Our Story

The Small Things is the culmination of decades of dedication from a number of hardworking women. It all began with Martha Ayo (known as Mama Pendo, or Mama Love), who has been caring for orphaned children in the Nkoaranga community for over 30 years. In 2010, Bekka Ross Russell founded The Small Things, to realize their shared vision of comprehensive, holistic support to keep families together and return children from care when possible, and family-style homes for children who cannot be reunified. Since 2015, Rehema Mussa has served as managing director, fulfilling our goal of having all programs managed and led by Tanzanian staff.

Rehema, Bekka, and Mama Pendo

Mama Pendo began working at Nkoaranga Orphanage in 1988, which is a local institution under the Lutheran Church of Tanzania. At first, the orphanage was literally a shack next to the hospital mortuary, where babies would be brought immediately after their mother’s deaths. At that point, they could only stay until the age of 2, and then had to return to the village, with or without safe carers. Many, if not most, of them ended up abused, neglected, or passing away within a year or two. With the help of various supporters, Mama Pendo managed to build a loving care home for children under 5, but they struggled without sufficient funds or staff for a safe caretaker ratio. In 2010, when Bekka began volunteering at the facility, there were often only two caretakers on duty for up to 30 children under the age of five, including premature infants. At age 5, they were seeking sponsorship to attend local boarding schools, despite sky-high rates of abuse for young children, and the inherent attachment difficulties for traumatized children who are moved suddenly between environments. Children were graduating from secondary school having lived only in institutions, lacking the skills and connections to thrive in their own communities.

Bekka is the executive director of the US organization, founded after she completed a volunteer stint in 2010 and earned a Master’s of Public Policy in International Development at the LSE in 2011-2013. In 2013, she moved to Tanzania with her husband Riz, and they adopted Saimoni (Simon) and Zawadi, two children without reunification prospects from Nkoaranga Orphanage, born in 2008 and 2009. Deeply influenced by the life and work of her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor who at great risk saved children from the Nazis during World War II, Bekka’s work is also an homage to her familial passion for helping children who have no one else.

The Small Things’ work in Tanzania grew from initial financial support of the orphanage, to the creation of a comprehensive family preservation program and a children’s village filled with loving, family-style homes. Happy Family Children’s Village offers a loving home for up to 50 children unable to safely return to their family, while TST’s team implements a plan for sustainable family stabilization and empowerment, when possible. It was built in honor of the late Amir Visram, thanks to the generosity of his daughter Shazi Visram, founder of Happy Family Organics. 

Our family preservation program complements residential care by providing intensive support and mentorship to families in acute need, helping to keep children in homes where they belong, while also providing training and business development services so parents can build a sustainable future. This has resulted in about half of residential children returning home before age 5  – an increase of over 1,000% since 2010. Our team of dedicated Tanzanian staff also provide community services including a day care/preschool, weekend tutoring, and microfinance cooperatives, with support from international volunteers. Family support is currently provided for over 50 families with 150 children, while more than 150 families and 1000 children benefit from our community services annually. 

Based in Branford, CT, TST has been funded by charitable donations since its inception, and we are extraordinarily grateful for every dollar given. Our dedicated team of about 45 full-time staff and hundreds of volunteers, partners, advisors and friends work as a global community to provide support for family preservation, ethical orphan care and investment in local Tanzanian infrastructure. As we move forward, TST continues to advocate for transition to a family-first model for residential care when reunification is not possible while serving as proof that small things can indeed create big change.

Bekka with her husband Riz and adopted children, Zawadi and Saimoni, from Nkoaranga Orphanage.

TST is a US 501(c)3 organization under FEIN 45-2466306 working in partnership with The Small Things UK (UK charity number 1157470). In Tanzania TST is registered under TIN #125-148-831 and #NGO/00007641.

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