By Jaclyn Bonner
Abandoned, isolated, alone -- this is the fate of thousands of children in Sierra Leone who have been orphaned by the deadly Ebola virus. Although the Ebola scare is no longer prominent in international headlines, the devastating effects of the outbreak have changed a surfeit of lives.
A 2015 report* found that more than 12,000 children in Sierra Leone have lost at least one primary caregiver to the disease. The average Ebola orphan is 9 years old.
Restore Hope, a faith-based ministry that serves Ebola orphans in Sierra Leone, explains that children lose more than just their parents to the disease. The psychological impact of witnessing loved ones die, coupled with the stigmatization and societal ostracism that follow, frequently overtakes the drive to maintain even primary functions of life. Marginalization, trafficking, insufficient education, and failed psychological recovery often time become the tragic reality for children who are orphaned by Ebola and have no support or care.
The Hope Center, Restore Hope’s Interim Care Center created as a response to the spread of Ebola in West Africa, cares for the physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being of 30 children at a time. Children typically come to the center malnourished and sick with malaria, typhoid fever, anemia, or mumps. When they arrive and during their time in the program, they are given medical care by full-time nurses and three daily vitamin-rich meals provided through the Texas Baptist Hunger Offering.
The Hope Center is a safe haven for children, offering love and attention, a community of caregivers and peers that understand their situation, individual counseling sessions, schooling, and exposure to the gospel. “I am seen. I have worth. I can do more, be more,” is the mentality instilled in the children.
After the program concludes, children are placed in new families. “Some of their distant relatives who attended the reunification ceremony to witness the reintegration process were without words,” commented head matron Hawa Vandi.
Familial reunification is not the final step taken by Restore Hope. The ministry is providing case management services including counseling, educational support, and transitional nutrition to 120 children who have completed the program and are settling into family units. Children have the opportunity to reconnect with their cohort and meet other Ebola survivors. Additional community-based initiatives and a skills training program are being developed to support new family caregivers and foster the creation of healthy environments.
“Within this short-term program, we see long-term investments unfold,” said Aaron Pierce, director of international operations at Restore Hope. “Children receive restoration of mind, body, and soul as they walk through the program coming out with a renewed identity of love, value, and hope.”