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How a Branford woman helps care for families in Tanzania

Bekka Ross Russell (center) is the founder and executive director of an organization called The Small Things, a non-profit working to provide assistance for orphaned or vulnerable Tanzanian children and their families. It started out as an orphanage, but has grown into something much bigger.
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Bekka
Bekka Ross Russell (center) is the founder and executive director of an organization called The Small Things, a non-profit working to provide assistance for orphaned or vulnerable Tanzanian children and their families. It started out as an orphanage, but has grown into something much bigger.

At the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the West African country of Tanzania, the majority of deaths struck people between the ages of 18 and 49 — prime parenting age. It left many children without mothers, fathers or family support systems.

“The way it works in Tanzania is that your mother's sisters are your ‘big and little mothers’ and your father's brothers are your ‘big and little fathers.’ So, normally, they would take over. But during the AIDS crisis, that whole system got completely disrupted,” said Bekka Ross Russell.

Ross Russell is a Branford, Connecticut native and founder and executive director of an organization called The Small Things, a nonprofit working to provide assistance for orphaned or vulnerable children and their families in Tanzania.

“Orphanages stepped in to fill the gap. Often just, you know, wonderful women who were doing what they could to help,” Ross Russell said, about the rise of orphanages during the health crisis.

Her own nonprofit started out as an orphanage, she said, but has grown into something much bigger as the needs of families evolve. She spoke to Morning Edition’s Lori Mack about her work.

“What we see now is that fewer and fewer kids are losing their parents, but more kids are continuing to be admitted to orphanages,” she said. “They're essentially serving as family crisis centers for families that could take their children home with support — often less support than it costs to keep a child in care — but they need the resources to do that.”

Keeping families together

The Happy Family Children's Village, a project of Ross Russell's organization The Small Things, are among the roughly 500 orphanages and care homes in the country helping to serve the 25,000 vulnerable children.

But Ross Russell said recent estimates show over 250,000 Tanzanian children are in need across the country, which means only about 10% are in care.

“Our main focus is on helping orphans and vulnerable children. And we use a family first model, which means that our number one goal is to keep kids with their families whenever that's possible,” she said.

Her effort empowers families by supporting them in creating sustainable small businesses, she said, and by offering services like day care, preschool, vocational training, microfinance, and English computer classes.

“But in some cases, that isn't enough, and children need somewhere safe to stay,” Ross Russell said. “In those cases, we have Happy Family Children's Village, which is a group of family style homes that provide as close to a normal Tanzanian childhood as we're able to provide for them.”

She said of the children who live at the village, they are now able to get half of those kids home with their families by age five, and about three quarters return home by the time they are old enough to go into secondary school.

Addressing HIV education

Some of the family challenges include access to health care. Ross Russell explained how one of the girls in the care of her organizations was HIV positive.

“She needed an extra level of care beyond what her siblings were getting. And after her mom passed away, the grandmother and the father were struggling to kind of keep her healthy,” Ross Russell said.

“She came into care for a brief period of time while she got healthy, because she was really not in good shape when we started out,” she said. “We worked with the family to create a sustainable business so that they're able to afford healthier food.”

The family also learned about nutrition and the girl’s health needs through the program.

“And within a year she was able to return back home and live with her family, where we feel she belongs.”

Working with the Tanzanian government

Ross Russell said she aims to help change policy to address systemic issues.

“Our vision is really looking at how can we shift things across the country, not just for this particular group of kids,” she said. Ross Russell explained that her organization partners with others in the region.

“The Families and Futures Coalition is a group of more than 50 grassroots organizations that are committed to spreading family first models across the country,” she said.

In cooperation with the government, Ross Russell’s group ran a pilot program over the last year.

“They saw the results and said, ‘we want to work together on this.,” Ross Russell said of the approach.

She said grassroots organizations need a way for ethical funders to find ethical organizations and get the money where it's needed on the ground.

“There’s real opportunity for change on an enormous scale,” she said.

Lori Connecticut Public's Morning Edition host.

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