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Being there

The global charity SOS Children’s Villages provides vulnerable youngsters with new homes. But they would not be real homes without carers like Jörg Lamprecht, surrogate father to six girls and boys at Germany’s oldest SOS village, by a lake in Bavaria

One spring night last year, Jörg Lamprecht, 58, and 14-year-old Merlin* were driving along a motorway, watching the road unspooling in front of them and the lights of oncoming cars, and talking about death. Merlin’s mother had just died; the message had come from the hospital an hour previously. Lamprecht told the caller: “We are coming to say goodbye, we’ll be there in two hours.” As they drove north through the Bavarian night, Lamprecht prepared Merlin for what was coming: that his mother’s skin would feel cold. They also talked about funerals. Merlin suddenly realised he had hardly any photos of his mother. Lamprecht promised to get hold of some. He also promised they would visit the grave regularly. Merlin did not doubt him.  It was not the first time Lamprecht had been there in difficult times, giving him support. Being there is Lamprecht’s job.

Merlin calls him Papa, as do all Lamprecht’s other five foster children: Linus, eight; Johan, 10; Tabea, 12; Sandra, 13; and Dora, 15. They live together in a house in an SOS Children’s Village by Lake Ammer, south-west of Munich– one of 38 facilities at 230 locations around Germany. Lamprecht and his wife, Eva-Maria, who works as the housekeeper, have a room on the first floor. “I love them all,” he says.

It is Tuesday morning. The children are at school and Lamprecht is giving a guided tour. The kitchen is dominated by a table nearly five metres long and 10 chairs. He shows off the five bathrooms, the children’s computer corner and the porcelain decorations on Tabea’s “princess bed”. He is very much the proud father. In the hall, a noticeboard displays everyone’s appointments: saxophone lessons, violin, extra maths tuition and dancing. Next to it hangs a wooden cross bearing the words:

Dear God
Earth needs rain
Plants need sun
Animals need space
Children need respect
People need love
All need You.

Lamprecht is a Catholic, which he feels provides practical support as well as meaning to his life. “Every time I come off worst, God is still my loving God,” he says. With six children it is a comfort he often needs. When Johan gets back from school today, for instance, Lamprecht knows he’ll be upset. An electrician fixing a light in his room this morning disturbed a line of toy cars. That is serious, because Johan is autistic and his emotional state can be badly affected if a fire engine is out of place. He has to be taken to school, as he is easily distracted. “A bee, a bumble bee, a butterfly: if he went on his own, he’d never get there,” says Lamprecht.

Anyone with children knows that love is more than hugs, a story at bedtime and a goodnight kiss.  Organising a day demands a lot of love. Buying the tights that don’t itch, the toothpaste that tastes right, driving everyone to clubs and classes – all that is love. And, like energy, it takes many physical forms. Above all, it means always being there and never not being there; it is the unspoken promise to the children: you are not alone in this world that you did not ask to come into.

Lamprecht is supported by two specialist teachers, who have a room at the end of the corridor. They sleep over every few weeks when the Lamprechts travel to their other home in Eichsfeld, Thuringia. The children don’t like him going away, so they have a deal: Papa is always available. When his phone rings, it is usually one of them saying: “You’ll be back in three days, won’t you?” The children constantly need reassurance that he’s there. Linus was very small when he came to the family, and struggled to sleep. For a whole year Lamprecht sat by his bed every night. Meals were also a struggle. Linus was far too thin, but he would only eat chocolate. Lamprecht recalls: “When Linus ate his first banana, we all had a little celebration.”

The SOS Children’s Village of Ammersee-Lech is the oldest one in Germany, opening in June 1958. It is an idyllic three-hectare estate south-west of Munich, with 21 buildings sprawled over a hillside and autumn mist in the valley below. Apart from the “Lamprechts” – and it seems right to call them that – there are eight other families. There are also offices, communal rooms and a public daycare centre. The village street meanders up to a basketball court now covered in yellow leaves. There’s a nature reserve between the village and the lake, with peewits, grey geese and mallards.

The village is for children who have suffered physical or sexual abuse. Their parents may be addicts or mentally ill, or just unable to cope. Sometimes lack of empathy can threaten a child’s well-being. Some parents are simply unable to see what their child needs. How a child ends up in an SOS village may be dramatic. If they are felt to be in immediate danger they may be whisked away from school by police. New arrivals are usually between five and eight years old, but sometimes even babies are brought in. The SOS Children’s Villages are designed for a long stay. That means welfare officials are not expecting conditions in their birth families to improve quickly. It is not uncommon for brothers and sisters to arrive together, because the village has the infrastructure to take them all in. Having a brother or sister close by can provide extra support.

But is it possible to replicate a family? Well, no. That’s why the SOS Children’s Village does not try to copy the family, just to live as a family. Hermann Gmeiner, the Austrian who founded SOS Children’s Villages in 1949, said a child needs a mother, siblings, a house and a village. And nothing has basically changed since then.

Lamprecht is paid as a public-sector worker. After deductions he is left with about €2,500 (£2,250) a month. But while his salary may be regular, his life is not. The SOS Children’s Village family is a living community, so employment laws on working hours do not apply – work-life balance is a concept from another world. “You need to be a little damaged in some way to do this job,” says Lamprecht. “And you need love; sounds corny, but it’s true.”

He himself comes from a troubled background. One of his six brothers was seriously ill and Lamprecht looked after him. Their father was not a bad person, but he drank and was violent. The pain his mother suffered also distressed Lamprecht. He swore then, as a child, that he would do better.

He kept that promise to his own children, who are now grown up. But that was not enough for Lamprecht. He was first a primary school teacher in former East Germany, then became a carer in a children’s home. In 2012 he joined the SOS Children’s Village in Bavaria. He says he has always felt empathy for those who did not have a good start in life. His own sons were very understanding; their father was always socially engaged. Now he can’t be there to share every step of his grandchildren’s development, but he makes up for it in the weeks when he is home in Thuringia.

There are clear rules governing life in a village. The teachers not only help but also supervise. And Lamprecht has to keep a record of every day. Things possible in a normal family are not allowed here. For example, his three girls need to have a close relationship with him, says Lamprecht. Yet he cannot cuddle them, as a natural father might. So they have developed a kind of ritual instead. Lamprecht lays his hand on their heads and traces a cross on their forehead with his thumb. It’s a kind of all-purpose gesture: I love you, goodbye and take care, all in one. Sometimes he has to do it twice, just to make sure.

Don’t take it personally

Daily life in the village is entirely pedagogically thought through, says Kristin Teuber, head of the education section at the SOS headquarters in Munich. She has a doctorate in psychology and develops the educational guidelines for the SOS villages in Germany. “The institutional framework gives the village mothers and fathers security in their work,” she says. Many children develop difficult behaviour. “Many are aggressive, others self-harm. Many of them cannot allow themselves to form a relationship at first, but at the same time they are very needy.” It is an enormous challenge for the carers. 

Despite all the rules, carers try to make the relationship with the children as close and direct as possible. Morning routines, meals, punishments, birthdays, Christmas – everything is individually tailored, just like in a family. “Of course, achieving accomplished de-professionalism is very professional,” says Teuber. “The art is to be there, to be empathetic, to be reliable in keeping contact, but as far as possible not to take rejection personally.”

To a child who learned that intimacy at home could lead to sexual assault, affection may seem threatening. A child who went hungry may hoard food in the village. It takes time to build trust, says Teuber. She talks about village parents who hardly get any sleep, because children come to their beds several times a night to check they are still there. “You need to be highly motivated to do this job.”

A carer also needs to understand that the children are loyal to their biological parents – no matter what happened. That is why the SOS villages involve the birth parents. Research has shown that children develop better when there is no conflict of loyalties. When things go well, the birth parents realise that their child is better off in the village and openly acknowledge it.

A Christmas trip

Lamprecht would never speak badly about a child’s parents, but he does have to explain the situation to children who ask: “Why am I here?” Otherwise the children might blame themselves or their siblings. That was the case with Tabea and Johan. Tabea thought her little brother was to blame for her being taken away from her mother. But her mother could not cope even before the second child was born. Now Tabea understands that she can feel fond of her brother again.

When the children reach 18 they have to leave, which is hard for many of them. The village is not supposed to be a safe bubble where they can always shelter. The children have to learn that they are part of the wider world beyond the village too. That is why the villages are not fenced off. But the openness works two ways: many former residents keep in touch with their village families.

One of them is Armin, now 22, who still spends every other weekend with the Lamprechts. He is living proof that a family assembled from diverse sources is still a family. Of course, each family has its own dynamics: all three of Lamprecht’s girls are going through puberty, for example. One day they are best friends and the next they hate each other for no apparent reason. “You need a good sense of humour,” says Lamprecht. When sparks fly, he says: “My office, five minutes.” Then he sits back and lets them explain what has happened.

Even when there are no quarrels, Lamprecht spends a lot of time in his office keeping his paperwork up to date. He writes a daily report, recording which parents have been in touch or minutes of meetings with other family members. Then there are the finances, such as the budget plan and requests for funding. He has just applied to the village director for money for Merlin’s school trip. He also collects special offers. With so many children to look after, any discounts come in very handy.

A large family can only function with established, well-coordinated routines. On weekdays Lamprecht and his wife get up at 5.45am, prepare breakfast and hope the girls don’t start squabbling in the bathroom. Their first goal of the day is that “the children have had breakfast and leave the house on time and in a good mood”. It may sound trivial, but it is definitely not.

Afternoons are taken up with school work and music lessons, and the evening meal is just before six. After that the children can watch television for an hour. The corner sofa in the living room is big enough for them all, though sometimes there is an argument over who can sit next to Papa. It is usually Linus, the youngest.

They all spend Christmas together, too. Lamprecht drives them in his nine-seater car 180km east to the Berchtesgaden area of the Bavarian Alps, where the SOS village has a mountain hut and the snow can be three metres deep by late December. If the water pipe is frozen, the toilet has to be flushed with buckets of snow. They hang Christmas decorations on a fir branch and eat baked apples. Before they open their presents, every child reads out or tells part of the nativity story.

When it comes to presents, the children are inventive. For Lamprecht’s 58th birthday recently, 15-year-old Dora gave him a jam jar containing 58 tiny rolls of paper, each one with a little saying – many of which she had written herself. This morning he unrolled one that read: “A lot of people could benefit from a piece of your patience.”

He smiles and then looks at the clock and takes a deep breath. The first of his charges should be arriving back from school any time now. Then the quiet house will be a lively home again. That is what it was built for. Lamprecht could take early retirement in three years and move out. But he wants to carry on for another eight years, for the sake of the children. “Then they’ll have got through the most difficult phase.” 

(*The names of all the children have been changed) 

SOS Children’s Villages is a global charity federation working to protect and care for children who have lost parental care, or who are at risk of losing it. It operates in 135 countries worldwide. The SOS-Kinderdorf organisation is one of the most respected youth welfare services in Germany. The first SOS Children’s Village was founded in Imst, Austria, in 1949 by Hermann Gmeiner. The idea of a children’s village mother as a reliable parent figure was initially controversial, both among experts in the field and with the church, which saw the concept as a threat to the traditional family. The German branch was founded in 1955 and three years later the first German SOS Children’s Village opened by Lake Ammer. Many of the first children had been orphaned by war; today they are almost entirely from troubled families. The organisation employs 3,907 people across Germany and has 1,122 voluntary workers. Nearly 700 children and young people live in more than 100 families in German SOS Children’s Villages. In addition, nearly 1,300 are looked after in residential group homes.