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.

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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