How it began
The story of LITTLE EDEN begins with an ordinary housewife and mother of six, who believed she should do something to help children with intellectual disability.
Domitilla (left) with some of her beloved ‘angels’ in the 70s, and below, one of the earliest pictures of the Kempton Park Home.
All you need is love, faith and determination
LITTLE EDEN was started by a 49 year old housewife and mother of six. Domitilla Rota Hyams (1918-2011) knew nothing about social work and had no money or government backing. But she was a brave and determined person with an unshakable faith in God’s divine purpose.
With the help of a group of friends, advice from experts in the field and a R10 donation from her husband, Danny, LITTLE EDEN opened its doors to the first three little girls in 1967.
Initially, it was simply a day care facility, operating in the Edenvale Methodist church hall. By the second year, there were 23 children and a nursing sister supervisor and LITTLE EDEN had taken occupation of an old house awaiting demolition in Kempton Park.
Then Domitilla promised the dying mother of one of the children that she would look after the child for the rest of her life – and the need for permanent residential care was born. Over the next few years, the organisation was forced to move several times until in 1974 we were finally able to start building the present permanent home in Edenglen on land donated by the municipality.
In 1970 a 43ha farm in Bapsfontein was acquired, but owing to lack of funds, over a decade would pass before the Elvira Rota Village (named after Domitilla’s mother) was finally built.
Today, LITTLE EDEN is a benchmark non-profit organisation accommodating 300 children and adults with profound intellectual disability in two specialised residential care facilities.
We encourage the community to see our ‘angels’ through our eyes – to recognise each as a whole complete being created by God – with a mind, a body, a spirit and a soul – and the right to be treated with dignity, kindness and respect.
Meet the Founders
Domitilla was born and raised in a small village called Albenza in the province of Bergamo in Italy. During the War, her family suffered hardship but it was the same War that brought Danny Hyams into her life … a South African escaped prisoner of war, who was sheltered by the Rota family.
After the war, Danny returned to Johannesburg, saved enough money to begin married life, and went back to Italy in 1947 to claim Domitilla as his bride. The couple had six children – most of whom have served LITTLE EDEN themselves.
Domitilla remained involved in the daily running of the home until well into her eighties, when failing health prevented her from continuing. She was the longest serving volunteer at LITTLE EDEN and, right up until her death on 18 January 2011, she continued to pray daily for her special ‘angels’.
Danny walked beside Domitilla every step of the way in the establishment of LITTLE EDEN. It was Danny who gave Domitilla the very first donation of R10 in 1967, which she used to launch the organisation. Although he never sought the limelight or wanted any personal recognition, Danny was not just the man beside Domitilla; he also cared deeply for the children of LITTLE EDEN. He served on the Board of Governors from its initiation until shortly before his death, and was Chairman from 1967 to 1974. Danny was called to join his beloved wife in December 2012.
‘I have often wondered why God chose me to start a place like this,’ Domitilla said. ‘There is one thing I know: that people with intellectual disability have great value and that God gave them to us to touch our hearts and make us better people.
‘We are all the hands of Jesus in caring for our neighbours – regardless of race, colour or intellectual ability. Whether you feed a child, make a donation, or give of your time and attention in some way, the important thing is that you make a difference in your lifetime.
‘My greatest wish is that more will be done to ensure the comfort and safety of persons with intellectual disability. And that more communities, families and individuals will come to understand the value of these special people and reach out to them instead of choosing to look the other way.’
In a move which has been described as a major event for the Catholic Archdiocese of Johannesburg, and the country, the South African Bishops’ Conference recently approved, and laid the foundations for, the opening of the Cause of possible beatification and canonisation for Daniel (Danny) and Maria (Domitilla) Hyams. Although this is a lengthy process, there’s a possibility that the founders of LITTLE EDEN could one day be Saints Daniel & Domitilla. Read more.
Awards & Recognition
In 2008, Mrs Domitilla Rota Hyams was presented with one of the highest Papal awards that can be bestowed on a lay person – the Benemerenti Medal – pictured above.
Instituted by Pope Gregory XVI in 1832, the Benemerenti (well deserving) Medal is awarded by the Pope in recognition of a parishioner’s dedication, service and work for the Church and the community.
This was one of countless awards received by Domitilla and Danny for their selfless work for children and adults with intellectual disability.
In 2006, Domitilla received the Lifetime Recognition Award from the Italian-South African Chamber of Trade and Industry at the annual Business Person of the Year Awards.
The Lifetime Recognition Award is presented annually to a person who, in addition to having been involved in business, has distinguished him/herself for exceptional, selfless contribution to the community at large, for which no material gain is expected or received.
In 2003, the Pontifical decoration Benemerenti was presented to Daniel George Hyams, as founder of LITTLE EDEN.
Danny and Domitilla Hyams were honoured posthumously in Italy on 7 February 2016 when the town of Albenza in Almenno San Bartolomeo displayed on the entrance sign to the village “the birth place of Domitilla Rota Hyams”; a road in the village was renamed “via Domitilla Rota Hyams”, and Danny Hyams was awarded the Honorary Citizenship of Almenno San Bartolomeo.