Child Restoration Outreach Gives New Hope to Uganda's Street Children
Sabali Opolot.

Child Restoration Outreach Gives New Hope to Uganda's Street Children

Child Restoration Outreach - CRO has helped thousands of children get off addiction to drugs, substances and stop bad behavior like theft, usage of vulgar language and illicit sex.

By Samuel Wamuttu
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First published: February 21, 2009

Sabali Opolot

When Sabali Opolot took to the streets of Mbale town in 1992 it was the running battles with the police that made his already hard life impossible. Little did he know that one day, he would be one of their own, courtesy of Child Restoration Outreach (CRO), a Mbale based NGO that picks children off streets.

Opolot's father death meant his poor mother could hardly look after their five children. There was no food and the family of six were often ridden with sickness as their only shelter was a tiny grass thatched hut on the verge of collapsing. Severe cerebral malaria hit one of Opolot's two sisters, leaving her mentally retarded. With no proper care, she strayed away from home without trace.

"We later learnt that she was rammed over by a speeding car. At that point I went to the streets with the hope that things would be much better than at home," says Opolot, now 26. It was1992 and he was just 10 years old. "I was wrong. Life instead proved much more dangerous than I had thought."

Wounded and fearless despite his small frame, his body dotted with all sorts of rashes, tattered clothes, Opolot roamed the streets ransacking heaps of garbage in search of a hard to find daily meal. At night, he and his fellow street children would retire to boxes they used as beddings, to coil themselves along shop verandahs. It was at such times that the police would pounce on them in the wee hours of the night during their routine operations, making the street children to scamper in all directions.

"We were often awakened by mean loud voices. They hit us with sticks sending us in disarray. Some of my friends would sustain serious injuries from the caning, cuts from broken bottles and barbed wires. Others carried terrible wounds that over time became infected. But who was there to care? It was a jungle life so one had to accept it," says Opolot with his eyes transfixed far into the sky, perhaps to thank God for saving him from that pain.

Mbale Assistant Town Clerk Rosemary Mukite hands over a gift to Sabali Opolot
Mbale Assistant Town Clerk Rosemary Mukite hands over a gift to Sabali Opolot.

Today Opolot is a police officer attached to Naguru Police barracks, thanks to the efforts of Child Restoration Outreach (CRO) an organization founded by Christians in 1992 to address the plight of street children in Mbale district. CRO has since expanded to spread its wings to other major towns of Jinja, Masaka in central Uganda and Lira in northern Uganda.

Smartly clad in his brown police uniform with shiny polished black matching shoes, Opolot was recently invited to share his experiences with fellow colleagues at an end of year CRO Christmas party. He is among a group of police officers passed out in July 2008 after successfully completing a 36 month training course at the police training school in Masindi.

"I never dreamt that one day I would be a policeman. I hated those guys. But I later came to learn otherwise. Life on the streets was very hard. Some people often shouted at us, calling us rogues, thieves and bastards," Opolot reminisces, before turning to the children at the gathering to offer advice.

Children at the CRO Christmas party
Children at the CRO Christmas party.

"Please my colleagues, never give up. Just trust in God and work hard," he said to the over 500 of former street children, amidst applause.

According to Christine Kamiti, CRO's National coordinator, the function was organized to recognize and reward prizes to pupils and students who had excelled in their academics besides interacting with their parents or guardians as a way of encouraging others to work hard for a purposeful future.

Christine Kamiti (L) and Mbale Assistant Town Clerk Rosemary Mukite
Christine Kamiti (L) and Mbale Assistant Town Clerk Rosemary Mukite.

"Street children need a lot of encouragement and inspiration if they are to be transformed into responsible citizens," she says.

Counseling and schooling

Kamiti says that because most of the children on the streets suffer from physical and psychological abuse, neglect and exploitation, they are often high on drugs, especially from sniffing glue or paint thinner. CRO has helped thousands of children get off addiction to drugs, substances and stop bad behavior like theft, usage of vulgar language and illicit sex.

The children have also been helped with one-on-one counseling services, as well as involving group and peer counseling sessions. Throughout each year, over 1,000 sessions are carried out on street children. In most cases, 80% of the children counseled at the centre improve behavior, and 90% of children are helped to get training in formal school. Approximately 250 street children are rehabilitated annually in each of the major towns of Mbale, Jinja and Masaka.

Reunited children with their families

"Street children who are willing to be reconciled with family members are usually counseled by CRO staff and then encouraged to reunite with their families," Kamiti says.

98% of resettled children usually manage to remain at home while 2% find their way back to the streets because the situation at home may have not improved. Because most children are identified usually while in poor health, the organization has set up drop-in centers to provide at least two hot meals to the children as a way of improving on their health.

"A balanced diet is served to fight malnutrition and other related diseases among children".

Training for self reliance

Kamiti says the center has trained a number of children with basics life skills to enable them become self-reliant. "Those whom we feel have grown are attached to artisans to get basic skills in carpentry, shoe-shining... such that they can be able to support their families in future," she says.

Kamiti who is one of the founders of CRO says they also try to support income generating activities (IGA) of parents and guardians of the children rescued from streets so as to make the homes self-reliant.

So far CRO monitors a total of 425 business groups in the 4 districts. They mainly consist of vending food stuffs, clothings, charcoal, poultry and bicycle transport.

Why do children go to live on streets?

Kamiti says HIV/AIDS, domestic violence and civil wars are the major factors that have driven children to the streets. After loosing both their parents to HIV/AIDS, many children seek solace on the streets, while some children run from abusive parents or guardians.

That is why Kamiti urges the government to double efforts in ensuring that children are protected from all sorts of abuse. She says many children in Uganda are still being subjected to labour, which stops children from going to school, despite the government's initiative to provide free education through the Universal Primary Education Programme.

"Of these, about � is the girl child who is most vulnerable to all forms of abuse." she says.

"HIV/AIDS has taken a center stage especially in the Bugisu region with 70% of the children are affected or infected by HIV/AIDS," she notes.

She says the center is networking with TASO (The Aids Support Organisation), AIC (Aids Information Center) and JCRC (Joint Clinical Research Center) to counsel and treat children affected and infected by HIV/AIDS.

CRO children perform at gathering

CRO children perform at gathering
CRO children perform at gathering.

Developing talents

Moses Bwayo, the programme manager, CRO, says the centre's recreation programme has allowed the children to develop their talents in different sports fields. He says the center encourages talent development as manifested in its recent participation at Uganda's Super League football competitions.

He says the center has embarked on the construction of a sports facility on a 20 acre piece of land in Bugema, a suburb of Mbale town. Bwayo says the facility will include; two training fields, a club house, and a major field, adding that, the drainage of the 2 pitches and the foundation for the club has already started.

CRO Board members
CRO Board members.

Miria Mukimba another beneficiary of the organization gave a moving testimony of how she struggled with life on the streets but is now a second year student of social sciences at Makerere University. She praised CRO who she says rescued her.

"I dropped out of school following the death of my parents. I tried to work as a maid and later a waitress in a bar but all was frustrating. I was hopeless until I was identified by CRO staff during one of their routine surveys in town," Makimba says.

Mukimba underwent successful rehabilitation at the centre and was enrolled in school. She says there are many needy children out there that are looking for someone like you to give them hope and encouragement for a brighter future.

By Samuel Wamuttu
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First published: February 21, 2009
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Samuel Wamuttu is an experienced graduate journalist and media practitioner who has worked for both print and broadcast media in Uganda. He is currently working with Ultimate Media Consult (U) Ltd and is one of the founding members of the company.