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Sister Lutgarda Camilleri

When Sister Lutgarda Camilleri, 67, took on the care of the children of Kidane Mehret Children’s Home in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1996, she took on a child care facility that “should have been demolished some 50 years ago,” wrote CNEWA’s Mercy Sister Christian Molidor in 2001. Since then, Sister Lutgarda and her community, the Franciscan Sisters of the Heart of Jesus, have developed a beautiful facility for an increasing number of children. Sister Lutgarda recently sat down with ONE magazine’s Don Duncan to talk about the children’s home and her own journey.

ONE: What was Kidane Mehret like when your community took it over in 1996?

SL: It had absolutely nothing. We couldn’t find anything we could use. Nothing. Not even a drop of oil. Oil is a very precious thing for Ethiopians; most food is cooked with oil. But God’s providence never, ever failed us.

So, we cooked pasta. The children stood in line and the queue never stopped. Why? Because the children thought it would be the first and last meal we would serve. They would take the meal, hide it in a plastic bag and come back!

ONE: How did you develop the original children’s home into the complex that exists today?

SL: Back in the beginning, the original building was made of mud. It was in ruins. There were holes in the roof. The children had no proper beds, no mattresses, no sheets and no blankets. We started saying: “How can we continue to stay here?”

The police would come with babies. I would say: “No, we can’t take babies. How can you take a baby into a place in this condition?” Then, a visiting brother from the Archdiocese of Cologne, Germany, encouraged me to write a funding proposal. Once I did, I sent it to him and to CNEWA, and that is when we got funds to build the new orphanage building.

First, the funds came from CNEWA, then from Germany. After that, the lion’s share came from Caritas. CNEWA gave us $25,000 initially and then another $25,000 to help finish the building. The new orphanage building finally opened in 2002.

ONE: How many staff members work at the orphanage currently?

SL: We have 38 paid workers in the children’s home: people caring for babies, matrons for the older children, laundry and kitchen staff, a secretary, an assistant manager and a driver. And then there are the volunteers.

ONE: Tell us about your volunteers.

SL: We work mostly with Project Abroad. It is an English organization, but it works all over the world, and they help connect us with volunteers. Many of them are very good with babies. At the moment, one of them is giving instruction in computers, another is teaching an English class and another, a math class. Then, we have other volunteers that apply directly to us through our web site.

ONE: How many children does the orphanage house currently?

SL: At the moment, we have the lowest number ever: 80. The government policy has changed. All abandoned children must go to government orphanages now, and no longer come directly to us. I think the policy change is due to child trafficking.

The government in Addis Ababa gives the older children to us, especially if they are sick. They come to the sisters because no one else wants them. It is not easy. Many of the older orphans have contracted H.I.V.

ONE: Is H.I.V. — the virus that causes AIDS — an issue for many of your children?

SL: The majority of our children lost their parents to AIDS-related infections. Some were lucky enough not to contract the virus themselves, but others were not so lucky.

Every month, the H.I.V.-positive children get a checkup. It is a government requirement. They have a blood count and according to their count they are prescribed medicine. Some do not have to take medicine yet, but they still have to go for the checkup. We have others that are full blown and are on full medication.

Our H.I.V.-positive children live a normal life. It is like: “I have AIDS, you do not. We eat together, even if I want to eat from your plate and you eat from mine.” We give them a plate each but they share. They sleep in the room, they play together and they go to school together.

But then, at a certain age, they start asking questions. “Why? Why do I have to take this medicine? Why me?” And I have to tell them that it is not their fault but they can live a life like the others. They can even get married. They can have children on condition that they consult a doctor.

ONE: Are many of the children adopted?

SL: Many of them are.

Adoption rates grow higher the younger the child. Babies and children up to 6 years old all get adopted. However, the majority of the older children are not adopted.

Here at the orphanage, I do not think the children lack anything that most children have, except one very important thing: family. We tell them that we are a big family, but we cannot give them the same individual attention that a mother and a father can give. We try to love them. We try to educate them. We care for them — but as you can see, there are many of them and few of us.

ONE: And those who have left the school and subsequently left Ethiopia? Do you ever hear from them?

SL: I had a big thrill last week. I did not know about Facebook, but the students said: “Sister, please, we’ve been sending requests for you on Facebook.” I said: “I don’t even know how to open it!” [She laughs.] Then someone showed me and I found my own picture on there. Former children of mine had put up my picture, and there were so many nice comments — “I love you mom,” “I miss you so much,” “I never had anyone like you.”

These were adopted children. I nearly started crying. I said: “I don’t deserve this, Lord.

I know the situation around us is not easy, but God is always helping us in other ways.

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