June 24, 2012

Giving Street Children in East Africa a Chance to Be Kids Again

Photograph by Robin Hammond

Some rescued boys play outside Retrak’s Tudabujja in Kampala.

What started out as a simple game of soccer has blossomed into a charity that provides hope and a second chance at childhood to boys who have suffered much more than most children their age.

Working in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda, Retrak serves about 7,000 young people 7 to 20 years old who ran away from their families to live on the streets because they were abused, orphaned, or impoverished.

Each child receives food, schooling, vocational training, counseling, and individualized medical care, while living at Retrak’s Tudabujja farm and halfway house in Kampala, Uganda.

The children live in small homes with eight other boys and a housemother for six months so they grow accustomed again to family life. Retrak then seeks to send the children back to their families. When that is not possible or a family situation is unsafe, they are placed in foster care. According to the organization, 78 percent of the children who have been returned to their families are still with them two years later. Recently, the number of children who rejoined their families reached 1,000.

The charity got its start in 1994 when the British photographer Paul Joynson-Hicks and his friend Matt Win were playing a pickup game of soccer in Kampala. As the two men played, they were joined by a group of boys who were living on the streets.

The men began providing food and basic medical care to those boys and others. As more street children sought help, Mr. Joynson-Hicks and Mr. Win realized the demand exceeded their capabilities. They put out a call for professionals, specifically a social worker and a teacher, to take over what became known as the Tigers Club Project. In 1996, Andy and Katina Williams, a young couple in Brussels, came to Uganda and turned the project into Retrak.

Based in Cheshire, England, the charity has an annual budget of about $1-million. Roughly half is provided by grant makers and nonprofits; individuals contribute 15 percent; and the remainder comes from donations by companies and churches as well as revenue from events.

Retrak works mostly with boys. Joan Townsend, the charity’s U.S. country director, says boys are pushed out of their homes more often than girls because they often don’t do as many domestic chores. She says Retrak hopes to expand its programs to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mozambique and to serve more girls.

The most telling signs of Retrak’s success are the smiles that cross the faces of children who have endured unspeakable hardships.

“These are boys like any other boys. They’re happy, they’re carefree, and they love to play,” Ms. Townsend says. “Having also been out in the slums of Kampala and Addis Ababa, and seeing boys living in garbage heaps and begging for food, sniffing glue to keep warm at night, these are the same boys. The transformation that Retrak has been able to provide to these boys is phenomenal.”

Send an e-mail to Caroline Bermudez.