End of the road for Big Shoes NGO

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orphanage defrauded

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Stienie Oberholzer arrives at the Big Shoes Foundation in Braamfontein carrying babies who need to be adopted. The foundation is set to close its doors on Friday. Pictures: Bongiwe Mchunu

Johannesburg - Devastating. Tragic. A disaster. These were the words used by children’s homes and orphanage owners to describe the impending closure of the Big Shoes Foundation this Friday.

The 10-year-old NGO, situated in Braamfontein, Joburg, and its Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal branches will have to close their doors after they were defrauded of R70 000 by their former boss in August this year.

The foundation acts as a crucial supporting anchor for children’s homes and orphanages, offering medical care for children awaiting adoption, medical screening including HIV/Aids tests, paediatric palliative care as well as training for childcare workers who work at the homes.

Not only does the foundation examine children and compile medical reports to make sure they are ready for adoption, but should a child be found to have a serious illness, the prompt and reliable diagnoses by doctors working at the foundation have led to successful referrals to bigger hospitals for treatment.

But since uncovering the fraud, the foundation has had rising debt and a drying up in funding after its former funders lost trust in the foundation.

“It is not about the amount our former CEO took, but the damage to our reputation. Our biggest funders started doubting us… it’s difficult having fraud in your books and still having to ask other funders for help,” said co-founder Michelle Meiring. “One would hope people would also consider all the work we’ve done over the years… we tried to act as quickly as we could after we found out [about the fraud] from our bookkeeper. Unfortunately, our actions weren’t enough. It has been a devastating blow.”

Charges of fraud have been laid against the former chief executive, who cannot be named as he has not appeared in court.

The Braamfontein branch alone sees between 100 and 120 children a month, most of them under the age of two.

“It’s really a disaster. I’m upset for the babies, I’m upset over the whole story… it’s devastating,” said Stienie Oberholzer, the house mother at Huis Thandi in Benoni.

Oberholzer had brought in two babies to be checked on Tuesday morning. She said all adoption agencies worked hard to get babies adopted before they reached a year old, and the sooner a baby was medically screened, the sooner they could try to find homes for them.

“I bring my babies here twice a month. If it wasn’t for this clinic, I don’t know what we’d do. This place is our anchor. I went to a private doctor once and he said the reports compiled here were the most comprehensive he had ever seen,” she said.

Anise Tredoux from the Florida Baby House echoed Oberholzer’s sentiments.

“If there wasn’t a place such as Big Shoes, I don’t know how long we’d have to wait to get medical reports from bigger hospitals so we could facilitate the adoption process. These ladies here are our angels.”

Meanwhile, Pam Wilson, adoption supervisor at Joburg Child Welfare, said Big Shoes had offered an invaluable service to adoption agencies.

Kay McCrindle, the Joburg branch’s manager and social worker, said she and resident paediatrician Dr Janet Lumb were passionate about ensuring the foundation continued its work, even under a different organisation.

“We really are desperate for funds to make sure the organisation continues its work. We’d basically need R40 000 a month for things such as rent, salaries, stationery and general expenses to keep us running. Currently, we’ve made short-term plans to move to Thusanani [Children’s Foundation] from Friday so that we can still operate,” she said.

More than 60 pictures of children placed in new homes were glued on a board against the wall in the passage.

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