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Running for Retrak: Week 6

16:13 19/03/2013

Developmental psychologist Julyata Shibru manages Retrak’s drop-in centre in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which reintegrates street children with their families, educates them and organises vocational training to help them fulfil their potential. She explains what the centre does and how donations to the charity can help change children's lives. 

Who is the drop-in centre for?

We cater for 50 to 55 homeless boys at any one time, aged from seven to 17. Our outreach team go out at night to where homeless kids sleep and spend time with them to build up a relationship and trust. They then invite the boys to come to the centre – some accept, some refuse, especially if they have been on the street for a long time – then we welcome them, show them the services we offer, take care of registration and arrange counselling. We also get children through referrals from government bodies.

There are many reasons why these boys end up on the streets. Some come to Addis Ababa out of curiosity; for example, if they come from a small village, a friend might encourage them to see the big city, or they think they can make their fortune if they come here. Other factors are the divorce or death of their parents and being unable to learn in school. 

What happens at the centre?

Boys come to us from all over Ethiopia, and we provide them with breakfast, clothing, playtime, education, counselling and basic life skills like personal hygiene. They sleep at a separate centre nearby. Once the boys are registered, we can start to come up with a plan for each child. Some kids already have a clear idea of what they want to do with their lives; others need direction and encouragement to explore what choices are available. We train them to live independently and we have a foster care programme.

Some go on to vocational training, especially if they’re older or have no family. For others, we go with them to help find their family so they can be reintegrated with relatives. It can be difficult – many of the boys don’t know where they come from, so we ask them to remember a landmark like a market or a school or a church, for example, that can help our team track down their home town. A social worker will spend time with a boy and his family to make sure it’s appropriate for them to stay together. Most do engage with their families, but it often depends on why they came to us in the first place. The child’s safety and wellbeing always come first. 

What success stories have you had?

We’ve had some amazing boys who have gone through vocational training. What they do is up to them and we have a specialised social worker to help them work this out. It also depends on the market. We’ve had boys studying tailoring, cooking, hairdressing and all sorts. We even had one boy who wanted to be a chef and is now working at the Radisson Blu hotel in Addis Ababa. We see them striving to integrate with the community and make something of their lives.

How is the centre funded?

We get no funding locally, and much of our resources comes from charities in the UK. We have 30 people here including project and support staff; they are all full-time workers and come from the area, occasionally supplemented by overseas volunteers for a week or two at a time. The money people raise goes towards essentials such as food, clothing and the costs involved in reintegration. 

What’s the atmosphere at the centre like?

There’s no fear here, I’ve noticed. Sometimes I come to the office and the children are already here, eager to come in and start playing. There’s such a difference in them after their first week – as time goes by they start smiling and you see the peace in their faces. I love the atmosphere and team spirit; it’s amazing and a pleasure to work here. I’ve been here almost two years: the time goes very fast because as you work you see the changes, it’s so motivating. I’m not saying it’s not challenging. It’s chaos sometimes with more than 50 boys! And if the government brings more to us we don’t say no; if there’s a child on the doorstep we don’t turn them away. 

I’m running the Brussels 20k in May to raise funds for Retrak’s work with children at centres like this across Africa. I’m also donating my fee for this weekly column to the cause. If you’d like to help, you can donate via their website or sponsor me

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Written by Sally Tipper