Around 2002 our son founded a company that designs and delivers health care to victims of the AIDS pandemic in South Africa. As he returned from his trips he would update us on the widespread devastation AIDS was having on the world population — 8000 deaths a day, EVERY day, 6000 kids orphaned a day, EVERY day, with the result that a whole generation, the 15 to 40 group, was being wiped out and their children were left to grow up alone. My wife and I were challenged at a Leadership Summit in 2006 to commit to do something to bring the Church off the sidelines and into the game in the fight against HIV / AIDS and the resulting devastation left in its wake. Soon after the Summit, and following a visit from a pastor from South Africa, my wife and I arranged a visit to KwaMhlanga, South Africa. KwaMhlanga is a community of approximately 500,000 people, with an HIV / AIDS prevalence rate of approximately 45%.
Four child care centers were in operation providing food, clothing, school uniforms, homework assistance, and daily care for around 100 children. A fifth new building stood vacant due to a lack of funding. In order to reach more kids in the community, our congregation committed to fund the new Center for two years in order to give the umbrella organization time to raise the ongoing support. That was in 2007. The umbrella organization no longer exists but our congregation, with assistance from others, many of whom are lawyers and law firms around the country, continue to operate the Manaleni Center.
There are approximately 100 kids served at the Manaleni Center, located about 50 miles northeast of Pretoria. A team visits the kids and staff at least once a year. From day one we have committed to do more than write checks. We know the kids and they know us. They remember us. They know us by name and we know them by name. One year there was a team member who had been on the two previous trips but wasn’t on the current visit. Two girls asked, “Where’s Carli? We call her Mom.” It’s that personal. The reason we go is to remind the kids they are loved, people care, and they will not be abandoned again. People ask, “What kind of skills do you need to be a part of an annual team visit?” My response is, “You have to be able to sit down.” It’s true, all you have to do is sit down and you’ll find yourself surrounded by precious children who just want to be with you, to touch you, and to feel loved. (Take along a digital camera and snap their picture and you’ll be mobbed by kids just wanting to see themselves in the 3 inch LCD screen!) The poverty is overwhelming. The funeral homes are many. KwaMhlanga is one of eight former “Homelands” where, under Apartheid, blacks could not leave without a permit, and the permit was usually to go work in the home of a white person in Pretoria or Johannesburg. Or, if you were male the permit allowed you to leave for six months to a year to work in the mines. Not surprisingly, the latter resulted in AIDS being brought home by the husbands. One of the biggest surprises is just how happy the kids are. They have virtually nothing materially, yet they thrive on the sense of community they experience. Sadly, many of us in our country seem to have lost the positive contributions that come from living in community with one another.
I have gone to South Africa six times since the beginning of 2007. Most trips take about 9 days including travel. However, a significant amount of time is required between visits. From day one our group has been responsible for all of the financial support for Manaleni which runs about $80,000 a year. Money goes a long way in an area with virtually no economy. As I said earlier, the umbrella organization that initially oversaw the Manaleni Center is gone. Therefore, our group relates to the community organization (NGO) that has legal responsibility for Manaleni. Communicating with those on the ground in South Africa, raising the funding, preparing and training team members for trips, and making the visits has a way of taking more time than one might think — but I can’t think of a more rewarding way to spend that time.
There are those who question our involvement asking, “Why are you spending time in South Africa when there are so many needs in our own country?” and “Can you really make a dent in the problem?”
To the first question my wife and I are quick to agree there are needs in both places. Jim Collins, author of Good To Great and Built To Last, has a wonderful insight for companies, firms, organizations and individuals who face decisions on how and where to spend time and resources. Collins urges people to not submit to what he calls The Tyranny Of The Or and, instead, to discover The Genius Of The And. By that Collins means we often think we have to decide between either A or B. However, the very successful who thrive over time have come to discover that you can often find a way to do both A and B. In other words we don’t have to choose between responding to the ravages of the AIDS pandemic in South Africa and the societal issues in the US. There are ways to do both. (For our part, my wife and I are also involved in homeless initiatives in our community).
Early on in our work I came to terms with the second challenge, i.e, can you really make a difference? I tell folks “We aren’t going to cure AIDS. We aren’t going to end world hunger. And, we aren’t going to clothe everyone worldwide. But, there are 100 kids in the Manaleni community of South Africa that we can care for, clothe, help educate, and love. And that’s what we are going to do.” For me that’s reason enough to stay engaged. (I also tend to agree with Rick Warren, Pastor of the Saddleback Church in California who points out that if every congregation in the US would partner with a community or congregation in need in this country and in other parts of the world, we could end world hunger, put a big dent in poverty, and go a long way toward educating the planet.)
First, I don’t see my involvement ending, at least not anytime soon. Second, our vision and our work at Manaleni need to move to the next level as we care for the kids and staff. We have youth who are about to “age out” or, in other words, reach the age where they are no longer students and will not qualify to come to Manaleni. As I said earlier, we know and love these children and don’t want to leave them without a means of support as they move into adulthood. Unfortunately, the schools in the KwaMhlanga area are miserable. Currently, we are in conversation with folks in South Africa and in the US about constructing ways to train the youth for a trade. But, a skilled trade isn’t much use if you live in a community where there is little or no economy. So, the challenge is to help jump-start the economy in certain ways that match up with the vocational skills we want to teach. Although it seems a daunting challenge, things are happening that gives us hope this next vision will become a reality.