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A heart for children

Since the age of 16 she knew what she wanted to do, says Alison Alexander, project manager (aka mom) of the Rainbow of Hope Children’s Home in Goodwood. Growing up in Kewtown, Athlone as the 11th child of 13 siblings, Alison says as soon as she was able to, at age 14, she started volunteering at a place down the road for unwed mothers, called the Nanny Home. She volunteered there until the age of 16 when her family moved to Silvertown.

Alison got married in 1984. Living in Bishop Lavis, she and her husband responded to a campaign to recruit safety parents for children who’s been abused, abandoned or neglected. “We were the only parents that showed up,” recalls Alison. From the time her daughter (now 30) was born they started taking in vulnerable children. Alison also has a biological son (33) and an adopted daughter (19) who at two weeks old was the youngest child ever placed in their care.

Alison says she could never quite understand why she was so passionate about children and always wanted to stand on the soapbox for them. Until the day her sister asked to meet with her. “My sister told me how she had been abused as a child.” The memory came flooding back. Alison realised what her sister was telling her was exactly what had happened to her. She had chosen to block it out. By that time her marriage was already in trouble. She and her sister both went to see a psychologist.

Sadly, her sister died at the age of 40. Alison believes her sister never made peace with what had happened to her.

She says her mother must have known about the abuse by a male family member, but her mother also had to manage 13 children. She confronted the abuser once and never saw him again. She will never forget, but she forgave.

“I absolutely believe God has a plan for everyone’s life,” she says.

Even though the abuse was an evil thing that happened she has come to see how she could use her experience to the advantage of others. She can now work with both the perpetrator and the victim. ‘‘I believe that for every person that abuses there is a story.” What that family member’s reasons were for abusing her, she does not know, but she has chosen to put it behind her. Knowing how the abuse impacted on her marriage and on her own behaviour has helped her to be able to recognise behaviour and to help others. “It is not rocket science for me to look at children and know that they are sexually abused,” she says.

The Rainbow of Hope house in Alice Street used to be a home for refugee children. Alison worked as a PA to a director of the Western Province Baptist Association who was on the board of this home.

They were on the point of closing it down and her boss, who knew she was passionate about children, asked Alison to assist. “I worked for him half days and then came to the home.” The place was filthy, and she started by cleaning it up, she says. “The people had a sense of entitlement and were sponsored by a UK donor. I came, and I changed everything – I sent them on personal growth courses.”

It became Rainbow of Hope in 2007 and in 2008 they took in the first (local) child.

Alison says they are looking for a property in Goodwood to open a second home this year. They’ve been looking at a house in Beaufort Street for about five years. She says it was donated to Goodwood police, but they are not allowed to own property. ‘‘There is this grey area between Public Works and SAPS – they had so many stories. During the last five years the property went from a beautiful house to being ruined. Tthey could just have given it to us.’’

The second house will be for assisted independent living. Alison says babies come into Rainbow of Hope and those that are not adopted will stay for their school-going years. This second home will be for the older children to stay after they finish school. Alison says many women in shelters were once in a children’s home. “We don’t want that for our children. In government homes they must leave when they are 18 – so they end up back on the street.” She says the idea is to give these young adults a chance – three to five years to get on their feet and then move on.

Currently, there are 12 children at the home of which eight are doing homeschooling. They have an “amazing teacher’’, with a psychology degree, who comes in and does blended teaching as they have different grades, says Alison. She has seen a huge difference in the children and in the level of conversation since.

In 2009 Alison was nominated for a Community Women’s Award sponsored by First for Women. She didn’t win any of the categories, but the CEO was so inspired by Alison’s story that a category (All Inspiring Woman) was created just for her. Alison received R25 000, which she says was ‘‘seed money’’ which helped them grow. Today they receive a lot of support from within the community and elsewhere. “Even when there are a funeral people will bring leftovers.” She says she believes the support comes from operating with integrity.

“I know I’m not always the easiest person to get on with – I am very strict and very clear with volunteers on what they can and cannot do.”

A social worker runs a volunteer workshop once a term for eight to 12 people. ‘‘If we have one coming back that’s a lot. We don’t want people walking in and out of our children’s lives.”

Whether her own children or foster children, they are all her children, she doesn’t treat them any differently, says Alison. She wants to make them feel safe and loved.

A verse written by one of the home’s children, Shayner-lee, sums it up: “Finally ... I no longer feel different than everybody else, I am accepted and feel like I belong.

My friends appreciate me.

I am supported to be the best me I can be,

Where I belong, I have found happiness.”

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