Thursday, September 17, 2009

Social work grad makes it personal

Community Social Service Worker (CSSW) grad Carli Travers and her husband Robert are hosting a silent auction fundraiser for the children's home they run in Uganda, Africa on Friday, September, 18 from 7-9pm at the Coquitlam Christian Centre, 2665 Runnel Drive. The auction will include paintings by Robert. Admission is free. For more information on the event or details on how you can help Abetavu Children’s Home, contact CSSW instructor John Fox at 604-527-5745. Read on to learn more about Carli and Robert, who gave a presentation at Douglas on Wednesday, and their family of 13.

When Carli Travers went to Uganda in 2006, she was a 21-year-old student in the CSSW Progam. “As soon as we landed, I knew ‘This is where I want to be,’” she told Douglas students and instructors during a presentation at the New West Campus on September 16. Today, Carli and her husband Robert, a native Ugandan, run the Abetavu Children’s Home which they founded and are mom and dad to 11 children. And they recently started a school for children whose parents can’t afford private school.

The Abetavu Children’s Home is unique in that Carli and Robert have taken in and informally adopted nine children who previously either lived on the street or in abusive homes. Their philosophy is that children need a positive family setting where their language and culture will be nurtured, rather than temporary shelter. “We’re committed to these children until they die,” Carli told Wednesday’s audience. She and Robert, who are visiting Canada with two of their sons, took a moment to talk to doug about everything from culture shock to parenting after their presentation.

On culture shock
Robert (who is visiting Canada for the first time): Where I’m from, people on the streets will talk to you and if they don’t know you, they’ll try to know you, say ‘hi’ when you get on the bus or taxi. It’s different here. You get on the bus and everyone puts on their iPods – switch on and keep quiet.
Carli: In Uganda there’s no sense of time, which is a good thing and a bad thing. Here, there’s so much pressure – pressure to be on time, to say the right things, to make sure you do everything properly. We have a stressful life in Uganda, but it’s a different kind of stress here.

Finding the right outlet
Carli: I always wanted to help people but didn’t know what to do. I’d get into jobs where I thought I was helping people but didn’t feel fulfilled, so it was really just more emotionally draining.

A dynamic duo
Carli: We definitely need the teamwork, because we balance each other off that way. With any family, you go through stress at times. We have a lot of stresses that most (Canadian) families don’t face with regards to rent, people coming to turn off your power even though you’ve paid, people deciding your school is not where it’s supposed to be because it’s not zoned for that area. Things just come up out of nowhere. We always want that quiet day but it’s never come and I don’t think it ever will.
The learning process
Robert: We don’t need computers [in our school] because it’s just another process to teach people how to use them. All they need is to have us teach them the basic things – how to write, how to spell, how to say certain words in English, how to behave at home and school. They pick up quick. What I’ve noticed here is children are forced to play. But our children play with anything and create their own games. Sometimes they’re given toys but they don’t know what to do with them. They like playing in the dirt and the mud.

Not everyone understands
Carli: People in Uganda think we’re crazy for what we’re doing. They think we have given our whole lives away. Even when we had an article in the Vancouver Sun a couple years ago, I got emails from Canadians saying, ‘What are you doing? You’re so young. Live your life. This is ridiculous.’ And I couldn’t believe that because for us, that isn’t even in our mind-frame.
Robert: I’ve also had people tell me, ‘Are you crazy? You’re only 24 years old. Instead of taking care of your own children, you’re taking in other children.’ I just ignore it. People think with their mouths…They don’t imagine how I’m living in Uganda. They don’t think I’m supposed to be living there because every person who marries a white person gets to go to America.
Carli: Leaving (Uganda), Ugandans said, ‘Just don’t come back.’ They don’t have any care for the fact that our children are still in Uganda. They think they’re just strangers.

Those who have the least share the most
Robert: The poorest people are the happiest people.
Carli: They’ll give you the shirt of their back. Even when our kids share clothes with kids in our community who don’t have things – because our kids have chosen to do it which is wonderful – the neighbours who have nothing, they still feel the pride of giving us the mangoes off their tree. It’s a neat sense of community that way.

Their family-oriented approach
Carli: I don’t like to use the word ‘fostered’ there because we haven’t legally adopted our children. But it’s permanent. In Canada it’s not permanent. So for our kids, they’ve gone through a lot of trauma. But they know they have stability with us forever. It’s not like a kid who’s in the foster system here who’ll go, ‘Okay, I’m going to be here for a couple months, then for another year I’ll be in another home.’ That’s where we’ve gone wrong in Canada, for sure.

Tips for next year’s Douglas students heading to Uganda
Robert: My advice would be they keep an open mind. Once they get there, they’ll discover changes in their lives. Take that opportunity, whatever changes come into their lives, and keep it real.
Carli: It’s them who are going to be changed, not them who are going to make the change.