What do you do?
I am the Founder and CEO of Child’s i Foundation. We work in Uganda and our aim is to place children into families. We run an emergency centre for abandoned babies and our social work team trace extended families or find new families in Uganda. We also run a multi media campaign to promote domestic adoption and working with 20 orphanages to replicate our model of short-term care.
How did you get there?
I used to work in TV and I wanted to volunteer and do something ‘good’ in Africa. At the time I thought volunteering in an orphanage was the right thing to do. For three years, I spent half my life working in TV and the rest of the year volunteering in a baby orphanage in Uganda. It was emotionally draining and I was caring for up to 50 abandoned babies. I thought that giving them love and attention was a good thing but when I showed footage of the orphanage to a qualified social worker she cried and told me that the children in the video were the most damaged in the world. They are all begging for love from strangers and none of them have secure attachments. I went on to research the importance of attachment in child development and decided that the better place for children is in families. When I approached the Ugandan government, I was told that residential care was the only option for children but I wanted to prove that placing those children in families was possible. We established an emergency care centre and we proved we could place abandoned children into families within five months of admission to avoid long-term psychological damage. We set up a social work department who successfully resettled 70% of children back into their extended families and placed the children whose families we couldn’t trace into new adoptive families or long-term foster families.
Why did you decide to set up your own foundation when there are already hundreds out there?
At the time, there was no one like us out there. There were plenty of orphanages but no organisations that were actively trying to place children into families. In the 90s, there were only 35 institutions and now there are over 800 with an estimated 50,000 children in care. The solution to the ‘orphan crisis’ was to place children into orphanages. The problem is most of these children are not ‘orphans’ and in 80% of cases they have families, who, with support, could provide care for them. The difference between a child growing up in an orphanage and safely in a family is social work, good social work. Child’s i Foundation is a social work organisation and we are providing social work training to organisations across Uganda to enable them to safely transition children from care into families.
You were a TV producer in the past. How does it help you with what you do now?
Everything I learnt in TV has been used to help me run the charity. When I was a TV producer I used to get a one pager on the show and my job was to find the right people, develop the format and get the show on air. All these skills are transferable and getting the right team around me is everything. A big part of our project is changing hearts and minds; my background in TV has been instrumental in this, as we’ve had TV producers volunteer their skills and time since day one. When we started, adoption was taboo and not spoken of, but over the past few years we have made hundreds of incredible videos showing that there are Ugandans who are willing to adopt. We have made adoption more common and as a result we have a waiting list of Ugandans.
You have a BA in politics and sociology. How is that useful to your current job?
I enjoyed my degree but it wasn’t something that was really that useful for my current job
What does a “typical work day” entail?
There is no such thing as a ‘typical’ work day. I do everything – I talk to my team in Uganda every day and provide a lot of support to the management team. Being 4,200 miles away means I spend my life on Skype and Google hangouts although I go out to Uganda every quarter for a few months. I attempt to raise the money required to run the project, which is about £30,000 a month. I do a lot of strategy and attend many meetings. I love it when I get time to actually focus on the project but most of the time it’s problem solving and trying to get the money in the bank to keep the project going.
What are the most and least rewarding aspects of your job?
The most rewarding is the children whose lives we are changing. I love hearing updates from the team on Chatter about the children who have been abandoned in a pit latrine and then a couple of months later there is a picture of them in the arms of a Ugandan family and I know they will be loved and cherished all their life. The least rewarding part is the daily administration.
What advice would you give to somebody who would like to do a similar job?
Do your research. Make sure what you're doing is the right thing for children and not misguided. Think through consequences and the unintended consequences. Don’t ever give up on your dream. It will break you, but every time you think you can’t go on and the sky is falling on your head, something will happen to make it right. Make sure you get a good team around you and a support system. It can be lonely and isolating, so it helps if there is someone equally passionate who can share the burden and the joy. Try and get someone with a completely different skill set who can complement you.
What are the key skills that make you good at what you do?
Project management and communication. We are a community, and I couldn’t do this without my team and the volunteers around the world who give their time, love and expertise to make Child’s i Foundation such a success. I think also having people around me to bounce ideas off. I have a brilliant Board of Trustees and great team in Uganda; I think finding the right team is the best skill a CEO can have - along with communicating so they feel valued, feel part of the journey and have the power to make this project their own.
What is the toughest lesson you have learnt?
I’ve learnt that my project is like a soap opera. There are always consequences to every action. When you don’t follow processes then it will come up and bite you on the bottom. When you take shortcuts there will be more pain in the future. I had a complaint letter from a volunteer. I didn’t take her complaints seriously and she got so frustrated that she wasn’t being listened to that it resulted in a serious complaint. I now make time to get feedback from everyone and deal with it head on, as soon as it occurs – do not bury your head in the sand. Don’t ever send emails when you have to have a difficult conversation – pick up the phone or meet in person. Usually it’s a lot better than you imagine it to be.
What is the mistake you wish you hadn’t done?
My biggest mistake was at the beginning when I started the project and I was rather poor at managing expectations when it came to volunteers. We no longer run volunteer schemes because we have a professional Ugandan workforce. The only volunteers we bring out to the project are TV professionals and social workers. I have learnt a lot of lessons and I wouldn’t be here if I had not made every mistake in the book. I volunteered at a baby orphanage which, in hindsight it not the best thing for children. I then wanted to build an orphanage for 50 children, which was also a terrible idea and I am very grateful for Brain Waller, an exceptional social worker who used to run Leicester Social Services, who told me it was and that no child should be placed in an orphanage. I also went to adopt a Ugandan orphan, but luckily that didn’t pan out either, as the whole ethos of Child’s i Foundation is to place Ugandan children into Ugandan families. I needed to go through this journey to make Child’s i Foundation what it is today.
What has been your biggest challenge and how did you tackle it?
My biggest challenge is the idea that orphanages are a good thing for children. They are not. There are no orphanages in the West so why should children in the developing world be placed in them? It is a fact that, for every three months in care, a child loses one month of development. I believe that every person should have someone in their life who has their back and loves them. In orphanages, children are fighting for love and attention and they never learn to love and be loved. It makes them cute when they are young as they throw themselves at tourists and volunteers, but when they are older they can experience psychological problems.
I have to take a deep breath when I hear that people are volunteering / funding / running / building an orphanage. I believe that most people do this because (like me) they think they are doing the right thing – it is misguided kindness. In the media you hear of celebrities visiting orphanages and they are seen as the solution. When I tell people that I want to get children out of orphanages people always ask me where I place the children and are surprised that we find families. The penny drops once I explain that 80% of children in orphanages have families and it is social work that is the difference. We are working on a curriculum to train social workers to place children safely into families so we can help organisations do the right thing.
What achievements are you most proud of?
I am very proud of my team in Ugandan. They are all Uganda, and they are the A-Team! There are around 55 staff members and every one of them has a passion and a drive. They want to change their country and all believe passionately that every child in Uganda should grow up in a family. They are running government adoption panels, running the Ugandans Adopt campaign, fundraising, and running the programmes. They are doing me out of a job – that for me is the definition of success.
Do you have a role model and if so who and why?
I have many role models. I love Steve Jobs and take comfort in his quote about valuing the rebels and the crazy ones because ‘the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do’. I have been called crazy more times that I can count, especially when I started the project. I think it’s important, like Jobs says, to ‘Stay hungry. Stay foolish’. Never accept the ‘norm’ and be unreasonable. I love Mandela’s quote, ‘It always seems impossible until it’s done’. I love TED talks – they are my daily inspiration. I am very lucky to have Dianne Thompson, CEO of Camelot as my mentor. Having a mentor who has been there and done it is invaluable for start-ups like myself, who make it up as we go along :)
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