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In 'Gift,' couple finds new beginning

After their 21-year-old son was killed, Celina and Pule Seloma decided to become foster parents.

By Scott BaldaufStaff Writer / September 26, 2007



Dobsonville Township, South Africa

Gift has packed a lot of hard living into his 4 years.

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Social workers removed him as an infant, with his three sisters, from a squalid shack in a settlement near Soweto. His mother, who was diagnosed as HIV-positive, was aggressive toward her children, each from different fathers, and sometimes went days without feeding them, bathing them, or even clothing them.

Gift's troubles don't stop there. He also contracted HIV from his mother.

Gift is now an orphan. He is also a member of an especially vulnerable group of 240,000 children with HIV. But Gift's life proves that ordinary people can make a difference in one another's lives. He has found a loving and stable foster family, and, through their persistent advocacy and care, developed into a rambunctious bundle of boyish energy.

"He's a clever boy, a naughty boy," says Celina Seloma, Gift's middle-aged foster mother, with a broad smile. "He likes to play, he likes wrestling, he likes to dance, he likes to sing in church."

"Ooh-whee!" laughs Celina's husband, Pule, shaking his head. "Gift, Gift, Gift."

Celina and Pule Seloma, both in their mid-50s, are not the typical foster couple. She is a housekeeper, working twice a week. He is a painter, carpenter, jack-of-all-trades, and gospel musician at his church. Together, they live a comfortable life, just above the poverty line, in their small concrete home in the working-class black township of Dobsonville, on the outskirts of Soweto.

Ever since the couple lost their only child, 21-year-old Tumi, in a shooting six years ago, Celina has been pining for a child in her life. "One day I said to my husband, 'We have no kids, we eat here, other kids are hungry outside, they've got no food, they've got no parents, they've got no love. They've got no one to give them love.' "

So one day in early 2005, Celina went to the Roodepoort Child Welfare Society, in the neighboring town of Roodepoort, and offered to help out. Walk-ins are unusual; the social worker's jaws dropped.

"Usually we have to advertise for foster parents, but we were lucky with Celina," says Jane Swanepoel, the social worker who was managing the cases of Gift and his three sisters. "She came to the office saying, 'I'm available, these are my circumstances, I have a house, I'm married, I have an income,' and her circumstances were stable and sustainable. She said, 'I want to make a difference in a child's life.'"

On March 15, 2005, Celina got her chance. "They phoned me and said I must fetch him," Celina recalls. "I was so happy, and I thanked God for Gift because … I've got somebody who I can give love."

But not long after Gift's arrival, he began to fall seriously ill. Celina called the social workers frantically for help, and more than once had to take him to the hospital. On Feb. 8, 2007, Celina heard the news. Gift was HIV-positive.

Celina's immediate reaction was disbelief, then sorrow. Then she and Pule, active members of an evangelical church, the Kings Way Christian Church, turned to their faith for strength.

"That time we hear that Gift is HIV-positive, we have never take that sick[ness] into our heart and put it into him," says Pule. "I said, 'No, well, that's for God, that's not for us.' God knows, all we have to do is treat this child and give him all this medicine. This child…." He pauses. "There is no such sick[ness] in this body."

Since beginning antiretroviral treatment this spring, Gift has regained his appetite, lost his fevers, and grown from nine kilos (about 20 lbs.) to a hefty 15 kilos.

In the meantime, Celina has looked into taking in some of Gift's siblings, who are now residing at the nearby St. Joseph's Children's Home. Celina says the two older sisters don't accept her authority, but the youngest, 7-year-old Mary, moved into Celina's home for a few months this summer and slowly pulled out of her shy, quiet shell.

But then came more hardship for Celina and Pule.

In early August, a social worker for St. Joseph's Children's Home took Mary back, saying social workers had managed to locate Mary and Gift's paternal grandmother.

For Ms. Swanepoel, the story just didn't ring true. "We have the same information in our records that they did," says Ms. Swanepoel. In any case, the mother's family had shown no interest in Gift or his sisters back when they were still being neglected by their mother.

"The mother's family knew the circumstances of the children and where they were living, but just stood back," says Swanepoel. "I'd have to say I think it's because of her HIV status.... It's like they've been cursed, so it's better to stay away. And if they take the children, that curse will come up on them, and that's why they said they want nothing to do with those children."

Swanepoel says that Gift himself cannot be taken away from Celina since the state has already legally placed him as a foster child in her care. She also says that Roodepoort Child Welfare will fight to bring Mary back, since it is better to keep siblings together when possible.

Heartbroken, Celina clings to Gift in her small living room. She is still recovering from the loss of Mary, the quiet little girl who was just beginning to open up. She hopes that Mary can come back, but says, "I must leave it alone now. It's in God's hands."

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