The Children

Inside the Finoana School, which caters to children with special needs.

There are so many needy children here, but I am currently focusing my support on the following kids:
Orphanage Kids – In Madagascar, unlike other countries, many, if not most children residing in orphanages actually have parents and families. These children end up living in orphanages for a variety of reasons, and it’s common for overstressed parents to bring a child to an orphanage simply because the parents cannot care for the child and hope the facility can better provide for their children. Orphanages are run by the governement or by private entities. In Mahajanga, we are currently working with two facilities:

Orphanage in Mangarivotra, Mahajanga

1) The orphanage in Mangarivotra (MAHN-ga-REEV-cha), which has no official name and is run by the governement, and

Centre Fanovozantsoa, located in the Tsaralaza area of Mahajanga

2) Centre Fanovozantsoa (FAH-noo-voo-zant-SOO-ah), a privately run orphanage located in the Tsaralaza fokotany (township) of Mahajanga. What sets this orphanage apart from all the rest is the hard work of the Director, Madame Adelaide (pronounced ah-day-la-EED), who targets street kids, getting them off the streets and into her orphanage where she provides them with a roof over their heads, three square meals, lots of love, education, and even jobs for the older kids once they finish school. In many cases, the parents of these children are still living on the streets, begging, often with an infant in tow. Giving these children this facility changes their life’s trajectory, allows them to dream better dreams, and gives them the chance to escape what is often generational poverty. I cannot express how much I respect what she does and how much an honor it is to work with her and help provide some of the needs for the children in her care.

Special Needs Kids

One of my special needs kids, Nandrasana, and his father, waiting to be seen by a neurologist.

The challenges special needs kids face is multiplied by the abject poverty many of these families suffer. Even if they knew there was a school dedicated to catering to their needs (few parents are even aware this school exists), they lack the funds to pay tuition, food, transportation, school supplies, etc. When I identify a child with special needs, whether it be physical (e.g. microcephaly, children born with incredibly small heads), or a result of a prolonged labor and delivery (depriving the child of oxygen, stunting brain development and congnitive abilities), these parents believe they have only two choices:
1) Keep the child home, never sending them to school, often not even allowing the child to leave the home to play outside, utterly shunned, or
2) Sending the child to normal school, where they will undoubtedly fail. In one child’s case, they repeated First Grade four times, never able to advance due to their cognitive limitation.

Finoana School, in the Amborovy fokotany, catering to children with special needs

When we get involved, our first step is to educate the parents about the additional option of sending their child to Finoana School, getting their buy-in, giving them a tour, introducing them to the director, and most importantly, letting them see that they are not alone, that their child’s challenges are shared by dozens of other children in the region.

Our next step is to get the child seen by a neurologist, and we’re grateful to have at our disposal a “retired” neurologist, Dr. Tzangandrazana (ZAHN-gan-JA-zah-na), who is no longer doing hospital hours, but works from a small clinic in his home. He diagnoses the children, and if meds are prescribed, we purchase them for the family and take care of all refills. I make it a point, when walking through the neighorbood each month with the next refill, to hang the distinctive pharmacy plastic bag so everyone who sees me knows I’m on the way to deliver needed medicines. This spreads word of mouth, to other families who may have special needs kids they have hidden away, and each time one of these families reaches out to me, my heart sings.

Giving these cognitively challenged children an education can go a long way to providing them the foundation to eventually live a somewhat independent life, not fully dependent on their families (if at all), contributing to society, and living normal, fulfilling lives, as much as possible. Each time I attend a doctor’s appointment with one of my kids, I am stunned by the incredible need — how many other dozens of parents are there with their own special needs kids — which tells me that we really need to far more outreach to make an even greater impact in the lives of these families.

Juvenile Detention Kids

Centre de Reeducation Anjarisoa

The boys who end up at the Centre Anjarisoa normally don’t stay very long. For a variety of reasons, either they got in trouble with the law, or with their family, and have been placed in this private facility where they will remain for weeks or months. There is a term the locals use to describe this facility, which I won’t share with you, but it’s disparaging to the children. No child is ever born “bad.” Children are a reflection of their environments, and if they live in an abusive, broken home, their outward actions will reflect that. Anytime I see a child acting out in a negative manner, my first thought is always “What is that child facing at home?” The Director at Centre, Madame Elizabeth, works incredibly hard to provide these boys with the love, patience, compassion, and support they haven’t gotten elseqhere, and it’s a pleasure and honor to work with these boys. Each Sunday I travel there to teach arts and crafts, which includes Origami, crocheting, paints, using glue guns to create toilet paper roll art, all sorts of creative ways for them to express themselves.

And just like with the two orphanages we support, each Christmas, I gift each child with a new set of a fitted sheet and pillow case, which I personally sew, each set different, unique, no two alike — just like these wonderful kids. We don’t really use top sheets here because it’s normally at least 90 degrees here every day of the year, nights quite warm, so only bottom fitted sheets are needed.

Halfway House

When the orphanage kids get too old, they age-out of the system, generally at 18 years of age. Though many of these kids have families, they’ve been removed from those families for a variety of reasons, so sending them back into possibly abusive or neglectful homes is a terrible thing to do. That’s why I built the “Halfway House,” a transitional housing facility located on land owned by my former Peace Corps host family, in Ambondrona, a safe, quiet Fokotany (township) in Mahajanga. The Halfway House provides a supportive environment where young adults can live on their own, but surrounded by a number of adults that will oversee their daily activities, ensure they eat every day, help them learn how to manage a house, and transition to where they can eventually get their own apartments.

Broke University Kids

There are also a number of university students whose parents cannot help them with tuition and living expenses, so I pay all or part of their tuitions, transportation, food, and other fees.

The Critters

We have cared for hundreds of needy dogs and cats in and around Mahajanga and the need only seems to increase.

Who and/or What is Mama Leeza Cares?

My name is Lisa B. Lee, but pretty much everyone in Madagascar refers to me as “Mama Leeza,” a monicker I picked up in 2017 when I spent two years here with the Peace Corps teaching English to some truly amazing Malagasy kids and young adults.

I joined the Peace Corps at the age of 60, a dream I’d carried all my life ever since I saw my first Peace Corps commercial way back in 1964. I’d always envisioned myself living out in the bush somewhere, digging ditches or planting trees, but when I joined Peace Corps, I didn’t even apply for the Agriculture program because I had no real experience other than my personal gardens. Instead, they put me in their Education program where I taught English in two cities (Mahajanga, West coast, and Mahambo, East coast), to children as young as kindergarten, and as old as 10th grade. It was an amazing, life changing experience that allowed me to finally begin to live the simpler life of which I’d often dreamt. Once I sold my home in the Oakland, CA hills, and gave away or sold all of my worldly possessions, I left the States in June 2017 with two huge suitcases full of “stuff,” most of which I didn’t need and never used.

My first assignment was at the Ridvan School in Mahajanga, a privately-owned elementary school (K-5), and I lived on the school site in a small metal building, with a metal roof. Mahajanga is the hottest city in all of Madagascar, and I would like on my bed in the afternoons, baking, hearing my apartment make the same noises my oven makes when preheating. To say it was hot doesn’t begin to express what it was like. Thankfully we had electricity, so I was able to run a floor fan, but blowing hot air around my tiny studio apartment provided little relief.

The cultural differences here can be challenging.
Sometimes, all I can do is laugh in utter disbelief.

It was at Ridvan School that I first started caring for animals, cats and dogs. My neighbor’s cat adopted me, deciding she preferred my home, and despite my efforts to disuade her, she moved in, and within a few months, gave birth to three delightful kittens. There were also several owned and stray dogs who hung around, and being the animal lover I am, I started sneak-feeding four of them every evening. I had to sneak-feed them because in much of Madagascar, dogs are reviled, believed to be demonic, and if the wrong person saw me being kind to a dog, it’s very possible the animal would be poisoned, stabbed, or strangled. I’ve seen ALL of these things in the past few years I’ve lived here. I try my best to educate people about dogs, to respect them, not fear them, but the cultural norms are far stronger than anything I can tell them. Even my Peace Corps host family, who owned two of the dogs I was feeding daily, I had to hide it from them, too, because they felt that the food I was providing the dogs was too good for dogs. In the end, they found out I was feeding the dogs, but I continued to feed them surriptitiously, even though I knew THEY knew, just out of respect for them.

Just so you know, there is a VERY famous “Mama Liza” spaghetti commercial that used to play in Madagascar years ago, so when I tell people my name is “Mama Leeza,” I often hear the response, “Se ler,” which means, “It’s time.” Here’s the video:

Contact Us

Lisa B. Lee
2427 Monticello Ave., Apt. A
Oakland, CA 94601
(510) 408-8064

Mama Leeza Cares, Inc. is a 501c3 nonprofit organization. EIN 87-4440222