So you thought YOUR lockdown was challenging? Try having 60 young people to look after! Susan Bentley met FRANCISCO CORNELIUS, director of a Cape Town children’s home and discovered how he turned around his own childhood disappointment to keep going through a global pandemic! 
‘Being able to love and care for those around me is my greatest joy,’ says Francisco Cornelius, director of Leliebloem Children’s Home, pictured here (left to right) with his wife, MaryJean, daughters Charntelle-Gene and Daniëlle, and son Antonio

Francisco (59), was born and grew up in Cape Town’s Retreat, the eldest of the 11 children of a ship bunkering supervisor father and an administrator mother. Francisco attended Marist Brothers College, is married to MaryJean, also an administrator, and they have four adult children. Leliebloem House cares for vulnerable, orphaned and at-risk children in the Western Cape

‘OUR FAMILY WAS CONSIDERED POOR. There was no running water or flush toilets in our home. However, we still had a bedroom for the boys, a bedroom for the girls, a bedroom for my parents, a kitchen and a lounge area. We had the basics and we knew how to make do with very little. Being the eldest in a large family, I learnt early to appreciate what I had and to share with those who didn’t have.

I left school at 16 to help support the family. It was the greatest disappointment of my life. I would have loved to finish school with my friends. I decided to join the South African navy. For two years, I was a gunner on the minesweepers. At the same time, I studied by correspondence for my Matric – which I passed.

Francisco (far right, second row) grew up in Retreat, the eldest of 11 siblings. ‘We knew how to make do with very little and appreciate what we had,’ he says
‘Leaving school to support my family was the biggest disappointment of my life,’ says Francisco (left). While working in the navy, he studied for and obtained his Matric via a correspondence course

After the navy, I earned experience in admin at Old Mutual before joining Mobil Oil. The pay was good. I worked in admin during the day and bunkered after hours with my dad. He’s an extremely wise man, able to work with people of vastly different origins and culture. Working alongside him, I learnt how to understand people.

I often found myself being approached by people for advice on what to do when they were in trouble of some sorts. By the time I turned 28, it became apparent to me that even though my work was going well, I had a calling to work with young people. I love being in a space where I can guide people, I’m always saying, ‘Let’s see, how can we can do this’. I completed a diploma in residential child and youth care.

Leliebloem House has been a residential sanctuary for children for 152 years, and cares for children who have experienced great trauma
children in a circle

I then took up a job at Cape Town’s City Missions Home. The reduction to a tenth of my previous salary was a shock but I knew I’d made the right choice. A friend in a similar position advised me, ‘You’re not going to go there to fix things. You are going to go there to experience the children’s lives, to try and put them on the right path.’

Since that time, I’ve worked at various childcare centres round the country, got married to MaryJean, and together we’ve had four children. I came to Leliebloem House 11 years ago. It’s been a residential sanctuary for 152 years, a place of care and encouragement for children the courts deem in need of care and protection.

Most of our children need love, affirmation and honesty

At Leliebloem, we care for children between the ages of 4 and 18 years old, who’ve often experienced great trauma, such as separation and loss, before being placed with us. Most children upon admission have a deficit on all developmental levels, and need love, care, affirmation and honesty from the adults in the programme.

They can be challenging to work with. Our approach is to do things with the children and not for them. Teaching new behaviour instead of trying to change existing behaviour helps both the child and the adult in the child’s life space. Our child and youth care workers are trained to manage themselves in situations like this because it’s very easy to feel concern.

Above and below: girls just want to have fun! Play and dance at Leliebloem create vibes and rhythms that help children deal with past trauma

Our 60 children are spread amongst six double-storey houses, set in gardens with sufficient out- and indoor areas for fun activities. Every child has to be in both individual and group therapeutic sessions with our social worker, an external psychologist and, in some cases, an occupational therapist. Our child and youth care workers focus on daily routines, life skills, play and recreational and sports activities.

Play’s an important therapeutic intervention. Many children find it hard to sit and share their challenges and experiences because of the immense trauma they’ve suffered in the past. The organised games and play-therapy sessions help them deal with past traumatic experiences. They take part in external baseball and softball clubs, and compete against other children’s homes in soccer and athletics tournaments. Two of our boys were even recruited for the junior national team, Santos FC!

‘Our primary aim is to restore each child to his or her family,’ says Francisco  |  Photo: Annette Davis
Lelibloem focuses on daily routines, life skills, play, recreation and sport

Our primary aim with the residential care programme is to restore each child to his or her family. This entails counselling the family, as well as the child. Parents are encouraged to help out at Leliebloem, perhaps with cleaning or the laundry. In this way, they learn the rhythms and consistency needed in caring for children, and the child sees the parent doing something practical to restore family life. Parents are gradually prepared to receive their children for short periods during school holidays or for a weekend during term-time. We’re able to send the children to 17 different local schools, including special needs schools for the children who require that.

Servant leader: ‘I’m always saying, let’s see how we can do this,’ says Francisco
‘My work has given me many reasons to celebrate,’ Francisco says | Photo: Annette Davis

When children don’t have family members who can visit, we appeal to the community and local church to help out. Families come for a braai or a birthday party, play games with the children on the premises or take them on a day outing to the cinema, a mountain hike or even a weekend camp.

We’re constantly asking ourselves, how can we do better?

At any given time, we’re fortunate to have six volunteers from Europe who help out with cooking, tutoring, mentoring and play sessions. I’ve had to dismiss three workers in my eleven years here for reacting unfavourably to provocation from the children. We have a cautionary system in place for the employees, constantly asking ourselves, ‘How can we do better?’ We work at supporting one another. To sustain our own strength as a team, we meet every Monday morning for a faith-sharing session where we talk, sing and pray together.

Francisco: ‘It’s a triumphant moment at Leliebloem every time we reunite a child with family members. There are many stories to tell of wholeness and healing coming out of great difficulty. Each child in our homes is a person who’ll play a role in this country’s future’  |  Photo: Annette Davis

It’s a triumphant moment at Leliebloem every time we reunite a child with family members, even if these are not their biological parents. In 2018 Leliebloem celebrated its 150th year of humanitarian services to the vulnerable. We had more than 30 guests who’d grown up in the home. Imagine the celebration! Many of them pledge on a monthly basis, and some regularly come to visit the children and the staff who had an impact on their development for many years.

My work has given me many reasons to celebrate. There are many stories to tell of wholeness and healing coming out of great difficulty. One mother of six couldn’t provide for her family because she was extremely ill, and the children were removed from her care and placed at Leliebloem: all of these children are married parents now, successful at work, and have continued to pledge to Leliebloem House. We currently also have young men and women from the home studying finance and law at the Cape College of Education and the University of the Western Cape.

‘The Covid pandemic has been a challenge. We haven’t been able to put all the guidelines into practice as we simply don’t have the budget for it,’ says Francisco  |  Photo: Annette Davis

The Covid pandemic has been a challenge. We haven’t been able to put all the guidelines into practice, such as gloves, sanitisers, masks and the cleaning of the premises as we simply don’t have the budget for it. Funding’s our biggest challenge. We receive a monthly grant of R3200 from the Department of Social Development for each child, but the actual cost is R9000 per child. There are 51 children’s homes in the Western Cape and everyone has the same financial challenges. We all ask for support from the same few who are open to assist us, such as the Community Chest, DG Murray Trust, Nedbank Trust and a few smaller trusts.

The business sector is wonderful in assisting with tertiary education bursaries for academically able children but the problem is that about 90% of children in alternative care programmes, such as ours, don’t make it through to tertiary education, and generally struggle through grades 1 to 9.  It would be great to have more resources for these grades so that we can help children complete their high schooling, thus possibly gaining access to tertiary qualifications.

‘Funding’s our biggest challenge,’ says Francisco. ‘Every person who gives even a small amount per month can make all the difference in a child’s life’  |  Photo: Annette Davis

We’re so grateful for the support that we do receive, including from local businesses who supply us with bread or other goods. I always approach big corporates for funds and yet because so much depends on relationship, I often find the most longstanding donors are individuals who might have heard me give a talk and have realised that each child in our homes is a person who’ll play a role in this country’s future. They then pledge consistently per month to support their growth. Every person who gives even a small amount per month can make all the difference in a child’s life.

Occasionally, I feel overwhelmed by the demands of my work. That’s when I go for a long, deliberate walk to restore myself. I also keep active by walking with the Spartan Harriers three times per week and doing a parkrun on Saturdays (when lockdown regulations allow). I enjoy braaiing and love my curries as well. To relax in the evenings I watch TV or listen to jazz on the radio. I also find it relaxing to do the laundry! I love the sound of water and it gives me time to think. As a family, we get together with all the children and grandchildren and often have impromptu jazz sessions.

‘We’re so grateful for the support that we do receive, including from local businesses who supply us with bread or other goods,’ says Francisco  |  Photo: Annette Davis
‘Occasionally, I feel overwhelmed by the demands of my work. That’s when I go for a long, deliberate walk to restore myself,’ says Francisco, who also runs and has jazz sessions with his family. ‘Meditative prayer restores me and frequent talks with trustworthy mentors and mates are truly refreshing,’  he says
musical family
Francisco and MaryJean, his wife of 26 years and his ‘greatest support’
Confirmation family picture
The Corneliuses have completed their family with their adopted son, Glenwill (in bowtie)

I trust in a God who I believe guides me and gives me strength. I know, without a doubt, that I could not do half of what I do without Him. I believe that all true wisdom comes from God. My practice of centering, meditative prayer restores me. Frequent talks with trustworthy mentors and mates, two of whom are priests, are truly refreshing as well.

Experiences need to be expressed

My work life has helped my personal parenting journey. At home, we have family meetings at least once a week, talking about our challenges and what has been nice. Initially it was hard to do, but how you’re feeling needs to get out of your system. Experiences need to be expressed before they can be addressed. I’m really pleased that as a result, my children understand how to reach out to people to assist and help them.

I’m particularly grateful to be able to do work about which I’m passionate. Despite my disappointment at having to leave school early, I don’t have regrets now. I always had the love and support of my parents, who encouraged me not to give up but to set my sights on achieving greater things in life, even to travel, which I have been able to do extensively. Today my greatest joy is both being part of a family, and being able to love and care for many of those around me.’

Despite leaving school early, Francisco holds a number of diplomas and is currently pursuing a Masters in Child and Family Studies at the University of the Western Cape. He was recently awarded lifetime membership of the National Association of Child Care Workers for his contributions over the last 30 years to child and youth care 

Leliebloem House only receives a third of the money it needs per child from the government and relies on private support to fill the gap. Why not view its wish list?

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