Rooftop Revelations

My first few days at the Russ Foundation campus were emotional to say the least. I moved into the house where my aunt used to stay and saw reminders of her everywhere – finding her clothes, seeing her handwriting on little labels around the house, noticing the dried flower wreath that must have been hers. But mostly I’d feel her when I’d sit on the roof terrace, the one she used to talk about fondly, where she’d sleep whenever she could.

"Olive's House" where Faith used to stay...and my new temporary home

The peacocks and I have been having a turf war over the roof terrace

The other emotional wringing came from the children…these adorable, lovable children, with their heartbreaking pasts filled with loss, neglect, and sometimes worse.  Those early days were a constant struggle to keep a lid on my emotion.  It often it felt like it was too much to keep in, ready to spill out at any moment, but I had to keep a good face on for the kids. What would they think if I randomly started to cry? Surely looking at them with pity isn’t what they need.

The most difficult night was when one of the boys came up to me with tears in his eyes and a quivering lip. Normally almost ecstatic, I can rarely get a clear photo of him because he’s always jumping around and dancing and laughing.

But this night, someone had said something – as kids do – and he was hurting. And I felt my heart rip open. I tried to comfort him but he wanted to keep a tough front for the other kids, so I spent the next hour using all my strength to get through dinner without crying myself.

When I could finally go back to the quiet solitude of my house, I hadn’t even made it to the door before the tears came. I went to the roof and wept, for his sadness tonight; for the girl who was forced to beg naked on the streets at 3 years old; for the boy whose mother was left to die after being raped and stabbed, his only inheritance HIV. I cried because as much as I can do, as much as I can give, how could it ever be enough for these beautiful children?

Kids of Russ Foundation’s Home for Children Without Parents


I’d assumed from other volunteers’ stories that my time at Russ Foundation would be life changing, but I could never have imagined how quickly.

I’m not a natural with kids the way other people are. Even when I was a child, I was kind of a little adult. But when you walk into a room of orphans, you leave your baggage and feelings of inadequacy at the door. This isn’t about me. I stopped worrying about what to say or do and tried to listen to what they need.

And when I stopped seeing them only for their heartbreaking stories, I started seeing something wonderful: the power of love, care and compassion to change lives. These kids, though they’ve been through things most of us can’t even begin to imagine, are happy. Most of them will go on to university, and get married and have children of their own. They may not have their biological parents but they have people who spend every waking minute making sure they have everything they need. And they have 20 brothers and sisters to grow up alongside.


I spent some time that first week with a few of the older girls who are now living off campus and studying or working. I was blown away by how smart and confident and friendly and well-adjusted they are. If these are the kinds of people Russ Foundation raises, I thought, this is a special place. And Russ’s commitment to help the neediest children is something I want to be a part of. The foundation started 25 years ago to provide a home for girls who had nowhere else to go (most of the homes at that time were for boys), and today, they take in HIV infected and affected children who won’t be accepted elsewhere.

My original plan was to spend two months at Russ and then a few months traveling around south Asia, but after only a few days, I decided to postpone my travels and stay longer. I am so inspired by the people here – the kids, the staff, the volunteers – and if I have this time set aside, I really can’t think of a better place to spend it.

The morning after my little meltdown on the roof, I woke up feeling refreshed and determined to power through. I went back up to the rooftop and watched the sky change colours as the sun came up, and prayed: I know I can’t do it all, but God, please help me do what I can.

Emma x

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