Megan Gilbert: Hello, everyone. My name is Megan Gilbert and welcome to Strengthening Families: Fostering Safe and Nurturing Families.
We all know that every child deserves to grow up in a safe and loving family, but far too many families around the world struggle to stay together because parents just don’t have what they need to provide proper food or health care or education for their children. That forces parents to make difficult, painful choices that lead to families being separated.
Here at CRS, we know it doesn’t need to be that way. We have a goal of helping one million children live in strengthened families, so that they are able to grow up and reach their full human potential in a safe and nurturing environment.
We are going to show you how we are already doing this, but also how we plan to continue to do this work over the next 10 years. I have four guests with me today, Bishop Kevin Boland, who is Bishop Emeritus of Savannah, Georgia. He is also a CRS Foundation board director. Mike Wolohan, CRS Foundation board director and orthopedic surgeon. He will join us from Saginaw, Michigan. Shannon Senefeld, senior vice president of Overseas Operations. Shannon will join us from Tel Aviv, Israel. And Barbra Aber, is the regional family care technical advisor. She is based in Uganda. She will join us from there.
Shannon, I will begin with you. Our goal here is to make sure that families don’t get separated in the first place, and families who have been separated, we want to bring them back together. But before we get to how we go about doing all of that, I’d really like to talk more about the why. So, why are families being separated in the first place?
Shannon Senefeld: Thanks, Megan. It’s a really complex issue for most people to understand, especially for those of us who have kids. What would be the reason that would lead to families being separated? I think oftentimes, people assume that it’s a choice that parents are making, maybe because they don’t want their children but what we actually see in reality, is that the majority of cases are due to things that are outside the family’s control.
One of the biggest reasons is underlying poverty. Families oftentimes don’t have the means to support their children. So they have this heart-wrenching decision, right? To keep the children with them, or to try to separate from their children to find a better life for them. That sometimes results in migration, where parents are migrating to find work and leaving their children behind. Sometimes migrating with their children but being separated at some point along the journey.
Sometimes parents just don’t have the resources to pay for things like education. They can’t provide an education for their children, they can’t cover school fees, or they have children who have disabilities and they can’t cover the services that the child needs for their special disability services that they might need or access to health care, and so then parents simply don’t have the resources to provide those things that the children need, and that’s just devastating, to not be able to provide the care that you might need for your child. There’s so many examples in real world time right now, about devastating humanitarian circumstances, where families are torn apart.
Overarchingly, I would say that the majority of the cases are not within the parents’ immediate control, or the parents believe that they don’t have the immediate control. In fact, the majority of the cases are that the parents do want to be with their children, but they also want to provide their children the very best life possible.
Megan Gilbert: I really think that’s what’s so heartbreaking. When you think about it, the parents are doing this because of how much they love their children, and they want to do what’s best for them. So, Shannon, how are we addressing those root causes? How are we bringing families back together and making sure that they can stay together?
Shannon Senefeld: So, it’s as complex to respond to the problem as it is to describe the problem. We’ve decided at CRS that this is so important, that we really need to prioritize families. It’s aligned with our values—our mission as a Catholic agency. We believe in the importance of family, and we know how important it is for children to have a loving family to grow and to thrive in.
And so, we’ve decided this is one of our strategic priorities all the way through 2030. We’re trying to support one million children to stay in their families and thrive in their families during that time. And we’re doing it throughout the world, whether it’s migration in Guatemala, whether it’s disability in Moldova, or poverty in Uganda, we’re looking at addressing those drivers, those root causes, the reasons that the children are in care.
For the poverty issue, we can’t solve all poverty, right? But we’re doing a lot of work to make sure that families have what they need to care for their children—to meet their essential needs. So, we’re providing savings and internal lending groups. We’re providing financial education to parents, so that they know how to save money, they know how to reinvest it into their own businesses. They know how to budget. We’re working with the governments in those countries to provide cash grants to the families, so it’s not just CRS forever, but the governments are also working and learning how to do this, to provide cash grants for the families to take care of their children. It’s actually cheaper to take care of the children in their families, than it is in another environment. We’re also working with the schools, to make sure that the families have vouchers so the children can go to school where they live, without being separated from their children. And we’re providing access to key services, social services.
You know, I mentioned earlier, disability. This is a hard one, because you’re in so many of these communities where there might not be services for children with disabilities. But we’re working with the parents to provide training on how to care for children with disabilities. We’re working on improving health and social service outreach within the communities so that the children can get outreach services. We’re working with the schools, to train them on how they can educate children with disabilities within the community.
So, it’s a really comprehensive approach and through it all, we’re working with our local partners on the ground, who are oftentimes our local Caritas and in a lot of countries, sisters. So, women religious in a variety of countries who are providing care and services and outreach to the families who are struggling with these issues. And for anyone who’s had a Catholic education and had seen the sisters at work, you know how powerful they can be.
Megan Gilbert: Yes, our work with the sisters is a very powerful experience and they’re wonderful partners. All of this is just a reminder of how much we all need support raising our children. None of us do this by ourselves. Thank you so much for sharing that, Shannon.
I want to go now to Barbra in Uganda. Barbara, you do this work every day. Can you describe what that support looks like?
Barbara Aber: Thank you, Megan. I would like to start by introducing you to Ezekiel and Dembe. Ezekiel was sent to live in an orphanage after his parents separated, and sadly, his mother could not afford to care for him, and felt that the orphanage would offer her son a better life. She was faced with a heart wrenching decision, really: “Should I stay with my child, or give him to someone who can better take care of him?” It was by no means an easy decision to make.
Not long after Ezekiel was placed in the orphanage, his mother really wanted him back, but she thought, “Well, he’s in school. He is being cared for, and he’s probably better off.” So, he stayed in the institution for over a year, until CRS approached the orphanage, offering to support the reintegration of children in their care, back into their families. CRS social workers successfully traced Dembe and assessed her potential to care for her child, Ezekiel. They all received case management support to prepare them to receive the child back home. They all received counseling, and reunification support, and after it was confirmed that the family environment was safe and secure, then CRS helped Ezekiel to return home.
CRS social workers continued to monitor and support Ezekiel and his family to post reunification, to help them with some of the challenges that they continued to face as a family. This involved working with the district, and with community leaders, to address for example, and help the family with challenges of, for example, moving into new housing and even helping Ezekiel, his mother and stepfather to resolve some of the conflict in the household that was largely linked to financial distress. The household also, luckily, received a cash grant that Dembe used to diversify the household income. She excitedly shared with us how she was able to buy some goats, some pigs, some chickens, and even started a rosemary garden. She also kickstarted a broom-making business where she produced and sold brooms within her community, all of which helped to diversify the household income.
As a result of all these income generating activities, Dembe was able to improve her family’s livelihood—to improve, for example, their shelter. But most importantly, this gave her the confidence that she could appropriately provide and care for her family. Ezekiel is now home, growing up happy and healthy, and surrounded by his family that now also includes two new siblings. He was also able to receive a scholarship that will allow him to continue with his secondary education. And Dembe is now an ever so confident mother, who is so grateful that she gets to hug her son every morning, to kiss him and hug him on his birthday. To talk and laugh with him. To share in those moments that strengthen the mother and child bond.
That is what we’re trying to do. That is really what family strengthening is all about. We are also looking at how we can continue to support this family, in the event that anything else happens, by continuing to work with the government. As I conclude, not so long ago, Ezekiel’s mother shared with us something that we thought was really profound. She said, “I am so happy that Ezekiel gets to grow up in my care. I am so grateful that he knows who I am, that he knows that I am his mother.” That really is what we’re trying to do, to restore human dignity by strengthening families and rebuilding them so that they are able to provide for their family. Thank you.
Megan Gilbert: Thank you for sharing Ezekiel’s story, Barbra. All I could think about is we want to do that for one million more children, one million more Ezekiels. And that is really powerful to think about. Barbra, you’re a social worker and I’m sure families share their struggles with you quite often. What is one of the things they tend to talk you about the most?
Barbara Aber: When families talk to me, they essentially really talk to me about their love for their children. Like Shannon already mentioned, children are really a blessing from God that families do value. But it’s important that we understand the motivation behind separation, what we call drivers of separation. There is a misconception that children living in residential care facilities, also known as orphanages, often are there because their families did not want them, that they have nowhere else to go, that they’re probably better off there.
But we’ve actually found that that’s often not the case. Children living in extreme poverty struggle with malnutrition, struggle with preventable childhood diseases, and school dropout. But all of these problems can be addressed within the family setting.
In Uganda, for example, we’ve been working with the government and other partners, to support and promote reintegration efforts in the country. We, for example, supported the reunification of over 108 children back into their families by working with institutions and residential care facilities. An additional 280 children have since gone home, as a result of our coaching and mentorship to these institutions to better improve practice and focus on the support of children within the household settings. We’ve also worked with the government to assess and train and identify foster parents to provide a family-based option for those children that may not be able to actually go back home.
We’ve also taken a particular interest, like Shannon mentioned, on the area of disability, specifically children with disabilities. In Uganda, this is one of the big drivers of separation. So, we’re working with organizations such as, for example, Ekisa Ministries, that specializes in working with children and families with disabilities. Ekisa programs focus on addressing the problems that children with disabilities and their families face, but with really a focus on addressing the very root causes of some of these challenges. We really hope to continue such partnerships and associations so that we can do even more for children and families.
Megan Gilbert: Barbra, thanks so much for sharing your work and your stories with us. Shannon, I’m going to turn back to you for a moment. Private philanthropy plays such a crucial role in the work that we do. So, how is that essential to strengthening families?
Shannon Senefeld: It’s completely essential to this work. You know, we’ve been very fortunate, very blessed at CRS to have a very strong donor base and that has really enabled us to provide the support that we’re providing. You know, Barbra outlined this very comprehensive strategy example from Uganda. And again, we can’t do this for every single child, and every single family, but what we aim to do is to get it going, to train the government, to train the local partners, etc., so that they can keep going in the long term and have a sustainable response.
But that private philanthropy, the Go FAR campaign, has been really critical to helping us get things off the ground, to help ensure that we have the funding available to reach the folks at the very end of the road, who might not get services otherwise. That’s really what we do. We’re focused on those people that others may have forgotten. And the private philanthropy really enables us to do that, to show the importance of doing that, and to show the success of doing that, and the real outcomes we can have on real people’s lives.
Megan Gilbert: Thank you, Shannon. That commitment from our supporters is so inspiring. I would like to turn now to Mike Wolohan. Mike, you and your family have such a long history with CRS. How did you get involved?
Mike Wolohan: Thank you, Megan, and greetings everyone. Appreciate the invitation to share a few thoughts today. My name is Mike Wolohan. I live in Saginaw, Michigan. Our family, we’ve been involved as a partner and supporter of CRS since the 1960s, initially through my mom and dad, Dick and Angela Wolohan. And they created a family spirit, if you will, or family goal of helping others and have tried to promote that in multiple generations. They founded our family foundation in the 1980s. And since that time, CRS has been our largest and best-in-class partner.
We’re incredibly impressed with CRS and as we’ve developed our relationship, the more we know the more impressed we are. And particularly attractive to us is that we believe allocations to CRS represent great stewardship. We get a financial multiple through the CRS partnerships with USAID and agriculture and World Bank and so on. And then we also get a multiple on the ground through Caritas and other organizations that CRS partners with locally. So, if you will, an allocation of X might actually multiply to 10 or 12X in the field. We believe that’s exceptional stewardship and the impact that is created, is innovative, sustainable and is also, frankly, remarkable. So, we have many reasons to very much appreciate our partnership with CRS.
Megan Gilbert: Thank you for those kind words. Mike, why does this strengthening families platform resonate with you so much?
Mike Wolohan: So, when we found out about the Go FAR Campaign, and if you will, the 2030 CRS vision, we were excited and delighted to hear about that and we wanted to provide some meaningful support. So, we actually reached out to our family, particularly the younger generations. Many of the young people have young families of their own. And we asked them, we had a survey, and we had a dialogue about what was attractive to them in terms of what they’d like to support.
And while all of the aspects of the campaign obviously are extremely important, our young people with their young children were particularly drawn to supporting families. We see family support is foundational. That is to say, for the children and all family members, all aspects of life can be addressed and supported through the family—nutrition, education, shelter, safety, economic opportunity, and really those kinds of things are vitally important for the health and well-being of the children and really of the family unit. And then on a grander scale, the greater family of the community and society.
Megan Gilbert: Mike, I know you have traveled to see some of CRS’ work in person. Can you share some of those experiences as you’ve met with families?
Mike Wolohan: Well, that’s been one of the great blessings that we’ve had the opportunity to visit with families. So, we were in Uganda in a particularly poor and disadvantaged part of Kampala. And we were welcomed into a home of a woman who had a family of her own. Her home was probably the size of a bedroom, if you will. She had her own family. I believe she supported her family by providing some service to the surrounding families and area around her. I believe she did some laundry. Her monthly income was about 25 U.S. dollars, about $10 a month was spent in rent for her home, which represented about 40% of her income.
This very gracious kind lady invited us into her home. We met her family. She actually adopted a youngster with AIDS that nobody in the community would support or have. So, having that experience of being invited into that woman’s home, and then seeing her incredible personal generosity in adopting this additional child, there was really powerful messaging there for us on the importance of the family. And it was a tremendous experience.
One other brief anecdote, in Haiti, devasted by a hurricane. Folks lost everything. And we visited a more remote area of Haiti and the family there had nothing. Mother and her children, she actually took her family and went to sit on the local church steps, hoping for help. The CRS folks arrived and they had, of course, their protocol and process for restoring folks’ hope and dignity. They helped the woman rebuild her own home and her quote in describing this experience in her own home was that when CRS arrived, she felt as if God himself had come to help her.
Megan Gilbert: Wow! That’s really great to hear. Seeing our work in action can really be a life-changing experience. Thank you for your support of CRS and for sharing your insights on how CRS strengthens families all over the world.
Barbra, I have one last question for you. You work with families all the time. What brings you hope?
Barbara Aber: Wow, great question, Megan. I think when I think about the future and what I want for every child, I think about my six-year-old niece. Every year she makes a list of, not of presents, like any normal child would do. But of people, interestingly, of people that she wants to share and celebrate the day with. So she’ll have a list of Barbra, auntie Barbra, uncle so and so. And you’re like, “Really?” And she’s like, “Yes. These are the people I want to share the day with.” So, for us, that indicated that she understood and appreciated the value of family and of relationships with the people that we love.
And she knows this and appreciate this because we did this, we instilled this in her. She feels confident and loved. Imagine if every child felt this way, if they could experience that. That is what I want. That is what I envision our future to look like. I really believe that if we strengthen families, we do secure the future of our children.
Megan Gilbert: Thank you so much, Barbra, for sharing those stories. Bishop Boland, you’ve been our silent partner in this discussion so far but I know family life is very important to you. Do you have any final thoughts?
Bishop Kevin Boland: I want to make the observation, first of all, to thank you for your dedication, your commitment and the magnificent presentations, especially in regard to the state of family life and how it was presented. And the great need and observation that if we can strengthen families, then we strengthen nations. We strengthen all of our lives. And so, I want to commend all of you for your great work and your dedication to God’s work.
Loving God, we praise your name, bless our efforts to bring loving support to the multitude of families who are in critical need of physical and spiritual assistance. We’re mindful of the fact that the child, Jesus, was presented in the Lord’s temple. Give us the courage and the wherewithal to strive with special diligence in bringing love and care to all the children and their families, that they also may be presented to the Lord in his temple. We thank you for the graciousness and the goodness of all of those involved in this undertaking. Amen.
Megan Gilbert: Bishop Boland, Mike, Barbra and Shannon, thank you for sharing your thoughts and stories today around this very important topic. If you would like to learn more about how we work to strengthen families or are interested in the other priorities of the Go FAR campaign, you can go to gofar.crs.org. Thank you so much for joining us. Until next time.