Editor’s note: For several years, WND has monitored the growth and accomplishments of Little Angels, a Christian home/hospital in South Africa run by Phillip and Pat van Rensburg who care for abandoned, HIV-positive babies. WND spoke to the van Rensburgs recently about their current efforts.
WND: What was the genesis of Little Angels and how did it develop?
Little Angels: It began with us having taken individual babies into our family home to love and care for until they could be placed in their own forever family. Soon after we began doing this, the HIV/AIDS issue became common knowledge, and the rate of abandonments rocketed. Thus began our journey into multiple simultaneous placements. After two years of busy but low-key operating, the community became involved, and we took in our first helper. Soon after this we got extensive (albeit unwanted) exposure through radio and TV interviews, and we started gaining a reputation for first-class baby care and specialization in HIV/AIDS home-based care.
We had an average of ten to 12 babies in care then, and in view of the loving and nurturing care they received, most became well enough to be adopted. This led to fairly high and regular baby turnover, so that by the middle of last year, we had cared for some 140 in total – of whom only nine had died of full-blown AIDS.
Our high standard of home care became recognized by local hospitals, and in view of our willingness to learn, we were approached by medical and social services to take in various special-needs babies and children (many of whom are also HIV-exposed). We have been trained to care for some high-risk medical cases, and although our desire is to expand this calling, our single biggest challenge is the lack of funds to employ suitably trained nursing help. To date, we have cared for 150 in our own home. However, since the beginning of this year, we have also taken on the care and support of a further 200 or so needy children in a neighboring impoverished community through our outreach projects.
WND: How would you describe your relationship with the media?
Little Angels: In general, we keep it as low-key as possible. We had some good articles and exposure – and often people have used this against us. We have had some unfortunate and sad exposure, influenced by non-Christians who thrive on negativity.
WND: What about your relationship with the South Africa’s African National Congress and President Thabo Mbeki?
Little Angels: We do not have any relationship with the ANC nor with Mbeki. We very much doubt that they even know of our existence and, if they do, it certainly means nothing. We would prefer to play low-key as far as government is concerned, as they provide nothing in the way of support and, the way we see it, we and others like us are an embarrassment to them, because we are doing their work for them at a far higher level of care and efficiency than the existing government institutions – and all with funding sought through the private sector. This, we might add, at enormous cost in terms of time, effort and manpower. The private sector is fast becoming “charitied out,” what with hundreds of charities knocking on their doors daily.
WND: What about the racial aspect. With Little Angels you have whites caring for abandoned and very sick mainly black African children. How does that play out in a country like South Africa, which still carries around the legacy of apartheid?
Little Angels: People are so used to the stories of babies being abandoned, although each one turns the stomach when you hear it. We have so many weird and sad stories of some who have passed through our home – people struggle to believe the stories – but then you hear other, worse ones. It is not hard to believe, just hard to accept.
We thank God for all who care for abandoned babies. The fact is the majority of caregivers are white, probably because generally speaking, they have more to offer than the black people. White people are most likely to own a house, to have a bit more money, means to help with medical treatments, transport, telephones, access to education, etc. Also, blacks are not readily willing to care for unknown children, because they do not know the ancestry of the child, and they normally have too many kids themselves as it is.
Mostly, blacks are single parents, so they struggle to work and care for a family. Even if whites also work, more often than not, the caregivers are a married couple, making life a bit easier. It is quite sad, though, that the innocent babies and children are forced into cross-cultural homes – because this is the only way out, and one feels for whatever inner struggle they might have as they grow up. But we feel that a loving, caring family is more important than a skin-color issue, and God has His hand on everyone and every situation, so He will help to deal with any issues and turn hurts into acceptance and love for families. Quite honestly, we could not care less what the ANC or any other political party thinks of the issue, because the bottom line is if they were doing their jobs properly, there would not be such a dire need for us to do what we are doing. We would hope that if we did cross paths, they would appreciate what we and others like us are doing, and that the racial divide is being bridged, if even only in a small way.
WND: What is Little Angels doing now?
Little Angels: We’re very busy right now. We try to keep as few babies in care with us to maintain the very important “family unit.” Otherwise, we would just be another institution without the ability to love and care for each one as a whole person. The numbers change here often on a daily or weekly basis, as we offer emergency care to abused, HIV-positive, abandoned or any needy babies, and often they just “arrive,” but we try to keep our numbers here around eight or 10.
Many of our babies have special needs as well as AIDS, so they are a little more complicated to care for. We have quite a few more who come in and out on an irregular basis (like when mom is ill, or when baby is too ill for mom to cope with). We also support, visit and care for quite a few more in their own homes, so that although mom or family is struggling, at lease they are together. About 200 altogether are part of our outreach plan, in informal cr?ches, own homes, or some in no homes at all. For these we source clothing and food, and try to regularly take them out of their sad environment on outings when we can.
There are sad cases among them. The saddest is when there’s substance abuse in their homes and community, with cases like a 4-year-old who has to take care of an 11-month-old baby, as older siblings, parents and even grandparents in the house are all drugged out of their minds and drunk. There is no food, only fighting. We took one such case as part of a group recently to a local burger place for food and play, and found the 4-year-old crawling under tables, eating any little bits that others had dropped – from sheer hunger and out of habit (her only means of survival is scavenging for food).
We are also helping a few teenagers who are pregnant and have no support, often HIV positive and need help, and we spend loads of time distributing goods to various homes and needy communities and meeting with leaders of various projects (mostly informal and unregistered) to assist with training and other issues.
WND: Beyond AIDS, what are some of the other conditions your babies have overcome?
Little Angels: Mud, rain, dirt, ants eating their eyes, pneumonia, tuberculosis, Miasmic Kwashiorkor, starvation, dehydration, fetal alcohol syndrome, being left behind in a garbage dump.
WND: What about your relationship with your neighbors?
Little Angels: Our neighbors ignore us. We had no strife since returning here to our original home in February 2005. Well, nothing direct, but we know they “watch” our every move and one in particular tries constantly in the background to create issues. We believe he is simply racist and does not believe in God. He has no compassion for anyone needy and couldn’t give two hoots about other people’s problems … he just wants them out of “his” area. He has poisoned the other neighbors against us (so he said in a letter to the town planner), but we carry on with what needs to be done, quietly, and with the help of the Lord, so we just pray for His peace around us – and so far so good!
WND: What about your work and its effect on racial solidarity and reconciliation in South Africa?
Little Angels: South Africans are relatively accepting of the need for babies/children to be cared for by others – mostly whites caring for blacks – but there is not enough being done (and our government does nothing to encourage people who do try). Then there are the many who ignore the problems, believing they are “township” issues and should be left there. They make life very uncomfortable for those of us who do try to help.
The public gets quite involved, eager to help hands-on, but definitely from a distance, and they are more keen to hand over used clothing (for which we are certainly grateful) and feel they have then done their bit. Sadly, those bits are not enough for the huge problem we have with so many needy kids. We try to do many awareness (and AIDS) talks in schools, clubs, companies, churches, wherever, and always with a view of encouraging people to take a child into their own family, to get closer to helping these children, but too few do this.
We are aware that some other political parties do recognize the efforts of people such as ourselves. Although we have not yet had firsthand experience of this ourselves, our feelings are that they only become involved when they identify an opportunity to bolster their own popularity and thus, hopefully, ensure themselves more votes.
The local media are quite supportive, and always ready to publish articles and help us with our awareness efforts, but many lose interest as we are not allowed to let them photograph our children. (Their identities have to be protected by law, as they are all wards of the court and cannot be “recognizable” in the media.) We also have to be very careful because often they have printed errors or incorrect information, which can, and already has, led to a huge amount of trouble for us. It spoils our name and image. … For example, we prefer the term “family care” and absolutely hate the term “orphan.”
WND: How are the babies that are in your care doing?
Little Angels: “The babies here now are doing just fine. We lost a beautiful little soul recently, but are at peace now with his death. We have many special-needs cases with us, like two who cannot breathe by themselves and have tracheotomies, and we suction them regularly all day, all night. We have the most gorgeous little girl (a real living miracle) who has hydrocephalus (water on the brain) and has an enormous head, so heavy she could never lift it. She also has four major heart problems, but boy, what a fighter! She has taught us so much about how to live, about strength and perseverance, about being grateful for one day at a time.
We have a beautiful little 4-month-old who was removed from a cocaine addict mother. We have a newborn in care (possibly HIV) from a homeless mother, who will hopefully return to mom as soon as she gets her life going again. We also care for a beautiful little baby who is blind and deaf; we fetched her from hospital a few hours after her birth. Her mom is ill so we spend lots of time with her and support them and her sister. We have adopted three boys ourselves already and have another boy age 6 in care who is a fetal alcohol syndrome child. But he’s doing very well considering his lousy start in life. To go into his sad story would take too long – we would love to write some of these tales in a book one day. Let it suffice to say he is another medical miracle.
WND: In the past, WorldNetDaily reported on social workers like Fiona Brophy sleeping in the garbage dump so as to hear the cries of little babies when they are thrown away. What is going on in that regard?
Little Angels: The very sad outcome of the dump site was the hard reality that by the time the babies arrive in black bags at the dumpsite, it is too late 99 percent of the time, and all the many babies have already died and just slip through the machinery. (The garbage only reaches the dumpsite for processing a week after it has been put out by the people in the suburbs). Our real desire was that Little Angels could employ street people to help sift through the bags when they arrive at the dump, but sadly we soon learned that this would be futile.
WND: How does Little Angels survive financially? As you have said, Little Angels is your home, not a hospital.
Little Angels: Our expenses are quite scary. We rely on God to provide for our home, and He does this so well. Most of the time we have sufficient funds to make it from month to month and then sometimes we near rock bottom. We get no help from government, only a small sum of 13 rand per day for some of the children placed with us. (Most of them are here without any payment to help us, but we never turn a child away –there is somehow always enough food to go around.)
We have to pay typical running costs like electricity, water, telephone, and then we have to pay salaries to a handful of staff. The baby expenses are fairly high, particularly for those who have special medical needs (which the majority of ours do right now). We also get no help with any education, and quite a few are at schools with crippling fees. (Our education bill for this year exceeded 25,000 rand!)
We have to attend private clinics for vaccinations, et cetera, mainly because our special-needs babies just cannot wait out the many hours in state clinics’ waiting rooms, and our HIV testing has to be done by private pathologists also, as the state hospitals can no longer afford to do these. Date-expired bandages – of which we use plenty – cannot be donated or sold to us by law, and tons of these and milk formula are just dumped as garbage even though some manufacturers say they wish that they could help.
WND: How has your work with Little Angels impacted your personal lives?
Little Angels: We do not wish to complain. Naturally, as human beings we get tired sometimes, but have never looked back over the past eight years with any regret whatsoever. We have grown so much stronger as individuals and as a family, and as God’s children. He has been with us all along, and He has seen us through hard times, hectic times, seemingly unbearable challenges, many sad times, emotionally draining times, times of screamable injustices, and also the majority of times of happiness, fun, joy, fulfillment, gratitude, humility, family unity and oneness with Him.
The Lord blesses us all the time. Whether our children are ill or well, you cannot believe how content they are here with us, and we get so much pleasure from caring for them. They give so much affection and love, and they fill our home with happiness and harmony. All who visit our home comment on how peaceful and happy the atmosphere is. He blesses us with so many friends, with goods, with all our needs. He blesses us with His constant presence, with strength and health, and with so many miracles, both small and huge. We really have had so many miracles – another whole story. The Lord has helped us through everything in our lives and it is so wonderful that He is with us in everything, and we live in is power and with His power, because we believe it. Satan is so active and wily – he doesn’t let up for long, but we have God’s power over him, and so we get past him time and again, Praise God!
WND: What about donors who contribute funds to help your work?
Little Angels: They were all special! What really amazed and inspired us was the willingness of people so far away to help, and they all showed such compassion. We are often overwhelmed by the reaction of folks to articles that are printed about us, particularly in the USA and Britain. Although many articles have been printed locally and we have appeared in radio and TV interviews, the response has never been as good financially as when articles are printed overseas. Of course, the absolute bonus for us is that pounds sterling and U.S. dollars translate into many much-needed South African rands. In view of the strength of these currencies, the rate of exchange, more often than not, does wonders for us.
WND: Are people adopting Little Angels babies?
Little Angels: Yes, people are adopting the babies. We have adopted three boys ourselves already, and we have requested to adopt a little 4-month-old girl, if her parent sign consent. We now have a true rainbow family – two white sons, one black son, two Muslim sons, one colored (mixed race) foster son and one Muslim foster daughter. Many of the babies go overseas for adoption, although the first search for a family begins in our country. Most of these babies are black, and for cultural reasons, adoption, even fostering, is taboo, as they don’t know the child’s ancestry. Also, most abandonements are boys, and boys prove too expensive with initiation ceremonies.
On a practical note, there is such poverty in their communities families cannot afford to look after more children. Most have so many of their own who are neglected and suffering. For every 100 babies needing a home, we have only one person/family wanting to adopt in this country. Whites are quite happy to adopt cross-culturally, but our laws still state that a child must be placed in its own culture. By the time all the required procedures of advertising are complied with for cross-cultural adoptions to be condoned by the court, and the HIV testing has been completed, the child has grown considerably. The prospective adoptive family then loses interest, as the majority want a newborn that they can bond with. Overseas folks, however, are grateful for any child, no matter what age, size, color, even those who have medical problems are welcomed overseas – hence so many leaving this country. Sadly, though, no AIDS cases may leave the country, and these are the majority who need families of their own.
WND: What about the issue of baby rape?
Little Angels: The baby rape issue has died down media-sensationalism wise, but it is still happening out there, and in fact we have had a renewed spate of abductions, murders and horror stories of very young children recently. People are wanting to take the law into their own hands, and there was a huge outcry for instance over a child reported missing. Parents were told to only report this after 24/48 hours; then when the search could begin, the child was found already murdered. And this is a same-culture crime – nothing racial. Life is so cheap!
WND: What about your staff? What is a typical day like at Little Angels?
Little Angels: We have four or five staff working here with us, and they do shifts. We also have an office manager and an administration helper/driver. A bookkeeper helps us with accounting. All these folks are paid and work in our family home, where we are volunteer house parents. Our staff stay on the premises with us. Pat cooks for the whole big family and Phillip does most of the maintenance, handyman stuff, and together we share the load of planning, organizing, managing our network, getting events together and maintaining contact with funders.
We all (with our older two sons – 21 and 24 years of age) look after the children. Besides trying to be a normal but large family, and doing as much family stuff together as possible, we spend most of our hours doing admin, and more admin, responding to e-mails, phone calls, seeing visitors, training and interviewing volunteers, training staff, attending training ourselves, doing talks at clubs, schools, companies, churches, etc. and organizing events (to bring in the much-needed money).
We run a busy Help Center (collecting, sorting, cleaning and distributing of clothes and goods) and then, of course, many, many hours a week are spent at hospitals/special-needs clinics with our special babies. We like to take the babies ourselves, so that we have direct contact with the specialists and doctors, as only we know the baby exactly. Then we can work together regarding the best medical care for them. We do any night feeding ourselves (Phillip and Pat), but we do have one staff member in the nursery in the event of an emergency so that when we rush off to hospital, there is always someone in the house with the other babies and children.
WND: Do you ever sleep?
Little Angels: In the beginning there was night and day. Then the days became longer and the nights became shorter. Now night and day are as one, and there is just time. Work time. All the time. And it is good. Yes, we do sleep. We go through stages of broken sleep when newborns come in and we feed through the night. Then as soon as they are in a routine and sleep through, we get to sleep through again until the next one or three or four arrive. Every now and again we find ourselves rushing in to the hospital with an emergency case, and this sometimes leads to staying over for a night or three with the baby, depending on circumstances. Then we get some sleep again. God is good … the bad stuff doesn’t last long.
WND: Looking to the future, what do you see for Little Angels?
Little Angels: We hope that Little Angels will always be a family home, able to provide care for any needy babies and HIV-positive babies, and always have space for emergencies (which is so lacking in our country). We feel sure that we will be called on more in the future to take even more special-needs cases.
We would love to get funds to buy a large (few hectares) piece of land, close enough to an existing community so that we are by no means a separate “village,” where we could slowly put up houses to set up some family care homes, with parents who have between one and six children. These kids could attend local schools and be part of a community while having good families to grow up in.
Editor’s note: Those wishing to donate to Little Angels can get details on the organization’s website.