Granny Programs

In South Africa, Caring for Children Awaiting Their Forever Homes – One Granny at a Time

Meet Granny Lizzy

Granny Lizzy

“The bonding and attachment that I have with my children motivates me to continue with the Granny Program. When the children I care for told me I should not go on vacation leave because they miss me, this touched my heart. It also gives me strength to wake up every morning and go to work.”

-Granny Lizzy

When Granny Lizzy first met two-year old Melokuhle* at Othandweni Children’s Home, he was not communicative. He didn’t speak. “I didn’t know what language to even address him with,” Granny Lizzy remembers. She began by sitting next to him and engaging him in play time. Everyday for the first week, she would come in and they would silently play with toys—stack blocks, roll a ball, color with crayons. By the second week, Melokuhle began pointing to the games he wanted to play with his Granny, indicating which he liked and which he didn’t. “He was communicating with me,” Lizzy explained, delighted. Since then, Melokuhle has begun to improve other skills as well, such as writing and properly holding a crayon.

The bond that Granny Lizzy formed with Melokuhle is a testament to the success of the Granny Program, and it is not unique to this pair. All fifteen of the Grannies in the program receive ongoing training to help them connect with and improve developmental skills of the children they care for.

The South African Granny Program—8 Years of Success

Since 2011, the South African Granny Program has helped young children living at the Othandweni Children’s Home in Johannesburg receive special care and attention from local women who live in nearby villages—the majority are mothers and grandmothers themselves.

The Grannies work with occupational and physical therapists to understand the individual challenges that each child is facing, and to learn the skills to help the unique child grow and develop. Some children may be behind in their gross motor skills and may be experiencing difficulty in crawling or walking. Others may have underdeveloped social or behavioral skills and may not know how to communicate their needs or play with others. The Grannies are able to work one-on-one with each child to help them reach developmental milestones.


Many times, the Grannies are able to help the children in ways that the children’s home staff and even therapists cannot, because of the bond that the Grannies form with each child. This was the case with Baby Angel who was three months old when Granny Thandi began working with her. Angel had been attending therapy to help develop her motor skills, but she refused to do the exercises that the therapists recommended. Thandi worked with Angel a little bit everyday until she got used to the exercises. Now, 18 months old, Angel is walking by herself and has even started trying to run.\

The History of the Spence-Chapin Granny Program

In 1998, Spence-Chapin opened its first Granny Program in Bulgaria to address the need for additional interaction between young children and caregivers. The initial relationship between a child and their primary caregiver is a strong predictor of a child’s emotional and physical health, and ability to develop strong attachments later in life. Unfortunately, due to a lack of resources, children living in institutionalized settings are often deprived of consistent, nurturing human interaction. This lack of interaction is correlated to risks of lifelong developmental delays and challenges with healthy attachment. Due to its success, the program was brought to several countries over the next decade. In 2011, Spence-Chapin opened the South Africa Granny Program which currently provides Grannies to thirty children under the age of three. Seeing the impact that this type of program has on children, many other organizations working in South Africa and around the world have since implemented similar models.

Of the fifteen grannies currently in the Spence-Chapin South Africa Granny Program, seven have been Grannies for more than five years, and two Grannies have been with the program since it began.

Granny Thandi is one such Granny—she has been with the South Africa Granny Program since it started in 2011 and has looked after thirteen children, including Baby Angel. “I understand the role that a mother plays in a child’s life. I play that role by being part of the Granny Program. Seeing the children’s self-esteem improve gives me confidence to continue with the program.” For Granny Thandi, her role as a Granny is also personal: “I am motivated to continue with the program because of the stimulation that I provide to the children, which I did not get when I was little.”

The Lasting Impact on Children

The Spence-Chapin Granny Program includes all children under four years old at the Othandweni Children’s Home. Some of the children there are eventually reunited with their families or extended family members, while others are adopted domestically or internationally. Spence-Chapin opened its South Africa Adoption Program with Johannesburg Child Welfare (JCW) in 2013 and has since placed 33 children with loving forever homes here in the United States. While not all of the children adopted were cared for at Othandweni, those that were in care there were paired with a Granny, and their parents have certainly noted the impact that the experience has had on their child’s life—like the life of Levi, who was adopted from South Africa.

Levi and Dad

Levi and Dad

“I could write pages and pages about the impact our Gogo [affectionate name for Granny] Beryl had on our sweet Levi,” mom Jen explains.

“She started seeing him when he was about seven months old and she began taking him to physical therapy. The therapists taught her what exercises to do with him and she did. I have a pediatric physical therapy background and I know that without her interventions and dedication to completing the exercises with him, he would not have been as strong when we went to adopt him. He formed a strong bond with his Gogo—she showed him what love is and that attachment has transferred beautifully to our family.”

Jen and her husband had the chance to meet Granny Beryl when they met Levi for the first time: “I was so grateful to be able to give this woman a hug and my thanks for caring for him so well. At the end of our month-long trip, we made a photo album for her of all the photos we took while we were in South Africa, along with our contact info. She contacted us about 6 months after we came home, by email, and so I send her email updates about Levi regularly. She is his connection to his home, which makes her so very important to us.”

They hope to visit South Africa again soon with their son and will be sure to visit Granny Beryl.

Spence-Chapin hopes in the future to be able to provide more Grannies at more children’s homes in South Africa. In the meantime, the fifteen grannies currently working with children continue to grow their relationships with and fondness for the children in their care.

Read more about the Granny Program and learn about Spence-Chapin’s South Africa Adoption Program here.

*Names of children at Othandweni Children’s Home have been changed

The Children in Need of Adoption in South Africa

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We’ve known for many years that there are children in South Africa who need adoptive families, but it took many years for the governmental permissions to grant Spence-Chapin as an accredited adoption provider in South Africa. Adoptions opened to American families in 2013 and Spence-Chapin has been actively finding families ever since! South Africa is signatory to the Hague so adoptive families have the benefits of the Hague Treaty, which is designed to ensure that international adoption is a transparent, ethical process with an established infrastructure to protect and support children and families.

We made many visits to our partners in Johannesburg, Johannesburg Child Welfare, to visit with their social workers and the children. It became clear that the children in need of international adoption are toddlers and young children with medical needs. JCW shared their proud history of a robust domestic adoption program and finding families for healthy infants. Their social workers noted that even other international adoptive families were not open to adopting children with special needs – and this is where Spence-Chapin knew we could make a difference.

It’s a simple focus: the kids who are the most vulnerable and are in need of adoption. We are their advocates.

The children are living in JCW’s care in the Johannesburg metro region. They are cared for in nurseries with caring staff. JCW partners with a Thusanani Children's Foundation to provide safe and modern medical care to ensure each child receives the medical care they need – HIV testing and treatment, occupational therapy, physical therapy, antibiotics, surgery, well-baby visits, etc.

Spence-Chapin finds families for the most vulnerable children – the children who are ready for adoption and need an international adoptive family. These are kids from 18 months – 10 years old with an identified medical diagnosis. It’s this medical diagnosis that’s been a barrier for domestic adoptive families and other international adoptive families.

There are millions of children around the world living with HIV who are waiting for a family. Years ago, immigration laws prohibited HIV+ children from being adopted into American families. After advocacy, legislation was passed allowing for the intercountry adoption of these children. There are many families open to adopting a child who is HIV+ and have the resources to provide the medical care and love an adoptive family can provide!

Spence-Chapin is an advocate for all types of parents to adopt – single men & women, married and unmarried couples, and LGBTQ parents. It’s exciting for us to partner with JCW who is also open to all types of parents! All types of parents can adopt from South Africa - married couples, unmarried couples, LGBTQ parents, single women, and single men. The South Africa government is committed to a practice of non-discrimination and we’ve seen this be true in our adoption program as married couples, LGBTQ parents, as well as single parents have adopted! It truly is about finding the right parent(s) for a child!

Spence-Chapin sponsors a “Granny Program” at JCW to help the children develop the important socioemotional bonds that needs to accompany childhood. This program brings local women from the community into the nursery everyday. Each granny volunteer is matched with a child and the granny visits everyday and plays with the child – like a surrogate grandparent! We see an incridble progress made by children who are matched with a granny. In South Africa the children call their grannies “gogo”!

Listen to the gogos sing a song!

Are you considering adopting a child with special needs? Children in South Africa are waiting for you! It takes a special type of parent to adopt a child with medical needs. We’re here for you before, during, and after your adoption to provide information and support to your family! Visit our South Africa Adoption page to learn more.

Championing the Waiting Child

South African Orphans

This summer we traveled to Colombia, South Africa and Uganda to explore opportunities to expand our reach to help more children. Visiting these countries and meeting with their child welfare representatives solidified our resolve to find adoptive homes for children there. During our trips, we witnessed the love and care these children receive but also were acutely aware of the staff making do with what little resources they had. In each country we clearly observed the changing face of adoption and saw the many school-aged children, sibling groups and children with special needs who are waiting for a family of their own. Because we feel that that every child deserves a home, championing the adop­tion of these children is part of what Spence-Chapin does. Our time in Colombia was inspiring, encouraging and sobering. Having met with the Instituto Colombiano de Bienestar Familiar (ICBF – The Colombian Institute of Family Welfare within the Ministry of Social Protection), our staff was impressed by the level of care provided to the approximately 9,000 children in their custody. In each adoption house visited, we encountered psychologists, social workers and other professional staff helping children prepare for adoption, and yet no forever families were on the horizon for these children.

In South Africa there is no question about the number of children needing permanency; by 2015 there will be more than 5.5 million orphans in South Africa. As one of just two U.S. agencies approved by the South African Central Authority to place children with American families, we are delighted to partner in this initiative with Johannesburg Child Welfare Society (JCW). Our similar mission and history of having worked together on our Granny program, make this partnership a natural fit. We have officially launched this program and are eagerly accepting applica­tions for adoption. We are excited about placing children with black families as well as families who will open their hearts and homes to the children most likely not to be adopted in South Africa because of their age or medical needs.

Uganda Orphans

In Uganda, we learned about the millions of orphans and their extremely limited options. When parents die some children are taken in by relatives but many others try to survive on the streets. While there, we established a strong relationship with MIFUMI, a Ugandan international aid and development agency. MIFUMI is opening doors for us to explore child welfare and adoption needs in Uganda, and while program development can take some time, we are already looking at opportunities for James, a 5-year-old boy who does not have family to care for him, who does not have a local children’s home to care for him, and with no other option, is living in a domestic violence shelter among women and chil­dren experiencing repeated trauma. We see James and the difficult situations he has already had in his short life, and we are moved to create something better for him and the millions of other children in situations like his.

In the past year, we’ve talked much about the changing face of adoption, but what we know has not changed is the number of chil­dren, particularly older children, sibling sets, and children with special needs, waiting to be adopted. Spence-Chapin has refocused efforts to help all families afford adoption by offering Adoptionships and specialized pre-adoptive parent preparation and training that will enable families to feel more confident about opening their homes to these children. It is with your ongoing commitment and needed support that we move forward with passion and dedi­cation as we refine our vision and enhance our services to these resilient children and their adoptive forever families.

Visit our Flickr page to see pictures from this trip.

Read more about Waiting Children on our site.

What Makes the South Africa Program Different?

First in a series highlighting our new adoption program in South Africa.

South Africa Granny Program

In South Africa, 20 children are reaping the emotional and developmental benefits of having a "granny" through Spence-Chapin's Granny Program.

Moldova: Grannies, Children and a Harvest Festival

Ann Hassan, Spence-Chapin’s Humanitarian Aid Coordinator, posts her second report on a staff visit to Chisinau, Moldova. As we entered the Municipal Children’s Home in Chisinau, which has had a Granny Program since 2005, we walked into an autumn festival! The room was decorated with leaves, branches and fruits of the harvest. It was beautiful, welcoming and also playful—as the decorations were interspersed with children’s artwork. The decor also included folk elements which captured the essence of traditional Moldovan culture. The day kicked off with a well-orchestrated performance by the grannies and children together. The emcee was one of the original grannies who has been with the program since its launch. She was dressed in a traditional costume featuring a beautiful hand-embroidered blouse and vest, with a long skirt and sash in bright colors.  As the children marched into the room, we were delighted to see that many of them were also wearing traditional outfits.

Each group of children had center stage for its presentations—songs, dancing, poetry and games. The performances were so engaging that we couldn’t help humming and clapping to the music. Milena Kazakov, the coordinator for our adoption programs in Moldova and Bulgaria, and I were even able to put our Balkan folk dancing lessons to use, as we were beckoned to join the circle of dancing children and grannies. A staff member’s accompaniment on the accordion kept the energy and spirit upbeat. The way the children watched their grannies as they performed together was a clear visual testament of the bonding that has occurred between them and that is helping the children make developmental progress. We were moved to see how the staff, grannies and children worked seamlessly together in preparing this celebration in our honor.  Before the children went to their rooms for a nap, they gave us pictures made of their handprints as keepsakes of our autumn celebration.

Afterwards, we were treated to a delicious traditional meal including placinta and an intricate round bread with designs of leaves and birds—homemade by some of the grannies.  At the end of the feast, there were speeches. The psychologist who supervises the Granny Program on site gave a summary of how it has been working, which perfectly reflected the concept of the Granny Program.  Then the grannies shared stories about how happy they are to be a part of the program and some of the special interactions they have had with their children.  The Director spoke eloquently about how much she values the collaboration between her children’s home and Spence-Chapin.

With the official business of the day behind us, we were all connecting and communicating with smiles, gestures and the occasional Moldavian word that we had picked up during the day.  Dr. Maria, director of the children’s home, brought me one of the displays as a token gift—a gourd decorated as a snake by the children.  I loved it and wanted to take it home with us to New York.  One of the grannies put it into a box, and the others spontaneously began adding things—fall leaves, apples, branches, and even the bird from atop the round bread. Until there it was…a box brimming with love and appreciation.  We were moved by what this box represents, and the idea that both parties in this long collaborative relationship give just as they receive.  Stay tuned to find out whether we are able to get the box through customs…we hope to share the generous spirit of our Moldovan friends with everyone at Spence-Chapin in New York.

Moldova: An Adoption Journal

Ann Hassan, Spence-Chapin’s Humanitarian Aid Coordinator, is reporting on a trip to Moldova and Bulgaria. MOLDOVA—What a coincidence to arrive in Moldova to visit Spence-Chapin’s two Granny Programs on September 6, the very day that this small nation celebrates Babushka Day, the day of the grandmother! Here with me are Rita Taddonio, Director of our Adoption Resource Center, and Milena Kazakov, Coordinator of our Moldovan and Bulgarian Adoption programs.

Our first visit was to the Republican Children’s Home in the capital city of Chisinau. We drove down a street lined with mulberry trees and pulled into the grounds of the children’s home where we were welcomed by the staff who had been anticipating our visit for several months. Gathered inside were the grannies from both of our vibrant Granny Programs in Moldova. Our host, the Republican Children’s Home, is the site of our Granny Program that started just six months ago in April 2010. Also present were veteran grannies and staff from the Municipal Children’s Home (also in Chisinau), where a Granny Program was initiated five years ago.

This was the first time that all 20 Moldovan grannies gathered in one room to share ideas and exchange stories. It was exhilarating to see a room full of so many people devoted to the same idea—providing love and guidance to children who are deprived of parental care. It was heartwarming to see the familiar faces of grannies we met on previous visits; and to witness the enthusiasm and energy of women who are new to the program.

Everyone came together today in order to attend a training by Spence-Chapin’s child development expert Rita Taddonio.  As she has done previously in China, Colombia and Russia, Rita offered an overview of attachment theory which highlights the theoretical underpinnings of the design of the Granny Program. During the training Rita invited the grannies to share stories about their personal experiences with the kids.  The grannies expressed an appreciation for the practical nature of the training which gave them an in-depth understanding of their role and validated the importance of their day-to-day interactions with the children.

Ending the day on a perfect note, we were treated to a performance of songs and poetry by the children of the Republican Home’s Granny Program.   An adorable young boy of just 5 years old recited a poem written for the occasion:

My Granny is the best!

She shows me how to be.

How to live a good life and respect other people…

This and many other good things kindly my Granny keeps saying.

I know she wants me to grow up protected, happy and healthy.

It was a full day…we returned to the hotel filled with wonderful impressions, ideas and anticipation of what our second day in Moldova would bring.

Visiting the Tula Granny Program

Linda Wright, director of development, comments on the visit she made at the end of March to an orphanage in Tula, Russia, where Spence-Chapin has sponsored a Granny Program to help those children most at risk, through daily, individual attention from women in the community.