A Place of Love: The “Gogo” Grannies of the Othandweni Children’s Home

Social connection and attention is a crucial part of development for any child and even more important for orphaned children. After conducting long-term studies of institutionalized children, Charles Nelson, professor of pediatrics at Harvard University, recognized something deeply concerning: a lack of attention and stimulation had contributed to disturbingly low levels of brain activity in orphans. “The wiring in their brain goes awry,” which ultimately contributes to long-term mental health problems.

The relationship between neglect and poor mental health can be found in institutions around the world. But what can be done when the resources for many of these establishments are often limited?

One organization has found a way to offer emotional healing to abandoned children: they launched a unique program to help combat the loneliness and isolation that institutionalized children often face.

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A division of Jo’burg Child Welfare Services (JCW), The Othandweni Children’s Home and Family Care Centre in Soweto, South Africa is so much more than an orphanage. This centre provides residential care for nearly 90 children who have been abused, abandoned and/or neglected. The home is also the South African launchpad for the aforementioned Granny Program – a plan of action that uniquely benefits each child in their care.

According to the 2014 Annual Report for JCW, the aim of the Granny Program is to “ensure children, aged from birth to six years, receive the appropriate stimulation that is very often missing in residential care, but is extremely important to the physical and emotional development of our children.”

Enter the Gogo Grannies of Othandweni – “Gogo,”the word for Grandmother in Zulu, and “Othandweni” meaning “Place of Love.” These “gogo-getters,” as they have referred to themselves, are not only Gogos to their own grandchildren, but they are special grandmothers to the orphans of the home.

Othandweni ensures that each child spends two hours a day with their Gogo: two hours a day, Monday to Friday, is allocated to providing the children with specialized attention and love. Ultimately, the purpose of the Granny Program is to help ensure the children at Othandweni are socialized, healthy and prepared for their future adoptive homes. Without regular, long-term commitment to each child, serious medical and social issues are hard to diagnose and repair.

Patience Mokgadi, Sandra Thandi Twala, and Elizabeth Maki Khumalo all work at Othandweni and are all – you guessed it – Gogos. They joined the participants of the Overcoming Isolation and Deepening Social Connectedness Symposium last fall to share their stories about the program and their experiences working at the home.

Granny Twala shared a story about Zinclair – her first granddaughter at the home. Zinclair had trouble with school work and avoided looking people in the eye. Through specialized attention, Granny Twala recognized that something was truly amiss and, after taking her to the physician, discovered that the child had sinus problems that affected her eyes. Now Zinclair has eyeglasses and is doing very well.

“My mother did not want me. Why bother with you?” This sentiment, often exhibited by children at the home, was explained by Granny Mokgadi during the panel conversation. She was referencing a situation in which a young, expecting mother reached out to her as a social worker and, upon giving birth, gave the child to be placed at Othandweni. Granny Mokgadi recalled her own involvement in the “pre- and post-social connected process” of the child’s life. It took a long time for the child to become socially connected and content, but she is now happily living with her new family in Finland.

The Jo’burg Child Welfare Society (JCW) is an organization offering a number of programs that work to prevent maltreatment and promote health and happiness in underprivileged children. Each year, JCW’s initiatives effectively reach more than 40,000 beneficiaries. Their Granny Program was launched in partnership with the New York-based adoption service, Spence-Chapin, after the original program’s success in Bulgaria.[1] In addition to its Soweto program, Spence-Chapin also currently provides Grannies for children in Colombia.

Spence-Chapin Granny Program

Not only is the program of benefit to the children involved, but the Gogos themselves find the work rewarding. Granny Mokgadi believes the gratification is, in part, a reflection of her life experience, saying: “Maybe the fact that I’m older, you know, to work with children and young people as well, especially the mothers. To understand where they come from, the issues that they face.”

Tomorrow marks the United Nations’ 25th anniversary of the International Day of Older Persons. Coincidentally, Statistics Canada announced this week that, for the first time, the number of senior citizens (aged 65+) has surpassed the number of children across the nation. And it’s not just Canada: the International Day of Older Persons is one part of the many initiatives the U.N. has put in place to address the nearly 1.4 billion people, aged 60+, that will living on this planet in the year 2030. With this growing worldwide demographic, it is imperative that older persons are given the opportunity to reach their full potential.

Moderator Mary Jordan addressed this topic during the Grannies’ symposium conversation. She underlined the fact that people today are living much longer and are healthier into their 80s and even their 90s. Jordan believes successful initiatives like the Granny Program are just the beginning of bringing retired people and young people together in order to accomplish amazing things.

Discussing their interactions with the children, Jordan asked Granny Khumalo what their day-to-day routine at Othandweni looked like. Granny Khumalo replied that after greeting the children in the morning “you give them that hug because they need this hug.”

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The children at Othandweni – and other institutions around the world – need this hug. A hug that symbolizes human connection and affection. And everyone knows grandmothers are especially good at giving hugs.

The Granny Program is not funded by the government and depends on donations for its continued success. If you would like to contribute, visit http://jhbchildwelfare.co.za/centres/ and click “Donate Today.”