When asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, a young Elaine Brenkman said she wanted to be a mother.
And that is exactly what she is – but not just to her 20-year-old biological daughter Gezelle. There are also three adopted children, two stepchildren and six other babies that she cares for at her Guardians of Hope Place of Safety.
Brenkman cares for unwanted babies who were given up at hospitals or dumped after they were born.
She opened Guardians of Hope at the beginning of this month after being a Breath of Life house mother for three years.
While Guardians of Hope, which is based in Old Transkei Road, is in the process of being registered as a non-profit organisation, she has six babies aged between a month and nine months in her care.
“I am not just taking care of them. They are like my own. I don’t treat them any differently. They are loved and I make sure they get the very best care,” said Brenkman as she rocked a tiny girl battling a head cold. “Being a mother runs through my veins and makes me tick.”
Brenkman’s softly-spoken gentleness belies a brutal background and a battle with cancer she came close to losing, yet self-pity appears to be a foreign concept to her sunny disposition.
“I had a tough childhood in Pretoria. I came from a family with alcohol-related problems where I was abused, so I started working while I was at school and moved out of home when I was writing my matric finals.”
She was raped when she was 20 and gave birth to her daughter, Gezelle. “While I was pregnant they found I had womb cancer and suggested I have an abortion, but I said I wanted to have the baby first and then receive treatment, so after she was born I had a full hysterectomy.”
This was a bitter blow to the young woman whose only aim in life had been to be a mother to many. “When they asked us at school what we wanted to be when we grew up I always said I wanted to be a mother. Teachers would say ‘but you need a profession’, but that was all I wanted to be.”
After working for Telkom for 18 years, volunteering at a string of children’s homes and single parenting her daughter, Brenkman was reunited with her childhood sweetheart Dirk Brenkman.
“Before we married I told him my heart was with children and that I wanted to adopt two boys and a girl and have my own place of safety. Luckily he was on board.”
Brenkman, who got her baby fix by first volunteering and then becoming a house mother at Breath of Life, was given the beautiful Bonnie Doon building by business couple Gussie and Darrel Eberhart.
“When I started at Breath of Life I told them ‘this is just a season’ because I knew I wanted my own place of safety.”
A new challenge came when Brenkman was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. She had a double mastectomy. “They told me I wouldn’t make it to December 2015, but here I am – and I’m clear of cancer.”
Woven into these painful events are moments of immense joy, such as the adoption of her two boys and a girl, now aged four, three and 10 months respectively.
But her biggest battle may yet be looming.
Daughter Gémei, whose biological mother used five street drugs while pregnant, was diagnosed with a serious heart condition at the Red Cross Children’s Hospital in Cape Town last week.
“She has to have a very serious operation in Cape Town in two weeks’ time. But it will be fine, I know it will.” — firstname.lastname@example.org