Ray of hope lights forgotten world

MORRIS DALLA COSTA, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:22 PM ET

JOHANNESBURG – On July 11, Soccer City will be the centre of the football universe.

And the stadium, the site of the 2010 World Cup final in South Africa, will have the undivided attention of soccer fans around the world.

When the day of the final arrives, soccer aficionados will have been glued to South Africa for more than a month, following highly paid, highly publicized, highly pampered athletes play in front of fans that have come from the four corners of the globe.

Some 20 kilometres away from Soccer City, in a suburban home, a far different magic is being performed.

There are no big crowds looking on, no publicity and money is always in short supply.

But the business being done in this home is more vital than any goal, any result or any world championship.

The people in this house are going about the business of saving lives – young lives.

Eleanor Dustan ran her own successful real estate business. She had a lovely home she shared with her daughters and dogs.

But Dustan also believed that it was important to help in some way those who had no way to help themselves. Dustan was especially attached to helping orphans.

There is no lack of orphanages – and orphans – to help in South Africa. There are hundreds operating in the country.

South Africa has one the highest rates of HIV anywhere, leaving mothers and babies infected. Poverty often forces mothers to abandon their children and, inevitably, many wind up in orphanages.

While there is a massive ongoing campaign in South Africa to educate residents about responsible sex and birth control, getting the message to the poor and disadvantaged is difficult.

Dustan was so emotionally affected by the abandoned and sick babies that she could no longer stand by.

A woman of great faith, she said that God sent her a message, a message that told her it was her time to be a voice for the voiceless.

"I had been preparing the house over the years, for what I didn't know. Now I know. So two years ago, I sold my business and turned the house into The Lighthouse Baby Shelter," she said. "I am sorry I didn't do it earlier.”

It was quite a step for Dustan, now 60 years old, to take. She currently has 10 children in her house and she's helped another 30. About 15 of the children in her care have been adopted.

The children have the run of the house. There's a yard with a pool. She brings in someone to teach them to swim. There are dogs for the children to play with. Dustan has hired several women to help her.

"This is where I live," she said. "I don't want the children to feel they are in an institution. I want them to know what it's like to live in a home."

The children living in Dustan’s shelter range from babies to toddlers. Their ages are estimated because many have been abandoned.

At four, Kanyo is the oldest of the children living at Lighthouse.

"Hello, have you come to visit?" he asks.

Dustan is in the process of adopting Kanyo, who has been with her for two years.

The youngster was left in a shack by his mother. The only reason he was found was because neighbours heard him crying.

Children’s services brought him to Dustan. But the mother came back and took him, only to abandon him again.

After the third time, Kanyo remained with Dustan.

"He was afraid of the television, of people. He was afraid of everything," Dustan said. "Now he's just an amazing little boy."

When you walk into the playroom, a beautiful little girl looks up from the floor then quickly looks down. Her skin is marked.

"We named her Rachel," Dustan said. "She was left in the cemetery. We don't know how long she was there, probably two days. She was about three months (old), very weak and sick and is very tiny. She had eczema. Now she's 15 months and a very happy little girl."

Another little girl walks into the room and shyly returns a wave of greeting.

"Mbatho is one of the worse stories," Dustan said "She and her sister Bontlie are here. She was molested by her mother's boyfriend.

"The mother liked to party and the boyfriend had to look after the girls," she added. "One day the boyfriend called the girls' father and said he wasn't going to look after them and he was leaving. The father had to travel from Soweto. He had to look into every shack. Finally the children’s services people found them, crying."

One of Dustan's children was discovered in a shebeen, an illegal drinking establishment usually found among township housing.

"The mother left in him a corner and with everyone drinking no one noticed he was still there until everyone had left. He was asleep in the corner," Dustan said.

Dustan understands she can only help a handful of the thousands who need help. She's upset at the lack of education. She is angry at African men who refuse to wear condoms. Some HIV-positive mothers give birth to children who could remain healthy if bottle fed.

"But once they get back home, they know the stigma of bottle feeding," Dustan says. "If they are seen to feed with the bottle, everyone will know they are HIV (positive) so they breast feed and the child gets sick.

"The stories are horrific. In the beginning I used to be angry but then I directed my anger to something positive. I thought all I can do is give the children the best attention that they deserve."

The Lighthouse Baby Shelter costs 53,000 rand ($7,500) a month to operate but there is no government funding. All the money comes from private donations.

"Something always seems to happen that helps us provide," Dustan said.

Some orphanages hoped that the World Cup would provide some exposure and money. But the influx of attention – and fans from around the world – has done little for the cause, Dustan said.

"No one has taken much of an interest," she said.

With that, it's time to go. Back to the pomp and pageantry of the World Cup.

Kanyo looks up.

"Are you going now, Morris," he says.

It’s a heartbreaking moment for a Canadian visitor, but just one of many such moments Dustan no doubt endures on a daily basis. How does she keep going without cracking emotionally?

She smiles and talks about The Moses Basket, a hole in the wall surrounding her house that has soft matting inside.

"We are trying to tell mothers who don't want their children not to leave them in trash bins," she said. "Put the baby in The Moses Basket. An alarm will sound and we will take it. We've had one of them dropped off that way. The mother made an anonymous call several days later to see how the baby was. She kept checking in. The mother died of AIDS but the baby is now adopted.

"That's what keeps me going."


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