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Mothers lead innovation among Unbound families

Lillian Naka, mothers group coordinator in Nairobi, Kenya, explains how the Unbound program worked in Nairobi before and after mothers groups were introduced. She shows how mothers groups not only help facilitate the program, but also strengthen the women who take part.

Lillian Naka, mothers group coordinator in Nairobi, Kenya

By Lillian Naka, mothers group coordinator in Nairobi, Kenya

Unbound serves more than 13,000 children and elderly people from 10,000 families through our program in Nairobi, Kenya. Each social worker in the Nairobi office takes care of approximately 250 families. These are big numbers that would scare anyone at first sight.

Two hundred and fifty families could be a lot for one social worker to manage. From a different perspective, however, those same numbers are more manageable.

Thanks to mothers groups, the families are organized into more than 300 small groups. Each social worker is in charge of no more than eight groups with about 30 or more mothers.

Visiting eight groups each month is a lot more manageable than trying to visit 250 families individually.

Unbound is not a handout program

In the Nairobi program, we build the capacity of families to take care of their own needs. We believe the mothers of sponsored children are in the best position to determine what program benefits are best for their families.

The biggest success of the mothers groups has been the change of mindset in the members from thinking they are poor and need "help" from an organization to understanding they have the potential to improve their own conditions.

One feature of the mothers groups is a savings program from which members can take loans to improve or start a business. Some group members who before depended only on casual work have grown into small-scale business owners. They contribute to their mothers group savings accounts and repay larger loans taken from the groups to grow their businesses.

Evolving the program

Before the introduction of mothers groups, families did not know each other and would not necessarily meet with the social worker every month, except when they visited the office to write letters to sponsors or receive their sponsorship benefits.

A mothers group meets in Nairobi.

Home visits were simplified by rotating the monthly mothers group meetings among the members' homes. This allowed the social worker to visit one home each month to meet with all the members of a specific group. The group members also learned where other members lived, as they visited their homes on a regular basis.

When the mothers group program was initiated in Nairobi in 2007, a lot of challenges emerged.

At first, the program was mostly run from the coordinating office, with the mothers group coordinator as the sole expert, and all group files were kept at the coordinating office. The knowledge base on managing the mothers groups was handled by the mothers group coordinator, and the social workers didn't feel like they were part of the program.

Social workers are the immediate reference person for sponsored members and their families. If a social worker cannot answer a simple question on the management of the program, such as the "how" and "why," then group members would question the success of the program and their participation would not be guaranteed. This happened in Nairobi.

A stack of budget books from the Nairobi program's mothers groups.

Training was conducted to improve the social workers' knowledge and understanding of the mothers group program. In the training sessions, it was important for the social worker to recognize the benefit of the mothers group program and how it would impact his or her job.

What followed was amazing! The social workers embraced mothers groups and channeled all sponsorship activities through the groups.

Each mothers group has its own constitution to help run the group and keep the members accountable. Members create their families' program benefit budgets during group meetings. The budgets must then be approved by the group chairperson, secretary and treasurer.

Birthday and Christmas parties are easily organized through the mothers groups while families have monthly contact with a social worker through group meetings.

The decentralization of program decision-making has been achieved through the mothers groups, putting the mothers at the forefront of improving their families' lives.

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