Fifty years of marriage built on a foundation of love for the care and protection of vulnerable children, has seen a Wellington couple foster over 100 children and export their expertise worldwide.
The golden couple are Wellingtonians, Ewen and Gillian Laurenson, and the organisation they founded is the Open Home Foundation.
Carved out a niche
Since it began in 1977, it has carved out a particular niche in the care and protection of vulnerable children. Almost 30 years ago an international branch of its work began, which is still headed by Ewen.
These days its aim overseas is to empower communities to care for their impoverished and vulnerable children, especially girls, as they are the most likely to be abused.
This is done by offering training in the care and protection of those children, alongside financial support, to set up sustainable micro-enterprise projects that fund the children’s education and health care.
Gillian was born in Wanganui. Her family moved around New Zealand because her father worked for the Ministry of Works. Eventually, he was posted to Wellington and the family made their home in Lower Hutt.
Ewen grew up on a dairy farm in the Waikato.
Met in Maori language lab
When they were in their twenties Ewen and Gillian enrolled to study at Victoria University where they eventually met in the Maori language lab.
Doing an arts degree, Ewen opted to study te reo Maori instead of a foreign language because he wanted to become more aware of Maori culture.
Gillian was fulfilling the requirements of an arts degree and Maori was her language of choice.
Romance followed and the couple pondered how their wedding could reflect their different Christian denominations.
Gillian was Presbyterian while Ewen was Catholic. They described it as sharing the same faith but with differing expressions of worship.
Easier to elope
“We wanted to honour our parents and honour God in our marriage but it would have been easier to elope,” they said.
Catholic Cardinal, Peter McKeefry, gave special permission for the couple to be married in the ecumenical chapel at Wallis House in Lower Hutt with Catholic priest, Fr (later Bishop) Peter Cullinane, and Presbyterian Minister, Dr Ian Fraser, jointly officiating.
At the time the ceremony, held on January 4, 1970, was considered ground-breaking and was mentioned in a daily newspaper.
The couple set up home in Johnsonville. Gillian worked as a teacher and Ewen as a probation officer.
Over the next few years the couple adopted three children and spent a couple of years in Tonga as volunteer teachers.
Book opened doors
On their return to New Zealand they were asked to be family home parents to six teenage boys with traumatic backgrounds. It was a challenging experience. However, friends sent the couple a book called Love is an Open Door by American author, Bill Blair.
This inspired the Laurensons to start receiving children and young people and placing them in Christian homes.
“The vision was to provide a stable Christian family to care for these children and young people,” says Gillian.
Ewen says the hope was that the Christian families could eventually empty out the institutions that traditionally housed these young people.
In 1977, a meeting was held with other Christian organisations to discuss the concept.
“Although they agreed with the concept, they threw it back at us,” Ewen says.
Foundation born in 1977
With the Laurensons at the helm, Open Home Foundation (OHF) was born in April 1977, and social workers from many organisations made contact and children began being placed with OHF families.
Raj Prasad, a Massey University lecturer and, later, Chief Commissioner of the newly-established Families Commission, piloted a training programme in foster care with OHF and another social work agency.
A key principle in the programme was supporting the child’s whole family. The long-term goal is usually to get the child back home.
The best place is their own family,” Gillian says.
Gillian and Ewen have personally fostered more than 100 children in their own home over a 23-year period.
Soon people in other parts of New Zealand came to the Laurensons because they wanted to set up branches in their areas.
Later, in 2001, these branches were amalgamated into one national organisation, which currently has more than 200 staff across New Zealand. In 2000, the then Social Services and Employment Minister, Steve Maharey, signed a memorandum of understanding with OHF.
OHF continues to be explicitly Christian and ecumenical (across the denominations), which the Laurensons say has been very beneficial. For several decades New Zealand had church-run children’s homes but these were usually linked to specific denominations.
In 1991, a request from a couple living in Manipur, in Northeast India, was the beginning of Open Home Foundation International. Over the past 29 years Open Home Foundation International has supported communities in a number of countries and is currently engaged in Uganda, Rwanda, Zambia, India and Romania.
This year, a new partnership with a Christian organisation in Peru, South America, will open the door for Open Home Foundation International to work in that continent.
The vision of Open Home Foundation International, whose patrons are Sir David and Lady Catherine Carruthers, is that “every child in the world will belong to a home, family and community where they are safe and loved, receive a good diet, health care and education and know that they are loved by God.”
The work began with individual sponsorship but was subsequently changed to empower whole communities, especially through training in the care and protection of children, particularly those orphaned or displaced.
Ewen and Gillian say that establishing micro-enterprises helps whole communities in a way that sponsorship could not .
The focus is often on educating girls as those most vulnerable to trafficking and abuse.
One of the great things about being a child is having all kinds of hopes and dreams. But right now, there are far too many children around the world that don’t have a fair shot at making theirs a reality.
“There are millions of children in our world who have yet to experience this vision. They remain trapped in poverty and ignorance and are vulnerable to neglect, abuse and exploitation,” say Gillian and Ewen.
More demand than they can meet
The couple say there is more demand for the organisation’s help than it can give.
Because the care and protection of children has been an integral part of Ewen and Gillian’s marriage OHF International wants to celebrate their golden wedding anniversary by raising more support for children and their families overseas.
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