Dawn Irons, founder of the Ubombo orphanage in Northern KwaZulu Natal deserves the surname Irons. She is a woman of incredible strength, steely reserve and determination.
She doesn’t give up until she achieves what she plans to, says her husband David.
Dawn lives a fast paced busy city-style life in the country. She runs Overwin Country Lodge on top of the Ubombo Mountains and has founded an orphanage next door to the lodge that cares for 20 orphans. Her guests- many of them overseas tourists often are taken on a tour of the orphanage- and get to see what hope looks like.
Dawn is a story teller and as the tales of the children in her home unfold one word can sum up the case histories of abandonment, abuse and sickness: “tragedy.” Yet one of the first things evident when we arrived at the orphanage was the energy and smiles of the children as they all raced to unload Dawn’s Bakkie (pick-up truck). She had been to town to buy food in bulk and unloading the packets and packing the pantry became a competitive game amongst laughing kids.
Two days later, after a two hour walk through the mountains as we got nearer to the end of the sweaty hot trek – one 10-year-old boy pointed to the orphanage rooftops while smiling and saying “home”.
Due to Dawn’s determination 20 children with no parents and terrible histories now have a home, proper food and belonging. This, says one of the ministers involved in the board’s trust should be a model for all orphanages across South Africa. It isn’t. The government encourages children to be placed in foster care rather than orphanages, says Dawn.
Additionally Dawn does not receive one foster care grant for any of the children even though she should receive 650 rand for each of them as well as two additional disability grants for the two children who can’t walk. Grant fraud is rife and Dawn believes some far-off relatives are profiting from the foster care grants meant for the kids at the home. She has discovered where one of the children’s grants from her orphanage has been going but her complaint lodged at the local police station has not been investigated.
She has documents- now in the hands of a lawyer- that show that the Methodist chaplain at the nearby Bethesda hospital pocketed more than 68 000 rand in four years from foster care, child and disability grants that belong to one disabled child at the orphanage.
She hopes legal action may recover some of the money as letters to the Methodist church (employers of the suspect) and speaking to police resulted in nothing but frustration
Instead of grants and government funds, overseas donations and church involvement help run the home and pay for the three house mothers who care for six or seven children each. The most unlikely of people contribute towards the orphanage.
Two British hairdressers wanted to make a difference in Africa and have now built and funded essential parts of the home. Once a year they come and build with locals and after 2 days their soft white hands become calloused, says Dawn. The hairdressers got in touch with Dawn through a mutual friend and decided that the tips they receive at their salon would go to the orphanage. Dawn is most proud of the large reservoir the hairdressers’ built
She says an eight month drought a few years ago meant the orphanage was often without water and everyday she and staff members would lug water from her house to the orphanage down the road. Now the large reservoir catches enough water for Ubombo children’s home. This year the British hairdressers will finish a new house for six more orphans.
Government regulations stipulate that six children need their own room with a house mother who will stay with them at night. Dawn says she is inundated with requests by social workers to take orphaned children in and has to say no most of the time.
She employs three house mothers that look after the 20 children. The women work seven days a week with the children. It is essential that they are loving, exceedingly patient and good with kids. Dawn has had trouble with housemothers before and caught one “redhanded” stealing . Dawn knew someone from inside was taking goods as everything is kept under lock and key yet things were going missing. She eventually waited outside the fence one morning and discovered the housemother throwing the children’s blankets over the fence. The house mother said she only lending them to needy people but she was duly fired.
Dawn is pleased with her new housemothers and it is clear the children are too. The place is a happy home and so spotless, it is hard to believe anyone lives there. The older children take turns cleaning, cooking and keeping the pace in order. All children who are able make their beds and arrange the piles of fluffy toys on their pillows every morning.
The difference in these children’s lives is profound yet it is private industry (Clover, BHP Biliton etc. ) and foreign donations / volunteers that keep the home running and provide it with adequate facilities.
The government places children there but offers not one cent of funding.