February 9, 2014
Geoff Hucker: an angel of mercy in Ethiopia. Photo: Kerry Pryor
BY John Elder
For six years, Geoff Hucker visited Ethiopia every month. He had gone there to fulfil a boyhood dream and found a beautiful country, rich in culture but otherwise struggling.
He soon became involved in renovating an orphanage for children whose parents had died of AIDS, warfare or malaria. He put in a library, a computer lab and a fire safety program.
At first he worked on his own, and then people started helping out. Mr Hucker, an airline pilot, was based in Dubai at the time, only four hours away. On his days off he would fly to Addis Ababa and put on the toolbelt.
It struck him that in a place where two children often shared a bed, they lacked anything that was theirs alone.
They had no way of marking their own identity. He found creative ways to solve the problem, giving each of the 250 children their own personal space, be it with a photograph or a cupboard.
Mr Hucker held the orphanage and the nuns who ran it in high regard, but he was also aware of the limitations of institutional care. ”The nuns were doing their best,” he says. ”But there weren’t the resources to give the children individual attention, help them with their homework or just give the individual love that every child needs.”
Mr Hucker, a talented networker, discussed the problem with a British journalist Sharon Hendry, herself a campaigner against sex trafficking, and pulled off a miracle. He secured a free supply of the drugs to the orphanage by petitioning a local hospital and the United Nations.
He then turned his attention to a more complex problem: he felt that there had to be a better way of helping the children than the orphanage model.
He began emailing world leaders in child welfare, such as Natalie Connor and Ray Kirk in the US, seeking advice. Over time he developed a unique way to not simply rescue, but make a life, for one child at a time.
”It took me two years, from 2005 to develop the model,” he says. The program, Beyond the Orphanage, is based around a drop-in centre, funded by Emirates Airlines.
It places orphans with a family member, if possible, or puts them into funded foster care.
The support is intensive, including counselling by social workers and tutoring every day after school. At the end of the program, each child is given a vocation and has earned a diploma or a degree.
”There is a bias against them because they are street children or suffering with HIV,” says Mr Hucker. ”So we foster long-term relationships with employers.”
It costs about $2000 a child, per year for food, clothing, education and to support the foster families. There are 40 children now living under this model.
Mr Hucker, who has put together a team of 20 Australian-based volunteers and has kept paid staff to two part-time administration workers, has applied stringent rules of transparency and welfare monitoring. Each family is assessed under the North Carolina Assessment Model, used in the West to measure family functioning and success of reunification.
Since 2008, Mr Hucker, 49, has been based in Torquay with his own family, piloting domestic flights in and out of Tullamarine. He still visits Ethiopia four times a year.