A Mother’s Heart

 Written By Cabral Opiyo

They call her ‘the mother of many children – (mama watoto wengi) but Regina considers herself a normal woman, literally living her calling and living her best life. At sixty-one years of age, the woman I spoke to is a warm and charismatic woman, full of tales of the ups and downs of caregiving, sacrifice, and the contentment she has drawn from her life of running various children’s homes and finally owning one.

At first, Regina was employed at various children’s homes where she took care of all types of vulnerable children and helped to nurture them. She’s grateful for the education she got while still employed at these homes due to the lessons gleaned from seeing how they were managed.

Regina’s dream had always been to run a children’s home of her own, on her own terms. Being an employee at a home meant following procedures as laid out by the director of the home with no space to deviate even if it was to improve on a few processes. Not that she did not appreciate her employers; she just aspired to a different philosophy – a different way of doing things. A devout Christian, this was Regina’s foremost prayer item every night and a few years later she was to get her to wish, she opened her own home in 2011.

Yet there are lessons she learned as a caregiver in the employ of others; she learned to think for herself and make decisions on the fly as encouraged by one of her first employers. At first, Regina used to take it as an insult when the director used to tell her to think for herself and make her own decisions but later on when she started running her own home, she realized the wisdom of those words and still thanks the lady for imparting them to her.

She had a family friend who had a friend with aspirations to help out a fledgling children’s home and the two were connected. The well-wisher helped with sponsorship for the caregiver’s salary, rent for a space to occupy, and a tank but Regina still had to hold a fund-raiser to stock her new home with the bare essentials; diapers, baby bottles, and clothes.

It still wasn’t enough and Regina did what she always did best, she prayed, trusted God, and went out to her family and told them what she needed. Her children all over the place mobilized and she had to make three trips to Nairobi to transport the baby cots, clothes, and supplies they had managed to acquire for her home. Regina’s prayers had a way of working.

Next, she went to Equity bank and asked for a short-term loan, the chances of being denied were very high since a children’s home is not a business and banks do not back organizations that don’t make money. But Regina’s miracle was still ongoing and bankable and they understood her plea and she was granted the first of her many loans, this one amounting to fifty thousand and she stocked up and geared towards the opening of her home.

Before long, she got her first batch of children, ten in total, and her life as a children’s home director cum owner begun in earnest. Three of the children she had taken in had special needs (two had cerebral palsy and one was autistic). For the first year, it was difficult because she was alone with her daughter Angie as the primary caregivers and they did everything by themselves; they fed, changed, and comforted the crying babies and still had to do all the housework by themselves. It was constant and ever-present work, twenty-four – seven.

Regina laughs heartily as she recalls weaning the children and how difficult it was for her and her daughter Angie to feed all the children at the same time without upsetting any of them. “It was like a merry-go-round where you’d feed one child and go to feed the next only for the first one to start crying because they had finished the morsel of food in their mouth. We had to go through that for months on end.

People thought I was crazy, there I was an unemployed woman with no long-term resources taking loans to help run home on my own with no tangible sponsors. But I believed in miracles and trusted in God steadfastly and whenever I had a problem, I would voice it and friends and family would somehow come through for the children, we never lacked.”

One of the most touching events of her time as a caregiver was when her husband sold his own plot of land to buy Regina a car for use with the children. His reasoning? He did not want his wife to struggle with carrying the children around when taking them to the hospital. There are many instances when her family would come through for her in small ways that lessened the burden and allowed her to live out her destiny as the mother of many children.

There were challenges all the time and Regina states that many a time they did not have any money for rent and the landlord would threaten to kick them out. And over the years, she took more loans, increasing in value from one hundred thousand to four hundred thousand. As we spoke, Regina proclaims with a smile that she paid her last loan years ago and she is debt-free and still running the house smoothly.

Regina’s most painful experience happened with Emmanuel, the first child the home took in. Emmanuel had Cerebral Palsy and could not talk or see and depended totally on his caregivers for his day-to-day activities. He was a happy child who knew Regina’s voice and whenever she wasn’t around, he would panic until he heard her voice. One afternoon, he had his lunch and started coughing relentlessly until Regina rushed him to hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival, news that shook Regina to her core. She refused to let him be loaded into a box for transportation to the morgue instead of taking him there in her car. She had to be convinced that Emmanuel had to be undressed feeling that the cold won’t be good for him until the mortician assured her that he would take good care of him.

Over the next few weeks, the home was in mourning as everyone loved Emmanuel and Regina had him buried in her own home upcountry, on the slopes facing Mt. Kenya. It took a while for her to heal; she would see his clothes in the wardrobe and break down all over again. Ironically, it was the other children’s incessant questions about him that helped heal Regina as she answered them that he could walk, laugh, and see wherever he was, things he couldn’t do on earth.

As time went by, conditions got better and her prayers were slowly answered. Regina found a sponsor for the school-going children who take care of all their school-related expenses removing a pertinent and heavy burden from the resources of the home. She also acquired a house fully owned by the home so that there are no longer any lingering rental expense concerns.

Her home is spacious and allows the children to live in comfort and most importantly, Regina has been able to run the house in a manner she sees fit. There is no mistreatment, no harsh language, and the house is run in an inclusive, family-friendly manner where the staff and children all cherish one another and help each other to make their stay more comfortable.

They have an exit through adoption method where the kids only leave if they are adopted, in addition to local adoptions, they’ve partnered with Adoption International and Regina positively beams as she runs through the various countries her charges have been adopted in (Italy, Finland, and Germany).

Over the years, Regina has discovered that caregiving can be draining both emotionally and mentally, especially when dealing with children who have round-the-clock needs and need constant supervision. She advises caregivers to find a method to unwind and relax that allows them to disconnect for a few hours at a time otherwise one becomes irritable even with the innocent and vulnerable children and your work suffers as a result.

Regina likes to take long naps when she feels overwhelmed, a very recent development as before when the home could not afford the caregiver’s salaries she had no choice but to keep plugging away since no one but her daughter Angie was present to help. As things have gotten better and the home has been able to employ more caregivers, Regina has found that she can take more time for herself.

As the kids have grown up and some have been adopted, the cycle continues but Regina has been able to place some of them in boarding schools where the care is also consistent and she has been left with the children with special needs who need more hands-on care. She has also been able to employ two more caregivers, one who takes care of the day-to-day household jobs and the other who constantly monitors and assists the children with special needs.

This improvement in fortunes has had a huge effect on Regina who used to be fatigued and looked woebegone all the time but is now a more jovial woman who laughs more easily and interacts with the children even better.

There are still difficulties now and then, those never go away according to Regina. The caregivers hired to take care of the children with special needs never really last; it is a difficult job that requires intensive training and special empathy for those kids. Some workers see the children for the first time and refuse to stay while some say they can do the job but fail to appreciate the patience and tenderness required for it.

Regina has seen it all and done it all so she knows how to take care of the children in the way they need to be taken care of but it’s not a quality that everyone has. Feeding the children who need their food specially made and feeding it to them, an activity that can take up an hour at times only for them to vomit up the food or not swallow at all can be frustrating. Changing the diapers of the children with Cerebral Palsy who do not have developed motor function even in their teens can be annoying to some and some caregivers start cutting corners just to get things moving which causes suffering for the children.

Regina knows the signs of an underfed child, even if they cannot speak for themselves and she knows the signs of a child who is being unduly punished. She understands why the various intricacies of taking care of these children can be beyond what some caregivers are willing to put up with and she reluctantly but firmly parts ways with them, the children always come first. This means that many times, Regina ends up having to take care of the children with special needs all by herself as she has the necessary tools to make sure they’re comfortable and contented even emotionally.

As a caregiver, Regina never fully hands over as she feels the personal attachment and responsibility to the children under her care. She has nurtured and been with some children for almost a decade and she is the only mother they know and this can cause fatigue and burnout as she tries to stay on top of things. She trains and supervises all new caregivers at her home and is very hands-on in the day-to-day processes around the home too.

On a day-to-day basis she still: makes breakfast for the children, cleans, farms does office work, and sits with the children watching cartoons, talking, and playing.

When I ask Regina what she would like to do for herself, she hesitates for a beat and answers with obvious glee in her voice, “take a holiday. I haven’t had one since the home started, I cannot afford to really do it can I? The best I can do is take a few days to go upcountry with my husband and leave my daughter Angie in charge, then I am sure that the kids will be well looked after and that any arising emergency will be dealt with sufficiently.”

Regina wishes that the government would help especially with the kids with special needs whose expenses at times can be hefty; from their therapy, equipment, and regular hospital visits. Quite a few times, they have to fundraise just to cope with these expenses.

There are qualities that Regina considers integral to being a caregiver including: “one has to have a genuine love for the children she/he’s taking care of, being able to love the kids as if they were your own will help you when making certain decisions, for caregivers taking care of kids at times you have to be willing to sacrifice your time and comfort to take care of them and their needs, be flexible, self-motivated and see it as a service rather than tedious work.”

Regina is at peace though because she has been allowed to live and fulfill her destiny and she speaks with pride in her voice recalling all the times her family came through for her.

“Angie allows me to relax because we started off with her during the difficult times and she knows everything to do with the running of the home. The children love her like a mother and she has even adopted one of them, a girl she shares a birthday with. My granddaughter is very smart and Angie loved her from the moment she first laid eyes on her. The kids at the home love her but also know her as the disciplinarian and they fear her authority more than they do mine. I’m comfortable knowing Angie will always be there and that should I retire and go upcountry with my husband, my family will take up the mantle. Angie is most like me as she has a big heart, this spirit of helping others seems to run in the family.

My husband embraces what I do and would you imagine that at the beginning, I used to take three infants and put them in bed with us and he wouldn’t mind. In fact, during the night when they woke up, he would take one to feed while I fed the other two, that’s how supportive he has been and I thank God for him all the time because finding a spouse who supports your ambitions unconditionally is difficult.”

Undoubtedly, Regina’s family has helped her get through the various difficulties caregivers of large groups go through, alleviating the mental, emotional and physical exertions she has had to go through. A strong and ever-present support system is one of the most important aspects of a caregiver’s life.

The ‘mother of many children isn’t done yet though, she still hopes to impact the lives of many more children, giving them hope and a safe space to call home and when she’s gone she knows others will rise and take the baton that she battled and sacrificed for, her home is in safe hands.

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