The Malta Independent 17 October 2019, Thursday

St Joseph Children’s Home - No Future without a past

Malta Independent Sunday, 20 March 2011, 00:00 Last update: about 6 years ago

For all those who have never visited

St Joseph’s Children’s Home in Santa Venera, the home’s open day on 27 March that marks the start of its Independent Living Project will be the ideal time to do so. Elaine Attard meets with Fr FRANKIE CINI, the director of the home, to discuss its past, present and future

Many have undoubtedly heard about the St Joseph’s Home for Boys in the news or during charity collection events, but most have never set foot in the building, Fr Frankie observes.

For the first time since it opened its doors in 1888, the Missionaries of St Paul, who founded the home and the numerous volunteers who support it, are organising an open day to give the public the opportunity to see firsthand its facilities, enjoy the stunning architectural and artistic features adorning the home, and to participate in family activities and ask questions to those who work there.

No future without a past

“The pending sexual abuse court case bothers us. The fact that we cannot have closure is like an open wound, but we needed to move on, not just for the home’s sake but also for the children in our care. The eight-year-long shadows of allegations could have easily broken our spirit. Sometimes it still haunts us individually and collectively. Changing the way the public perceives us has been a humbling task. It would have probably been an easier option to call it a day, make the story of this home part of history and disappear amid the hullabaloo. However, turning crisis into opportunity has been a challenge this home has dealt with quite well. We are not perfect, but we are dedicated,” Fr Frankie explains.

St Joseph’s Home’s history goes back to 1888 when Mgr Frangisku Bonnici donated the 18th century building, il-Palazz l-Ahmar (The Red Palace), to start taking in poor as well as abandoned street children.

Mgr George Bugeja carried out the first changes in the home’s structures in 1905. The chapel was eventually built in 1916. In 1922 the founder of the Missionaries of St Paul, Mgr Joseph de Piro, was appointed the home’s director, a position he held until his death in 1933.

Since its opening, it has taken over 2,300 boys under its wing. The largest number of boys accommodated at one time was in the 1950s.

With the advent of social benefits and changes in Maltese society, the population of children’s homes like St Joseph’s changed drastically.

“Whereas previously most children were literally orphans and others came from very poor or very large families, the ones who remained in Church homes at the time were more likely to come from situations where there was severe family trauma, breakdown or extreme social deprivation,” Fr Frankie explained.

This change was also reflected in the different type of behaviour manifested by the children living in the home, the priest pointed out, as children’s behaviour started becoming more challenging.

“This change required that those working with the children use a different approach. In fact, the large dormitory system, so synonymous with children’s institutions was abolished in 1993, to be replaced by smaller and more home-like apartments. This required massive financial investment,” he explained.

“We might not offer the ideal environment that only a loving family can give, but we get pretty close at times. The endorsement of many volunteers and benefactors is like balm to our doubts and anxieties. Over the last 20 years, the home has invested intensely in staff training and supervision, issued detailed guidelines on staff behaviour with children, and is committed to transparency in collaboration with all national stakeholders in the field of out of home care in Malta,” he continued.

At present it is home to 15 boys aged 11 to 18, and we regularly receive requests to take in children who need out-of-home care. The society also felt the need to start giving shelter to youngsters who turn 18.

As a charity, the home depends on the generosity of the Maltese public to continue its mission, particularly during the annual Ohloq Tbissima (Create a smile) telethon.

With a budget of €300,000 a year, mostly spent on salaries and children’s requirements, the home finds it difficult to embark on capital projects that could improve the living quarters of the children. For the first time this year, the home is benefiting from the national fund-raiser l-Istrina to change its 40-year-old lift.

The Independent Living Project

The Independent Living Project addresses the challenge of refurbishing and maintaining one of the home’s main wings, which currently houses five adolescents.

Normally, residents who celebrate their 18th birthday have to leave the home and go and live alone, ask the home’s directorate for more time. In fact, at the moment two residents who turned 18 still live here as they are looking for alternative accommodation.

“We feel responsible for these young men who grew up in our care, but who do not have anywhere to go once they turn 18. We don’t want to chuck them out on their 18th birthday, without any skills and often without any money, to face adulthood on their own,” he remarked.

The project, the brainchild of a group of 12 entrepreneurs who have come to love the mission of the home and its residents saw its first beginnings around two years ago. The businessmen came together to create something different for the boys living there.

The project is about redesigning part of the home to recreate two new apartments. The first apartment will cater for a group of up to eight youngsters aged 15 and over in the last stage of their stay at the home, before they face independent life. During their stay in this wing, they will be taught various skills including how to do the laundry, budgeting and cooking, so when they leave the home they can fend for themselves.

A second smaller apartment will be designed for a smaller number of boys who have to stay over at the home on days when other boys visit family members, especially on weekends and during the holidays.

“The project is expected to cost around €100,000, and we are currently seeking public and financial support for this project. While some suppliers have already pledged their assistance in kind, this project depends on the generosity of all people who still believe we have a mission to accomplish with children and young people,” Fr Frankie continued.

Open day

In this light, the open day is intended to raise awareness about the home, its project in the pipeline and to give people the opportunity to catch a glimpse on life in a children’s home today,” Fr Frankie added.

People visiting the St Joseph children’s home on the day will be able to see the initial work carried out on the Independent Living Project, including blueprints of how the project will look like, join guided tours of the other two apartments where the children currently live, and receive information about daily life at the home from the employees.

At the same time people can visit the recently restored chapel, which has paintings bearing the signature of Lazzaro Pisani, and take part in various family friendly activities that will be organised in different areas of the home.

“We will not be showing the boys’ identity. Any indication of the boys’ family such as pictures and personal belongings will be removed on the day, so that people can see how the boys’ apartments were improved. Later on in the day, after their usual Sunday outing, the boys will participate and help out in the activities organised,” he added.

Asked whether he worries about not collecting enough funds to sustain the home’s needs, Fr Frankie pointed to a Giuseppe Cali painting of St Joseph holding Baby Jesus hanging in his office and said,” I trust in him. Every time I face a shortage of money I humbly ask St Joseph to help us. So far, this home has survived every difficulty.”

“Ours are boys who faced adult life too soon but they are still growing up. Sometimes lost innocence cannot be regained but we try and give what was denied them. As long as the public keeps supporting us there is a future for them. We depend on the public’s charity and enthusiasm is our bottom line. The children in our care deserve better than a life of moving from one institution to another, so we want to help them develop their wings gradually and prevent them from being abandoned once again,” he finished.

[email protected]

  • don't miss