Providing orphaned and abandoned children with loving family homes in 125 countries, James Winterkorn of SOS Children’s Villages UK discovers that the charity has plenty of connections with London’s diplomatic community
The diplomatic community in London often considers itself a family, but as I discovered on a recent visit to meet with His Excellency Mr Muyeba Chikonde at the Zambia High Commission, some members of the community have been working hard to create families for those who do not have their own.
For a number of years, SOS Children’s Villages UK has maintained a special relationship with SOS Children’s Village Chipata. Located in Zambia’s fifth largest city, close to the border with Malawi, the village comprises 13 family homes, staffed by wonderful, highly dedicated SOS mothers who care for 130 young children. Beyond this, the village contains a kindergarten to educate the SOS children as well as others from the local community; breaking down any potential stigmatisation is an important factor in providing SOS children with the most natural of upbringings. Furthermore, the village contains a community health centre and maintains a mobile health clinic that has served in excess of 20,000 patients since 2011.
In light of this warm relationship and as SOS Children’s Villages Major Donor Fundraiser, it seemed only correct that I call in on the Republic of Zambia’s High Commission in London. The result of this meeting could not have been foreseen – it surpassed all expectations.
I have always been happy to visit the High Commission, where the welcome is as warm as that experienced on arrival in Zambia itself, where I have visited many times prior to my recently joining SOS. I was shown upstairs to await the arrival of His Excellency, and was greeted by Mrs Irene Chengo who informed me she was joining us. While we waited for the High Commissioner, Irene ventured to me in hushed tones: “I have a confession to make.” Prior to her joining the diplomatic service, Irene was married to the first Village Director of SOS Village Lusaka, the late Mr Robinson Chibangu Kayola. Indeed, Irene had lain grass to seed and planted flowers in the village’s gardens immediately prior to its opening in 2000. Moreover, Irene’s three young children all helped her and Robinson to welcome the SOS mothers and children, bringing warmth to the village.
In normal circumstances, one such fortuitous encounter would suffice. However, there was to be another. After His Excellency arrived, he said to me exactly as Irene had done, “I have a confession to make.” It was almost unnerving…
Before being called to the diplomatic service, Mr Chikonde enjoyed a career as one of Zambia’s most highly regarded architects. Amongst an impressive array of builds to which he contributed, Mr Chikonde participated in the design and construction of the residential and educational infrastructure of the SOS Children’s Villages in Lusaka and Kitwe.
I was truly astonished. Not only do both Irene and Mr Chikonde have their own, entirely independent histories with SOS, but both of them turned out to be self-proclaimed proponents of our work. Even more amazingly, neither of them had prior knowledge of each other’s connection despite having worked together here in London for some time!
Interestingly, their appreciation for SOS’s work came from slightly differing angles. Mr Chikonde was able to assess the work of SOS through employing his expert eye as an experienced architect. He demonstrated a genuine appreciation for the quality of the physical structures that SOS Children’s Villages erects. Whereas Mrs Chengo had wonderful memories of the love emanating from the village. Reflecting on this, and her late husband, she says: “My interactions with the village children was an awesome, moving experience; to see such warm, loving children being given a chance was worth dying for, and I came to realise the true value of giving a child a home, not just an orphanage. It was a miracle how these children bonded with each other and their mothers in each of the fifteen homes that were erected and established at the SOS Village. Totally fulfilling…”
I left Zambia House that afternoon deeply touched, elated but also curious. Who would have imagined that a brief visit would unearth not one, but two such involved histories with our organisation! It left me wondering how many other tales of SOS lie untold amongst diplomats in London…
About SOS Children’s Villages UK
The first SOS Children’s Village was founded by Hermann Gmeiner in 1949 in Imst, Austria. He was committed to helping children in need – children who had lost their homes, their security and their families as a result of World War II.
Today, SOS Children’s Villages is a global charity, which provides orphans and vulnerable children with a stable and loving family life. It protects and improves the lives of children in 125 countries, working with communities to keep fragmenting families together and, where this is not possible, building new families for children at risk.
Working together with local communities and organisations, SOS Villages identifies needs and provides practical and emotional tools for parents and caregivers to prevent family breakdown and child abandonment. With a focus on long-term sustainability, the charity empowers them to reach their potential, move towards financial independence and break the cycle of poverty.
Cared for by SOS mothers, children live together in unique SOS Children’s Villages. They are able to enjoy their childhood and learn skills so that they can grow into active, responsible adults. The charity establishes schools and medical centres to ensure that more children have the opportunity of an education and access to quality healthcare.
As a global authority on alternative care, SOS Children’s Villages work in partnership with the United Nations, advocating for the rights of all children and contributing towards the development of key child protection policies.