'We don't just want these kids to survive we want them to soar'

Story by Sally Harding

Wednesday, 19th June, 2019 4:45pm

'We don't just want these kids to survive we want them to soar'

Gemma and Eddie Dillon with children from the Mother of Peace orphanage

A Navan couple horrified by the conditions children in a South African orphanage were living in was moved to act. Fundraising and organising a crack team of blocklayers, carpenters and plasterers they built a new children’s home that has radically changed the lives of young people there since 2006. Gemma Dillon tells SALLY HARDING how that was only the beginning for the 'Friends of the Mother of Peace

A couple from Navan who fundraised to build a children's home in one the poorest parts of South Africa have begun a new project that aims to provide education to underprivileged children in the impoverished rural area of Illovo. 

Big-hearted husband and wife Gemma and Eddie Dillon discovered 'Mother of Peace' Orphanage in Durban while on holiday in South Africa and were so shocked by what they saw when they came home, they told all their friends. Soon a little group of block layers, carpenters and plasterers was formed and a plan was put in place to start fundraising to rebuild the orphanage.

Gemma says what she saw that day has stayed with her ever since motivating her to do what she can to help improve the lives of the most vulnerable. 

"We had been visiting friends in South Africa for a number of years and had accumulated a lot of things like clothes, household items and bed linen. We were coming to the end of our trips there and was at a local mass one Sunday morning when the priest requested donations to this orphanage so we decided to load up the car with what we had and drive to it.

"We nearly didn't find it, it was in the middle of sugar cane fields. It was run by a South African couple but they had no support or funding and it was about to close.
 Gemma describes the awful conditions the children were forced to live in. 


A team rebuilding the children's home 

"Mother of Peace is an orphanage that looks after abandoned children, most of whom have Aids or are HIV positive. The houses at that time were small squalid homes that were once used by the sugar cane companies with maybe just one room with a leaky kitchen and mould going up the walls. There was a house with a mother and six to seven children in each house. Children had a range of health problems like cold sores and TB, and the with the conditions in which they were living in they spread like wildfire.

"The children were all abandoned because the HIV epidemic took over. The orphanage is only five to 10 miles from Durban but on one side you have the rich and on the other such terrible poverty. You wouldn't believe some of the things that we have seen."

These tragic chains of events led to child-headed households, something that is not uncommon today as Gemma explains,

"The grandparents might step in but then they pass away because life expectancy is so short. You then have a situation of kids raring kids. Children who had no parents might be taken in by an extended family but they wouldn't be allowed into the houses, they had to wait until the kids of the house were fed and anything that was over they were given outside.” 

Gemma and Eddie returned home from that trip determined to make a difference and with the help of a small group of people from Navan, 'Friends of the Mother of Peace'  have been successful in rebuilding the orphanage and transforming the lives of children who faced an uncertain future. 

"We built 13 new houses for them. We put in toilets and upgraded the school and did all of the necessary maintenance work and sent funds out every month for the upkeep and for food, medicine, health checks, surgeries for children, dental work and referrals for their medical conditions.  The medication for HIV when we first went there was very difficult for children to take and caused them great internal organ damage. We put people in place that looked after the needs of these children.


Children from the Mother of Peace orphanage and  left the newly built houses 

"We built an infirmary but we rarely ever had to use it because the medicines that we funded improved the health of the kids so much that we didn't have to isolate them anymore." 

"Over the last 12 years, builders have gone out every year and maintained the buildings that we put in place in 2006. We supported it every month for a number of years until they got some funding themselves. The directive in South Africa now is to try and integrate children into the community with fostering and so on as opposed to an orphanage.

The children that Gemma and Eddie initially met in Mother of Peace are now teenagers and their needs are changing with education being the most important one according to the passionate fundraiser.

"The towns and cities bare no resemblance to the rural areas, some of them don't even have water. This is where you find young girls carrying water on their head, it's a different world. There are 50 or 60 children in a classroom with one teacher.”

Iris Canham, a woman from Johannesburg came on board as managing director of the Mother of Peace orphanage and has now moved out to help the rural area of Illovo where life there is even more challenging. Gemma and Eddie have now turned their attention to focusing on supporting her role in the Indwe Learning Centre, an initiative that aims to foster potential in children who have received little or no education.  

The' friends of Mother of Peace' group at the Boyne walk last year 

"She was promised a building for a school at the beginning of the year in a very poverty-stricken area just a kilometre away from the orphanage but plans for this fell through. A small church in the area offered her the use of their grounds and she began to teach the children under a nearby mango tree. 

"She has 60 or 70 kids queuing up every day. She came across 14-year-olds leaving primary school that couldn't read or write," says Gemma, adding, "they were not fit to take a place in a secondary school even if they got one. Iris has been mentoring them and teaching them how to open a bank account, handle money and other life skills. When we started working here, apartheid had only ended 20 years earlier. The people here never had anything, they could never fight for anything, they had no power, the white people controlled everything.

Gemma and team have started a fundraising campaign for the Indwe Education Programme, 

Business graduate Sanelisiwe Cele (centre) sharing her gown and sash with mentor Iris (left) and sister (right)

"We are hiring a mobile classroom so Iris can use the church during the day and can apply for corporate funding. "We supported her for the first six months with a paid salary and equipment now we are raising funds to support this on a monthly basis."

A 22-year-old girl that Iris was teaching has recently graduated with a degree in business, an unbelievable success story for an orphaned girl who was left to look after her brothers when her parents died.

"She was a triplet, she came in when she was a toddler, one of her brothers has cerebral palsy and another one has mental health issues and she took on the job of looking after them. Iris found her this programme in business administration and she qualified and graduated a month ago and is due to start an internship."

"Iris had absolutely no idea the level of poverty and depravity that was happening a kilometre away, nothing could have prepared her for it, she took a massive leap of faith and love for those kids to do what she did and we want to support her. 

"Indwe is called after the national bird of South Africa which is the Blue Crane and it's called that because the blue crane can soar for miles and she wants these children to soar."

If you would like to donate go to the Indwe Learning Centre Facebook page or contact Gemma Dillon on 046 9072239