Merencia and Allistair Scholtz lived a blissful life. They kept a comfortable home and both had great jobs that they loved. But there was still a void in their lives – a yearning they couldn’t shake off.
It was more than just longing for a baby of their own, which they couldn’t conceive, but a sense of purpose too. In 2016, their whole world crashed when they both lost their jobs in the same week. But then they got the chance to run the El-Shammah Home for Abandoned Babies in Primrose, Germiston. They had no experience, but they knew this was the challenge they had been preparing for their whole lives. The Scholtzes, originally from the dusty streets of Mitchells Plain in Cape Town, had prayed for one baby. Now, they care for at least seven at any given time. Babies like *Ruth, whom they meet under the most horrific circumstances.
“Baby Ruth’s mom put her in a plastic bag. She tied it and dumped her in the veld in Diepsloot,” Merencia explains, while the baby sleeps soundly in her cot, arms stretched out. “She probably hoped the infant would die. A passer-by heard a cry and opened the plastic bag. It was the social worker assigned to Ruth’s case, who named her. “The worst thing for us is that these children will never know their true identity. When they are small, they are cute and don’t know better. When they grow up, it is inevitable… They will have questions.
In a colourful and secure environment, a child keeps herself busy in the playground of the place she calls home.
And their new parents won’t have the answers. “They can go into loving and privileged homes, but there will always be that void that can never be filled.” The Scholtzes own adoptive daughter, whom they met at El-Shammah four years ago, knows that she has a “tummy mummy” and an adoptive mummy. “And one day when she is older and if she wants to, she can meet her tummy mummy,” said Allistair. “Just last week Merencia said, ‘We have this home and we are saying to mothers go and have your baby and bring them to our home’.
But there are moms out there who are desperate for help, even before they have their baby. “We want to establish a place of safety for mothers. A pregnancy crisis centre they can come to and we will teach them a skill, so they can learn how to provide for themselves and their child. “Sometimes people just need a little support and a push to move forwards.” On June 16, 2016 the couple came back to Joburg for a wedding. They had been farming on their smallholding in the Free State.
Merencia Scholtz lavishes affection on one of the babies in her care. She and her husband fill a crucial void.
“We came here to say hello to the staff at El-Shammah. We knew them. Our daughter comes from here. We wanted them to see how much she had grown,” Allistair recalled. The founders told us they would be closing it down. They couldn’t afford to keep it going, unless the Scholtzes wanted to take it over. “We were quite shocked. But we went home and thought about it. We realised that this was it. Our calling. We were going to do this,” he said. On a wing and a prayer, the family moved back to Primrose.
They had to buy the property for R850 000. With the help of a Joburg radio station, they managed to raise the money. “When we started, we didn’t know that we would make it. But in our hearts, we knew that this is what we needed to do right now,” Allistair says. Allistair, from Lentegeur in Mitchells Plain, came from a broken home. His father walked out when he was 11. “My mom tried, but her life was falling apart. When I failed Grade 9, I dropped out of school. I left home to find a job to help my family pay the bills.” “I never had any role models. This is why this job is so important. Now, I want to be that for these kids. Be to them the person I so longed to have in my life.”
Safe at last, an abandoned infant sleeps peacefully in a cot at El-Shammah Home in Primrose, Germiston.
Merencia grew up a few kilometres away in Portlands. She had a happy childhood. Her mother was a small business owner and her father the breadwinner. After graduating from Peninsula Technikon, she was determined to leave Cape Town to achieve her potential. The couple met at Allistair’s 21st. Shortly afterwards they were engaged and then married, and moved to Joburg. “We were both employed. We lived in a nice little place. It was perfect. But we always said there has to be more to life that just this. And we wanted to make a difference.”
Merencia says it is impossible to do the job and not bond with every single child that passes through the centre. “We have very happy and extremely sad moments. Often. “Our job is to (have an) impact on them. To do your very best for them, while they are in your care. We have those moments of despair when they leave,” Allistair says. “Each time when one of our kids leaves us, we leave as well. We go to a mall or restaurant, just out of the house, so we can work through our emotions.
El-Shammah Home for Abandoned Babies is a place of safety for abandoned, orphaned and neglected babies. It was set up in 2009 and accommodates up to 12 babies at a time ranging in age from birth to 18 months.
El-Shammah is in desperate need of help with its adopt-a-cot initiative.
The goal is to have 100 people donate R250 a month.
If you’d like to help, contact Alistair and Merencia Scholtz at 061 242 2709 or 074 942 1297.
Video by Karishma Dipa
Find them on social media at @el-shammahbabies on Twitter, El-Shammah Home for Abandoned Babies on Facebook and El-Shammah Home on Instagram.