A Mallawa family is on their way to Uganda to volunteer in an underprivileged community.
Newly married Melissa and Stuart Hall could never have predicted how their lives would change when they decided to first volunteer in Uganda in 2008.
Their family has a story of love, heartbreak and hope.
Benon, four, and Mariam, five, are two lively and happy children.
They live with their parents, the Halls, on a property near Mallawa, and attend pre-school and school there, as well as local sports.
Mariam loves ballet and netball and Benon loves playing with his toy cars and trucks.
You would never guess that just two years ago both children were living in a day to day struggle to survive.
Benon and Mariam are from Kumi, Uganda. It is an area ravaged by the aids pandemic – a huge slice of the adult population was virtually wiped out by the disease. Now 65 per cent of the population is under 15, and many are without parents or carers.
Benon and Mariam were adopted by Melissa and Stuart Hall, two Australians who originally travelled to Uganda to work as project managers for the Children of Hope and Dignity project. The project was originally founded by Melissa’s uncle, and aims to provide food, shelter and a family for orphaned children.
It was Melissa’s job to identify the children who were most in need to come into the project. Most of the children were either orphans or had one parent but were neglected or abused. It was a heart-breaking job.
“I had to decide who was the “worst of the worst” and in desperate need of help – when to me they all needed help equally,” she said.
After two months in this role, she found Benon.
He was living with his aunty as his biological mother was living with a man who did not believe Benon was his son. To “disown” a child in Ugandan culture is very serious – and as a result Benon’s life was at risk if he continued to live with his mother.
His aunt was having trouble taking care of him.
“When we went to see his aunty he came and looked up at me, then crawled onto my lap and fell asleep – so it seemed like it was meant to be.”
Benon’s aunty and mother wanted him to be in the program so he could be cared for and safe.
At two-years- old Benon was too young for the program, but Melissa could see he needed help. She took him to stay with her and Stuart, not knowing how long he would be allowed to stay in their care.
Four months later she met Mariam, who had been abandoned by both her biological parents. She lived with her grandmother and her three cousins.
Each time Melissa saw Mariam’s grandmother at the markets she would ask her to take Mariam to take care of her. Just a few weeks later she died of malaria, and Melissa and Stuart took her in temporarily.
Both children have since become a part of Melissa and Stuart’s family, and through the High Court of Uganda they were granted legal guardianship as foster parents.
About 10 months ago the family came to Australia, and settled in Mallawa. They immediately loved the small town and intended to stay.
“People have been so accepting and supportive of what we are doing. We know that adoption can be quite controversial but we have not had one negative response. We were really touched by that – it was something we never expected,” Melissa said.
However, as Australia doesn’t have an adoption agreement with Uganda, the family would have to satisfy Ugandan adoption laws. These state that Melissa and Stuart must have lived in Uganda for three years or have fostered the children for three years.
So the family must return to Uganda on July 1 to stay for another one and a half to two years before they can adopt their two children, or return to Australia.
When they return the Hall family will once again work on the COHAD project. At the completion of the village it will consist of 40 houses, and be home to 320 children.
The focus is on creating a self-sustainable village which can be eventually run by locals. Large scale crop irrigation, a bakery and a piggery are some of the things the project is looking to develop.
For the children themselves, Melissa says, the difference is the project makes is immediately clear.
“Going back the second time I saw the kids completely transformed. I sobbed my eyes out to realise that we could make a difference, even if it was only for these children,” Melissa said.
If you would like to know more about the COHAD project or donate visit www.cohad.org.au