The Open Arms Home for Children is a bit unlike the stereotypical image of an orphanage. Nestled on a 70-acre hilltop in Komga, in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, Open Arms more closely resembles a small hamlet than an institution. Identical cottages abut the main house, overlooking the hills where horses graze. A soccer field provides plenty of room to run, while a concrete court offers a place to gather, jump rope, play tennis, or even create chalk drawings. Farther down the hill sits a replica of the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes.
Bob Solis ’84 never dreamed of this. A devout Catholic who studied theology and political science at Notre Dame, Solis spent his first year out of college with the Holy Cross Associates, a post-graduate volunteer program. After the year was up, however, he went on to pursue more traditional career paths, first as an aide to two U.S. Congressmen before entering the fields of non-profit fundraising and financial services, the latter of which he has served in for 26 years.
The thought of opening a children’s home across the world from his home in Phoenix, Arizona, never occurred to him — until it did. And looking back, it’s easy to connect the dots.
“In politics, I learned the power of people coming together for a common cause and getting something done, and then in fundraising, I learned how to leverage your cause through resources,” Solis said. “And then in financial services, of course, you're around people that have money and (you learn) how to manage that money. It’s like, maybe God was writing straight with crooked lines, as we say, because all of those things are extremely helpful.”
But it wasn’t Solis’ intent to plant roots in South Africa when he first brought his family on a mission trip to the country in 2005. He and his wife, Sallie, had always wanted to teach their five children — three biological and two adopted — how people lived in other parts of the world. He had finished reading a book about the South African AIDS crisis, so the Solis family boarded a plane to Johannesburg to spend a week working in an orphanage.
In that week, the Solis family did nothing else — no sightseeing, no shopping — and that was when the immensity of the epidemic, an abstract concept in a book, came into sharper focus. At the time, South Africa was among the hardest hit by the prevalence of the virus and, indeed, it remains the nation with the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in the world. Approximately 20 percent of its nearly 58 million people live with the virus. Estimates of the number of children orphaned by the crisis number in the millions.
Having seen the devastation firsthand, Solis and his family began to feel the pull upon their return home. After careful reflection and prayer, they decided to take the money they had set aside to pay off their mortgage and bought the property upon which Open Arms now sits.
“It was a leap of faith,” said Solis. “Needless to say, we hadn’t run a children’s home before, let alone one that’s 10,000 miles away from Phoenix, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t do it.”
A few months after that fateful trip, Solis returned to South Africa and spent a week visiting more children’s homes in the country. He wanted to gain a better perspective of the scope of the problem from people on the ground, as well as get a sense of a model that would work for Open Arms.
Ultimately, it was Bob and Sallie’s own experiences growing up in big families that informed the shape the home would end up taking. They wanted the children to grow up in the same type of atmosphere. They couldn’t completely replicate a traditional nuclear family, but they aimed to come as close as possible.
“We're big believers in the power of family to transform lives, and so we wanted to follow a model that was as close as could be replicated to a family situation,” Solis said. “(We have) children living in smaller cottages with permanent-type house parents and the units aren’t too large so that kids (don’t) get lost in the shuffle, and everybody feeling like they belong to a large and loving family.”
Open Arms opened its doors on March 16, 2006, when they welcomed a two-year-old boy named Sifundo. The joy Solis felt upon receiving the call at his office in Phoenix informing him of Sifundo’s arrival was a feeling he will never forget. The farm is now home to 58 children, ranging from six months in age to 22 years. The staff includes 43 full-time locals who are the primary earners in their families.
While Open Arms becomes a home for its children while they grow up, it is also a place where they can return once they have reached adulthood. The family model does not end once a child ages out, but the connection remains for life.
“We look at it as a family, so we think the kids will never leave,” Solis said. “Hopefully they'll leave and get jobs and take care of their family, but the fact of the matter is they're part of our family until either we die or they die. And so we consider things like who's gonna pay for a wedding, and who’s going to help when a young man or woman moves into their first apartment and needs to buy used furniture and beds like families do in the United States. … Part of our model is really beefing up that transition so that these children feel not only supported, but loved as young adults.”
Supporting the transition from Open Arms to adult life is one Solis and his staff are just beginning to navigate as their first “graduates” matriculate into the world, but the overall model has proven successful. The relatively small number of children in their care allows them to provide individualized attention to all, and Solis himself takes care to foster his own relationships with each child when he visits throughout the year. The sustainability of the Open Arms model earned Solis a finalist slot for the 2018 Invest in Others Global Impact Award.
As a nonprofit organization, Open Arms relies entirely on donations, with a goal of $850,000 each year to support its operation. Solis jokes that his donor pool started with the family’s Christmas card list and, naturally, many of his Notre Dame classmates and contacts have become benefactors.
Solis has also leveraged his Notre Dame ties in other ways. As Open Arms has grown, so too has the need for volunteers. To fill that need, Solis has found a willing partner in the Center for Social Concerns. The relationship with the CSC formed in Open Arms’ early days, and each year two Notre Dame students travel to Komga to take part in the International Summer Service Learning Program. Additionally, Solis visits campus each year to recruit graduating seniors from Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s for a full year of volunteer work at Open Arms, primarily as tutors and academic support.
“We have been so happy with our Notre Dame volunteers over the years that, honestly, we don’t recruit anywhere else because I don’t know how we could improve upon the quality of human beings who are coming to give our kids so much,” Solis says. “I tell our incoming volunteers, ‘You’re coming to live in a community, and you’ll be as changed from the relationship with the kids as the children will be from you.’”
So strong is the Notre Dame connection that Solis installed Open Arms’ own small-scale replica of the Grotto, itself a one-seventh recreation of the venerated site in Lourdes, France. The stones used to build it were donated by a local farmer, and the bronze sculpture of Mary and Jesus was commissioned by Canadian artist Timothy P. Schmalz, whose “Angels Unaware” was recently dedicated in St. Peter’s Square and depicts 140 refugees fleeing persecution.
“It’s the only place at Open Arms where you’re not allowed to run and play,” Solis says. “It’s a place of prayer and quiet, and a lot of kids go down there to light a candle and think about their life or say a prayer. It’s a really special place; we think of our beloved mother on campus, and it’s a good reminder of the connection we have.”
To learn more about Open Arms Home for Children, visit openarmshome.com.