their children since they didn’t see the need to. Most of them were illiterate or school dropouts who engaged in drinking and prostitution,” says Roselyn.
The church realised they bore a greater responsibility to these children than just teaching them the bible. The children were hungry and they needed food; some were sick and needed medical attention; others did not have anyone to take care of them, and most importantly, all of them needed to be in school.
The wider community was not sympathetic to the plight of these children as they judged them harshly because of their parent’s behaviour. There were even some in the community who believed that offering these children an education was a fruitless venture, as they would go back to the slum to be just like their parents.
However, the church was firm that the children were not responsible for the choices their parents had made and was determined to do something that would change their lives and remove them from the life they had been condemned to. The church decided that no child should be denied school, and it had a duty to do all it could to meet the children’s basic human needs. A decision was made to start a programme that would assist these children. And this was the birth of the Mercy Train in January 2001.
The search begins…
“We moved from house to house in the slums trying to convince mothers to let us take their children into a programme that would provide them with education, food, medical care and guidance. We also asked them to convince their friends to do the same. Some of them responded and registered their children, while others were suspicious and skeptical about our intentions with their children,” says Roselyn.
The other major challenge was to find good schools that would accept to enroll the children, granted that most had never stepped in a classroom before. The church’s intention was to give the children high quality education and their desire was to enroll them in schools that would make a real difference in their lives.
“We wanted the children to attend schools that would not only help them academically, but also offer them positive values, build their self-esteem and confidence, and also help them integrate with the rest of the community,” says Roselyn.
The church explained to the school heads what the programme was about, as well as the background of the children they wished to have enrolled in their school. They also wanted the schools to work with the church to make the programme a success. Some schools were supportive while others refused, saying parents in their schools would not accept to have children from the slums interacting with their own children.
“We thank God that many schools were supportive. For example, one school took many children and even offered to give them extra coaching for two hours each day to help them catch up with other children. The programme started with 11 children between the ages of four and eight, who were enrolled in different schools all within Kikuyu town. Most of these children are doing very well and we are encouraged,” says Roselyn.
The church made an appeal to its members to commit a certain monthly contribution towards the programme. Most people committed to give whatever they could, although it was not enough to meet their entire budget.
“When people from the community, who were previously negative, started noticing positive changes in the lives of children we were helping, they started supporting the project quietly. Some bought school uniform, others brought foodstuffs, while others contributed money to pay for school fees,” adds Roselyn.
However, the programme had its own challenges. Some children would miss school often because their parents were too drunk to wake up in the morning to prepare them for school. Some of the children also came from unstable homes where parents would fight and one parent would take off with the children, thus denying them access to school. There were also many children missing school because of illness. Most of these illnesses were a result of poor nutrition and their health dramatically improved once they were put on a feeding programme.
The church invites different people to talk to the children and inspire them. Children needing individual counseling because of issues and circumstances at home are given attention. For example, some are faced with domestic violence while others have their parents in jail after committing various crimes. The programme has interventions that ensure that children in such circumstances are helped to adjust.
Breaking the vicious cycle…
The programme has also been striving to find a way of helping the mothers in order to break the vicious cycle. It offers skills such as cooking nutritious foods and childcare to equip the mothers so that they can abandon their destructive lifestyles. We also teach them the values of taking care of their families, as well as trying to bring them closer to God. It has been a slow process trying to change the women but there have been some achievements.
“It is not easy to convince a woman, for example, to abandon prostitution, and do other work such as casual labour or assist at the church. We have to approach it from many angles including health, moral issues and self-respect,” says Roselyn.
“We have made some success and some have joined the programme, assisting with cooking and cleaning in the church where the feeding programme operates from. We have seen a change of attitude in many, as well as improved discipline, for example, reporting to work on time, and also a growing interest in their children’s education and general welfare,” she adds.
The programme relies on goodwill from individuals and organisations and needs a lot of assistance to achieve its objective of helping as many children as possible. There are many unmet needs including finances, foodstuffs, and provision of school uniforms, volunteers such as counselors, doctors, nurses and teachers to help with coaching the children.
Today the programme has 160 children. Demand has grown so much that there is a long waiting list of children waiting to join because resources are not available to take them all. Some of the children who began from pre-unit are now in class seven and will be K.C.P.E. candidates next year.
Phone N.o:0722 719 379
Published in June 2012