Congo-Kinshasa (MNN) – Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is a city of more than 7 million people. The United Nations estimates that about 30,000 of these are street children under the age of 18, and of that 30,000, about three-quarters of them are boys.
However, recent studies show that there's an increasing number are girls on the streets now, many of them working as prostitutes as young as 10 years old. As to the reasons there are so many kids abandoned to the streets, they are many, says Lorella Rouster with Every Child Ministries. "Part of it is because of the wars that the countries have faced. Part of it is because of poverty… [and also] superstition, believing that any bad thing that happens must happen as the result of witchcraft."
The list of other reasons for ending up as street children is long. Children were conscripted to fight in bloody wars. Those who survived are now returning home. AIDS has decimated the adult population, leaving behind children who are fending for themselves as the head of a household. For most of them, surviving the next 24 hours is as much hope for the future as they can afford.
Rouster doesn't want that for these kids and therefore started working with the most vulnerable targets, places where the community gathers. "Every Child Ministries ministers in one particular area at a market area. Almost all open air markets have street children attached to them." For the past several years, ECM has been ministering to street children–primarily boys–around a market area across from the Teachers' Training University (Institut Pédagogique Nationale or IPN).
These street kids are eking out their existence and crave safety, dignity, and hope. A regular Fellowship for Street Children with Bible teaching and worship services has been established. ECM has also been feeding these boys.
With the help of the University Chapel Church, ECM has organized sporting events which have helped the street children begin to see themselves as normal children who could actually be accepted into society. With the help of a generous Congolese friend who donated use of some land, the street children of the area have developed their own garden where they learn the value of work and raise vegetables to enhance their diet.
That's all great, until you realize these boys are still ill-equipped for real life. What happens when they turn 18? Without training or skills, they will be in worse shape than before. ECM developed a vocational training program. "It targets older teens and matches them with a skilled worker who agrees to have that young person come alongside them as an aid, and then gradually teaches him or her skills of their trade", Rouster explains.
It's really an apprenticeship, and it has been successful for its participants. "It allows the children a way to eventually escape from the streets. If they don't get in with a family, or if they don't receive some kind of vocational training, they'll end up as gangsters or prostitutes," says Rouster.
Nearly a decade ago, the ministry graduated the first two individuals from their mechanic's apprenticeships. But that's not the only measure of the program's success, Rouster notes. "One of the teenage boys actually led his apprenticeship master to Christ. So, he had enough influence with the master and his life showed Christ enough that that master became interested in becoming a Christian, and he actually led him to Christ."
On her last visit to Kinshasa, Rouster saw a number of other success stories. "We have several now who have gone through the program, who are living on their own, and have started families . And really, that is just a dream come true for a street kid."
However, that brings an interesting challenge to ECM. First, they need other believers to stand alongside the street children and help get them off the streets. "Many vocational youth can actually be supported for $32/month while they're in training, and we also need extra funds to provide the business startup at the end of their training."
Students learn dressmaking, tailoring, auto mechanics, and carpentry, among other skills. When they graduate from the program, they're given the tools (like a sewing machine) they need to help establish successful businesses ($325/youth).
You could consider the apprenticeship program the beginnings of community transformation. "We're reaching the children with the Gospel while they're still homeless, before they even start this program, and then maintaining contact with them while they're in the program. So they are receiving regular Bible teaching and Gospel influence."
In a way, you could say that ECM is the tool used by God to flesh out Jeremiah 29:11 for the street kids of Congo. "For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."
Is it really that simple to provide hope and a future? All it takes is the willingness to help, and Rouster adds, "We need prayer that God will continue to open their hearts to the Gospel. To know that God cares for them so much that He sent His Son for them is really good news for street kids. We want them to realize that, and that happens through God opening their hearts."