Tag: Orphans

Voices from the Field: Part 1, The Donor

Voices from the Field

A three-part series highlighting different perspectives of women involved with Hands to Hearts International. Read their stories.

Part 1: Sasha Rabsey, a donor to HHI, went to Uganda to see first-hand how the program empowers the women it serves
Part 2: From caretakers in India’s orphanages to mothers in the most remote villages, Master Trainer Sujatha Balaje educates and inspires
Part 3: Ugandan community leaders Florence Okun and Norah Awio use the skills they learned during the HHI training when caring for their own families

Part 1: Sasha Rabsey, a donor to HHI, went to Uganda to see first-hand how the program empowers the women it serves

by Laura Barker

The most common sentiment Sasha Rabsey heard from the Ugandan women after their two-day training with Hands to Hearts International (HHI) was, “I will never be the same. My children will never be the same. We must teach this to all women.” Sasha, a donor to HHI, was invited by founder/director Laura Peterson to participate in HHI’s pilot program in Kampala, Uganda in February, 2010. What moved her most was that women’s lives will be forever changed by what they learned; the skills they acquired cannot be taken away, and will be passed from woman to woman, further enriching the whole community.

Interested in service-oriented organizations that target women and children, Sasha was introduced to HHI by a friend who told her it was “a sure thing.” She wanted to identify an organization led by someone who truly had a good heart, and immediately recognized that quality in Laura. When Sasha was invited to participate in HHI’s first trip to Uganda, she jumped at the opportunity. “It’s important to me to see the programs I donate to in order to get a deeper understanding of what they do,” she said. “I want to inspire other people to donate to small organizations, and seeing the program’s work in action gives me much greater credibility.”

Once in Uganda, Sasha spent her days participating in the HHI training sessions taught by Mukisa Lydia from Uganda and Master Trainer Sujatha Balaje from India. Lydia translated what Sujatha was saying and did a wonderful job making the women laugh. Together, they taught the participants baby cues (such as how to read the body language and facial expressions of infants) and baby massage, but most importantly, information on nutrition, health, and child development. The women in attendance those two days did not take this education lightly. Unlike American women, who often take learning for granted, Ugandans must struggle to receive an education. Children often go to school during the day, but are also forced to work all evening making money for their families by selling peanuts or other goods in the streets. The participants grabbed at the information and took notes throughout. They made a point to tell all their friends to come back for the second training session, to be held the next day.

Despite her fatigue, Sasha was asked to stay until the very end to lead the closing discussion on the women’s perceptions of their HHI training. This turned out to be a pivotal moment of her experience. “Not one of them criticized the program content, not even when probed. Americans would have been so quick to point out everything that was wrong. They didn’t say it was just ‘ok.’ They couldn’t control their enthusiasm.”


The women that HHI reaches in Uganda and India do not have access to many resources. They are good mothers and want the very best for their children, but the circumstances of their lives often prohibit them from being able to give their children opportunities. In Kampala, many people live in the slums, and women there often take care of a dozen or more children. Some of these children are their own, while others are grandchildren or the children of other family members who have died. However, even without money or extra resources, women here can make a difference in children’s lives simply by being mothers and caretakers. As Sasha talked to the participants during and after the training, this new found sense of empowerment was what struck her most deeply. Previously these women didn’t realize the importance of their role in their society, but left the training feeling excited and proud. What they heard from HHI was, “YOU have an impact on this child’s life!”

Since her trip to Uganda, Sasha has gotten involved in other international organizations, but says that Hands to Hearts will always be the model she uses when deciding where her money will go. “What Laura does is so amazing because it empowers women simply by imparting information. She’s changing the world, one child at a time.”

Its fair to say, that Sasha’s life will never be the same either.

What Happens After HHI?

I have returned to Uganda and I have had the pleasure of meeting up with more than 40 of Hands to Hearts’ graduates. I am always eager to conduct follow up interviews with those who have participated in HHI’s training on early childhood development. What have they remembered? And what difference has this had in their lives and the lives of their children?

When asked, “Since the HHI training, is there a difference in how you spend your time with your children? If yes, could you please describe/explain how?” The women and the men described with great enthusiasm and pride that they now make more time, all through the day, to spend with their children. There was the overwhelming response of decreased physical discipline (“not beating my child anymore”), increased awareness and understanding of the child’s communication. The parents are feeling much more confident in how to respond to their child, and they are more at ease in caring for them. Again and again, it was reported that they feel they have developed a more loving bond with their child and their children are responding positively.

The children of HHI’s graduates are more likely to seek out the company of their parents and feel safer with them. The parents are now consciously trying to create loving bonds with their children, they give baby massage, play games, tell stories and spend time singing to their children. One mother reported that because she learned that her baby was learning language before he could speak, she spent more time talking and singing to her baby. The outcome she noticed is that her child now has a larger vocabulary than other children his age.

We also ask HHI graduates if they have made changes in health practices. This is surprisingly one of the most popular sections of HHI’s training. Parents report significant improvements in nutrition, hygiene and sanitation practices and they quickly notice that their children are sick less often and gain more weight.

When asked if anyone else has noticed changes in actions of our HHI graduates, again we hear very noticeable and positive outcomes. They report that both their children and their neighbors have noticed. The children are found to be discussing these changes amongst themselves and they now seek out and enjoy spending more time with their parents. The neighbors have observed that the HHI graduates are calmer, more gentle and nurturing with their own children and the children in the community, so much so that some of the neighbors now call them “Grand” (like Grandparent) as a term of respect and in recognition of their loving manner with all of the children. Many of these neighbors have approached the HHI graduates, asking them what they are doing and why. Now HHI is overwhelmed with requests for more and more training.

Let the love flow!

Special thanks to Christine Chaille, Frank Mahler who created HHI’s brilliant training materials with the input of our fabulous India team, led by Sujatha Balaje. You have touched the lives of tens-of-thousands of babies with more love.

Preventive – What is the cost of not having love?

Have you seen the recent story of the 7-year-old Russian boy who was adopted to the US and then sent back to Russia with a note in his pocket? Read about it on CNN. This story seems shocking to most, but sadly, it is familiar to me. This is the exact illustration of why HHI was founded, its almost the same as the story I tell that was my personal tipping point — that which had me quit my “real job” to begin HHI in 2004. It is a classic case of a child who did not learn how to love and be loved, a basic human capacity, but one that must be learned from a loving, nurturing and consistent caregiver. This child was adopted last year at the age of 6, from an orphanage. Now from those tiny pieces of information, it is extremely likely he did not have a loving, nurturing and consistent caregiver in his first 6 years of life.

I have no idea about the orphanage from which he was adopted, but by its very definition, orphanages are about the worst place possible for a child to grow. There is no way that “staff” can truly provide the love and consistency that a child needs to build a sense of trust, belonging, security, love – the basic building blocks of all human relationships. And when these pieces are not in place in the earliest years, there is a high probability that that child will develop Attachment Disorder. This is an insidious and tragic disorder. It is not always visible, but when you do see Attachment Disorder it can look like this young boy. He was reportedly violent, lit fires and was of threat to the family.

Those reports portray the tragic consequences of Attachment Disorder, just like countless other children I served for ten years in the children’s mental health system. Specifically this story of failed adoption resembles one boy I worked with who intentionally smashed his two-year-old foster-sister’s hand in the door. Her hand was badly broken, and at the tender age of five, this boy failed out of his third foster home, second adoption and went to his first locked psychiatric unit. What was even crazier was that this child was much more comfortable in the psych ward. Why? Because at the psychiatric hospital he was not required to engage in relationships.

The devious thing about Attachment Disorder is that the child learns that the one he loves the most – typically his parent – is not safe, they are wildly unpredictable, maybe at times disappearing for days, while at other times turning violent in a flash. Or in the orphanage scenario, the caregivers change throughout the day and night. Potentially a child has a dozen different caregivers, each changes the diapers and feeds differently, some respond to a cry, some may talk to to the child, while others may not. Add to that doctors, physical therapists, speech therapists, volunteers and a few others – and each of them interacts with the child differently. All the while the baby brain is growing and trying to make connections to build a set of standard expectations for the world.

Imagine the scenario for yourself. In one case a violent or grossly negligent person is who teaches you the building blocks of relationships, in the other it is an unpredictable, mass swirl of every changing people – neither feels safe! You are bound to be confused, uncomfortable and even scared when other people want to draw close to you. You assume that it is only a matter of time before the pattern of chaos or danger will repeat. Hence you act out in an assorted variety of unpleasant ways, doing whatever it takes to push love away before you are hurt or abandoned again. As protection, you do whatever it takes to keep those who want to love you at a distance. If when you fill the heating vents with shampoo and you are forgiven, then you have to try harder. You might lock everyone out of the house and taunt them from the warm and dry inside of the house. Again, most parents would forgive. So, you must continue to up the ante — hurt or kill a family pet, vandalize the house, kick, bite, and hit! And, if you are still forgiven… and you truly believe that you must get away from these people who love you (before they hurt you by abandoning you) – then all bets are off, cause whatever level of violence is necessary.

That is how a 5 year old boy can intentionally, maliciously break the hand of his younger foster sister. He won, he believed that he was unlovable and in his warped logic he proved he was right. He was sent away and sent to a place where he was not threatened by love — the psychiatric hospital. His predictable future is sadly more of the same, he will continue to hurt and it will take years of predictable, stable love, combined with dump truck loads of patience and forgiveness, to help him heal.

There may still be some people who think what HHI does is “very nice”, but its not as important as medical interventions. I ask you to shift your perspective, consider the power of preventive medicine. What is it worth to save a child from the life described above? This is exactly what HHI aims to do and by reports, we are succeeding.

The Gift of Love

Last week HHI led caregiver trainings at an orphanage for disabled children. This is some of the most important work HHI does, as it is common in India for disabled children to be a source of shame or fear, either kept hidden (and therefore neglected) in the backs of homes, or abandoned to orphanages to be raised by strangers. Regardless of where these children live though, they are rarely touched, no one wants to hurt them, or worse they may be viewed with some disgust or shame, as they are not “normal” and may only be seen as an incredible strain on meager resources. But, they are children, and therefore HHI knows they need love and they likely need touch to help ease their physical pain more than anyone who is not challenged by a disability.

Since our training is very active, the children are a critical part of the experience, they are our best teachers. But last week, these children were very shy, they were not quick to jump into the games or activities and they did not want to get the baby massage. I don’t think they were used to playing or getting involved with their nannies. But, slowly, with lots of coaxing and encouragement, a few brave little ones stepped forward and somewhat reluctantly they assumed the “please massage me position”. Quickly they realized they had just made a brilliant move!

These previously untouched children were now soaking up the smiles, eye contact, love and connection of baby massage! And, they found that the massage helped ease some of their physical discomfort. And the previously shy, insecure and over-worked caregivers were reveling in the shared joy too! They saw that their love was being soaked up and reflected right back to them.  Now, everyday at this orphanage, all work stops from 11 to noon each day and the children all assume the PLEASE massage me positions! They lie down with their friends and wait patiently to receive their daily gift of love.

This is why HHI was created! This simple change is anything but simple to these women and children – their lives will never be the same.

If you want to share HHI’s baby massage with your own child, or a new parent, your purchase of HHI’s instructional Baby Massage DVD for $25 will not only support you, but it will assist in funding the important work that HHI is up to for tens-of-thousands of babies in need. See a preview and Buy one today!

HHI Visits Orphanage in Kampala

The universe has a way of directing us, and our directions were loud and clear while we were in Uganda! Prior to leaving the US, I had contacted an orphanage in Kampala, but though they were very interested in having an HHI Training for their staff, we just didn’t get it together to happen during our visit. But, as it happened this orphanage was directly below the guest house where we were staying, and every morning and every evening, we would look out from our windows and see the babies and the caregivers of this orphanage. So, although it seemed we didn’t have a single spare moment, we decided that we had to make something happen!

Sujatha, Lydia, Mary and myself all walked down the hill one afternoon and led a brief, but enthusiastically received, baby massage training. Over 20 caregivers gathered, women who are caring for an average of 50 babies, all of whom have been either orphaned or abandoned and in need of love and nurturing. As the women gathered around and looked on, these tiny, beautiful little babes, were the eager and very receptive recipients of an HHI training on baby massage, several of the babies volunteered, “assuming the “oh-I’d love a massage!” position, relaxing on a table, and Sujatha began the magic.

Then the women took turns practicing the new moves, with the babies soaking up the love and snuggles! While we were only able to make a brief appearance here on this visit, our local HHI team will soon return to deliver the entire HHI training for all the caregivers and all the babies of this home.