This week, Real Women, Real stories, visits Magaret Kistow and her Children's Home. A former nun turned philanthropist, Kistow has a big heart and full plate of responsibilities which she claims God has placed firmly in her lap.
And so our story begins. There was an old woman who lived in a shoe...
I am sitting on a sofa at Margaret Kistow's house in Malabar, Arima and amidst the loud chatter of children and her account of why, when and how she began her Children's Home, Margaret Kistow's Home for Abandoned Children, I can't help but think about the nursery rhyme about the old woman who lived in a shoe with the many instructions directed at the children running around.
"Josiah leave that", "Jenny just check the baby and see if he needs changing"- Kistow is enjoying our light conversation but her eyes are on the 32 children who she oversees at her home ranging from ages six weeks to 17.
The retired nun tells her life story with ease, "I used to be in the nunnery. I was reading the Catholic News one day and I saw information being advertised about the 'Sorrowful Mother' Order. I became interested and I saved the money I worked for helping in my father's business and bought a ticket and went to Barbados and then Grenada for six years. Afterwards I came back to Trinidad and that was when I got the prophecy!" she says.
"Prophecy?" I become curious, I wanted to learn more and she filled me in. "While at a prayer meeting with Charismatic leader Aunty Babsy, I got a prophecy from God that I should start a children's home. I was scared. I didn't have any resources for a children's home. I lived by my father, this same house you are in right now. Then the first baby came. I was asked to be her godmother, the mother was pregnant with her third child and she couldn't manage with the second child. One day she sent the baby with a friend and a note asking me to care for the baby. I couldn't refuse. From then I knew that this would be my calling. I was 30-something years old. Today I am 71 and 31 more children have come to my doorstep."
Kistow said the second baby came by surprise.
"Yet again I was asked to be godmother. The mother was mentally disturbed. After babysitting the baby for a day I asked her when I should return her bundle of joy and she answered, 'Keep her for as long as you can because I can't manage!' If you look across in the drawing room you will see her sitting there. She has never left my side since. She is 20-something and helps me with the other children in the home!"
I am speechless because Kistow tells me other stories of the beautiful children of all races, sizes and ages who saunter pass and stop to give "aunty" as they amicably call her, a kiss.
The short, dougla woman with the limp tells me that her doors are always open despite the lack of formal funding by any agency or body. "We survive on the kindness of well wishers. The clothes and amenities for the children God provides through various international missionaries who pass by sometimes and neighbours and some businessmen who feel sorry when they see the situation. A construction company in Omera Road built the shed and some Indian people in the area give food and other things. They are very kind, even self if is ah polourie they find it in their heart to bring for the children!" she reveals
Kistow said her two aunts June Maharaj and Megan Lee Sookdeo were amongst the list of kind hearts!
"Aunty, Josiah take my toy," interrupts five year old Cherise. She comes towards "Aunty" for a hug and "Aunty" opens her arms and cradles the young girl. Within seconds she falls asleep. "I see that they are very close to you," I comment as another tall boy in a school uniform saunters in and kisses her cheek.
"He is Moses. His parents were in jail and on drugs. He was brought to me by the courts. The police call me sometimes midnight to bring abandoned children or children whose parents are in some trouble and they can't see about them. Some are brought by the church and some are brought by social workers. Regardless of the resources I have I don't refuse them. God doesn't want me to. I trust that He will provide the materials to care for them!"
I notice some Caucasian foreigners, males and females intermingling with the children so I inquire about them. "They are medical students from a University in the USA. They are here to do a three-day project. The thing is most of the help we get is from foreigners. Local businessmen and the government don't help much. They outline what rules I have to follow to have a Children's Home but they don't offer any assistance. I have never gone without though because of a few kind hearts but these children need so much more. I take them to church and pray with them morning and night-time but they are in need of real counselling.'
Kistow said some of childen had seen horrible things, "Some of them saw their parents get murdered, some of them were abused, they need much more than I can give!"
And so she tells me the story about the little Indian boy playing with the US Medical student on the bench under the shed. He has a bad temper and fought ferociously with another pupil at school. She had to be called in to control him, he was a victim of abuse and his parents were drug addicts. And then there is the older mixed girl who just had a baby, she helps in the home but needs counselling to deal with pass hurts in order to be a good mother to her baby. Oh yes, and how can I forget granny who also lives at the home. The 75-year-old was put out of her home to live on streets and has sought refuge.
Granny does all the laundry and is a great help to the home as well as the handyman who works for flour or rice when funds are low. Indeed, Kistow has her hands full. A big responsibility with divine intervention but a huge calling all the same. A smile forms on Kistow's face as she fixes a Christmas decoration that fell after a five-year-old child trampled. "Christmas was great for the children this year. I collected all the gifts from the Christmas parties and Christmas day I gave it to the children. They were thrilled. I thank God for the blessed Christmas we had!"
I can see that this woman of many skills (she informs me that she just cleaned the toilets and the bedrooms a few minutes before I came) who never had any children of her own is a godsend to these children. They seemed happy also. Their hair was well groomed and they appeared to be well fed and contented.
It was apparent that when it came to the children's welfare Kistow went all out.
But looking closely at the cramped bedrooms and compact kitchen it was also immdiately apparent that Kistow really needed more help.
"Do you think a 'sponsor-a-child' programme will work where people can sponsor a child up until they are a certain age?" I ask. I recognise a teenage girl who sits in corner who isn't playing with the rest; I wonder about her background.
"Well, now you talking, sister. I would love that and that would benefit the children. Sometimes I think that people scorn these children and the thing is it's not their fault that they are in the situation they are in. Schools refuse to take them. I have to look as far as Mount Hope for schools for some of these children. They are bright and full of life, I don't know why people scorn them!" she laments.
"Aunty, you looking busy so we will talk after," declares a teenage boy who walks past hurriedly. "Like Andon there, he has a good heart but has been in trouble ever since. He needs direct counselling but we don't have funds for a psychiatrist. Girl, I know that God will grace me with everything to care for these children so I don't worry. I really hope that support comes soon because they have so much potential!" contends Kistow who although aged possesses a youthful face.
"Aunty, can I ask you something? You seem to have your hands full at the home but yet your face not wrinkled and you don't look stressed out! What is your secret?" I ask her. "I am fulfilling God's purpose and he is blessing me with the energy to do his work. The thing is scripture speaks of blessings and doing the work of God but with that comes challenges. But the joy of doing God's work supersedes all adversity. It is this that gives you peace of mind. Sometimes your life normal and prosperous but you have no peace of mind!" she avows.
Now it's time for a photo shoot. Excited children surround us. They all smile and say cheese for photographer Ishmael Salandy. As I depart the compact Margaret Kistow's Children's Home I complete my rhyme. "There was an old woman who lived in shoe, she had so many children... but with our help she will know what to do!"
To help Margaret Kistow's Children's Home please contact 333-2174.
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