How mothers’ hearts alleviate poverty and prevent family separation

By Stephanie Johnson

When I get the chance to chat with a mother I’m working with, I always ask this question: “What are your dreams for your child?”

Mothers often give me answers like these:

  • “For my son to grow up healthy and strong.”
  • “For my daughter to go to school.”
  • “For my children to have a better life than I had.”

These are the dreams in the hearts of many parents and caregivers from the Family Preservation and Empowerment Program I work with in Zambia. They’re the dreams of parents around the world. From a multitude of histories and cultures, most families and communities would affirm that they want their children to flourish.

This is the human point of connection for many of our program’s U.S.-based staff and donors as well. We support family-based programs in Zambia because we share a dream for every child to have food, shelter, education, and most importantly, a family. Yet our plans alone would have evaporated without the hearts of Zambia’s mothers:

  • Mothers who want to fill their children’s bellies.
  • Mothers who want to pay for their children’s textbooks.
  • Mothers who want to lay a strong foundation for their children’s flourishing.

These physical realities have spiritual dimensions, and we long for all our programs to be sites of communion where our staff and these mothers, together, encounter the generous initiative of God through the love of Jesus for them and their children.

Difficult dilemmas for mothers

Soon after Jennie Woods and Sandra Levinson first arrived in Zambia in the mid-90s, they began to hear stories about the so-called orphaned and abandoned babies brought to the House of Moses, the crisis nursery of the Alliance for Children Everywhere (ACE) in Lusaka. While there were many babies truly separated from family due to illness, death, or abandonment, there were also many babies whose mothers and caregivers were still alive.

Sadly, this scenario was, and is still, all too common for mothers and caregivers in Zambia and around the world. In fact, up to 90 percent of children living in orphanages and institutions worldwide have living family members. When a mother experiencing material poverty faces the choice between family separation or her child’s death, her choice is most often clear. It would be better for her child to grow up apart from their family than die in their family’s home.

Jennie and Sandra asked mothers what would help preserve their families from separation. And the mothers consistently responded that food, economic opportunities, and education could resolve many of the challenges that threaten their children’s lives and family bonds. Most mothers wanted a better choice than either institutionalization or death. In response to these mothers, Jennie and Sandra partnered with local church leaders to establish the Family Preservation and Empowerment Program.

Even the best institutions will struggle to replicate the long-term benefits of a mother’s love.

Offering mothers better choices

The program began with emergency food relief, and eventually expanded to include job-skills training and community savings groups led by Zambian staff. Annually, it serves 350 mothers and caregivers of children under age five. Mothers like Nomah.

When Nomah gave birth prematurely to her daughter Olipa, her heart filled with both love and worry. It was clear that Nomah’s baby was a fighter. Yet Nomah had experienced a lifetime of challenges as a result of historical marginalization and social exclusion that seemed too big for her little baby to overcome. Since Nomah experienced hunger, her body did not produce enough milk for Olipa. And the high cost of infant formula kept this option out of reach for Nomah due to her experience of material poverty.

Nomah told me, “When my daughter was born, I did not know where to turn for help. She cried often from hunger, and I worried that my only child would die.”

For Nomah, everything began to change when she followed her neighbor’s referral and sought out our team at the House of Moses in Lusaka. Nomah shared her worries with our staff and immediately gained access to an emergency supply of infant formula, vitamins, and food staples that brought much-needed stability, both to mother and daughter. With this safety net alleviating some of Nomah’s fears about survival, she could devote more of her energy to thinking about the future for herself and her daughter.

The long-term benefits of a mother’s love

That was two years ago. Since then, Nomah and Olipa have remained enrolled in our program. The family continues to access monthly food relief while Nomah completes training as a tailor. One day, Nomah dreams of becoming self-sustaining and free from reliance on ACE’s programs. Nomah told me recently, “I will take my sewing studies seriously, to give my daughter a strong future.”

We are overjoyed that Olipa is alive and healthy, and growing up in Nomah’s care. After all, scientific studies are finally catching up to something that a mother’s heart already knows: babies need a secure attachment just as much as food, shelter, and clothing. Even the best institutions will struggle to replicate the long-term benefits of a mother’s love.

First, I ask mothers like Nomah about their dreams. And then, I also ask about the ways we can improve our program. Their responses are consistent with the evaluations conducted by experts in poverty alleviation:

  • “I want capital to purchase my first sewing machine.”
  • “I want to know how to operate a successful business after graduation.”
  • “I want to learn how to manage my earnings.”

Partnering to empower moms

Most recently, ACE has partnered with Chalmers Center to improve and scale our program according to best practices in holistic economic development. Soon we plan to pilot components of the Ultra Poor Graduation Model, described by Innovations for Poverty Action as an approach that “address[es] the many challenges of poverty simultaneously” including livelihoods, skills training, safety net, savings promotion, coaching, and health. This model has proven to result in real-life benefits for participants who report more financial gains, hours of work, and health, as well as lower levels of hunger and stress.

With these exciting developments, our vision remains a guiding star: Every child was created for a permanent, secure, and loving family. Mothers and caregivers live at the heart of our work, where new possibilities for innovation are considered, tested, and implemented. While we are proud of our team’s accomplishments to advance family-based programs in Zambia, we proudly share these successes over 20 years with hundreds of mothers and caregivers like Nomah whose love, courage, and persistence made it possible.

Stephanie Johnson is director of communications and development at Alliance for Children Everywhere. She would like to honor Chilala Nyendwa Shilimi, manager of the Family Preservation and Empowerment Program in Lusaka and the ACE Zambia team, who provide hundreds of families with uninterrupted access to food relief and economic empowerment.

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