When Ruth needs a word of advice or wants to share one of her children’s milestones, she heads to Dar Sagra Familja, in Żabbar, a children’s home that she left over a decade ago.

Following a grim year, this Christmas she is looking forward to spending some quality time with Sr Denise Vassallo, her ‘mother’ since the age of two.

Ruth, now 29, is not the only one looking forward to the festive season, however, this year the home’s residents will have to adapt to a ‘new normal’.

Santa Claus will be wearing a mask and will not be accompanied by his assistants while the annual parties have been postponed. Sr Vassallo has taken the preventive COVID-19 measures in her stride and hopes the home’s 13 residents will still enjoy the festivities.

Together with other carers, she will turn the dining area into a ‘camping site’, where the residents can have a ‘sleepover’ and usher in the new year together.

“The festive season is something that our children, as in any other household, really look forward to and, just like we did during lockdown, we will make the best out of it,” Sr Vassallo said.

Dar Sagra Familja, one of four children’s homes run by Fondazzjoni Sebħ, went into lockdown when the pandemic reached Malta’s shores earlier this year. Visits to biological relatives and friends turned virtual and the residents had more time on their hands.

“There was, of course, an element of fear about the pandemic but there were also a lot of positives and we found time to do the things that we did not manage to do before because of our normal routine… we played more and did crafts together,” Sr Vassallo said.

The children adapted to the COVID-19 measures “overnight”. Children’s services manager Mark Pellicano and Fondazzjoni Sebħ director Yvonne Mallia noted that, since residents live in a community that looks out for each other, most of them immediately understood that they needed to follow the new guidelines to care for their extended family.

“Unfortunately, our children have been exposed to challenging situations and a pandemic adds a layer of anxiety. However, as much as they are vulnerable, they are also resilient and our carers have built a relationship of trust with them,” Pellicano said.

“So when they started asking questions and we explained the situation, they understood that the measures were in place for their own protection and, as they have done in the past, they adapted to this new situation.”

Vassallo added that the carers needed to strike a balance between the implementation of preventative measures and a homely feeling because, at the end of the day, these residences were the place that these children called home.

This is the same feeling of belonging that Ruth experienced at Dar Sagra Familja.

‘I feel proud of my upbringing’

“I remember it was initially difficult to come to terms with my fate when I started meeting other children at school and they would talk about their mummy or daddy.

“I felt like the odd one out and lost for words. Deep down, like any other human being, I craved my own mummy, daddy and family, however, I soon realised that I was loved in the same manner that my peers were,” Ruth recalls.

“Now that I am an adult and have my own children, I do not regret a single minute at the home and I feel proud of my upbringing. To this day, I still seek comfort here. It is my home and even my two children look forward to coming here.”

Ruth’s fondest memories remain the time that she and two other teenagers would spend in Sr Vassallo’s room just talking about their day, worries and accomplishments.

“During the day she would have been really busy caring for all of the children but, at the end of the day, she would dedicate one or two hours just for us. That quality time sealed a bond between us three and Denise and we are still in touch.”

Sr Vassallo added that if this year has taught us anything, it is that quality time, no matter how busy we are or how many children we have, is irreplaceable.

“Do not take anything for granted – if you want to do something, just do it now. Only the other day I felt I should pause my house chores and just watch a movie with four of our children. The house chores can wait but these are the moments they will remember forever.”

For more information, send an e-mail to info@sebh.mt or look up Fondazzjoni Sebħ on Facebook.

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