Who is Betsy Blake?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Day Four: Mfuleni

Mfuleni (Thursday’s Trip)
The setting for this centre is in the Cape Town area.  The landscape is largely sand, thus the land must be carefully and diligently cultivated with nutrients and water to grow the vegetation needed to feed its community.  Leaders at MaAfrika Tikkun have said the efforts to get the community to grow gardens has been a struggle due to the cost of the soil nutrients which must be mixed with the sand, and the cost of the seeds.  We learned that spinach grows well in these sandy conditions; this was good news.

We were met my Lisel and Lungi, and many others who were pleased to meet us and to show us the good works being accomplished
 This visit had us walking into the community for home visits.  Many of the homes within this shanty town were nothing more than corrugated metal  “walls”  fashioned into a home with 1-2 rooms; others were made of cement block and/or stucco materials with a kitchen, living area, bedroom, and plumbing.  Electricity was available to some, refuse is collected on Thursdays.
The first home visit was to a family who currently has no home.  They have a sandy plot for a future structure, but the family of five lives right now in a 6 x 12 foot metal shack until the home is built.  The family had mother, 15 year old son, twin five year old boys, and a 2 year old boy.  Clearly the boys loved the weekly MaAfrika Tikkun women, who come with educational toys, puzzles, songs and lots of praise and smiles for paying attention and learning!  Our “session” took place on a blanket in the sand, on the plot where their future home will be constructed.  Neighboring children, while not registered in the program, sat nearby and participated as well.  When the visit concluded, it felt terrible to pack up the modest toys we’d brought and take them away from these children who have NOTHING for toys. 
The next home we visited was quite a sad visit initially…while the home itself was very neat, with appliances and several rooms, approaching the home we could hear a continuous cyring/moaning noise.  As we entered the home, we saw that it was the 2 ½ year old girl; we were told after brief introductions  that her Daddy had been hit by a car a few days prior, and had passed away.  She was “daddy’s girl”, and could not understand the separation.  The girl’s mother and family friend were attempting to console her, but she was just miserable.  The ladies from MaAfrika Tikkun and I soon provided a distraction, and within a few minutes, she was beginning to look interested in the toys, and smiling.  We proceeded to practice counting, naming colors, and then got out the paints.
Before beginning the picture, we spend several minutes searching the house for a pencil to draw a picture to then paint…when the one pencil in the house was found,  it was sharpened with a kitchen knife.  I thought of the junk drawer in my house filled with extra pens/pencils and wished (for the 100th time) that I could  run to my house and gather up the many things that are really not necessary, to share with this family, and others.
By the end of our visit, our little girl had proudly hung a sheet of her painted masterpiece on the refrigerator and was headed outside to find her friend to show her the artwork.  The MaAfrika Tikkun women encouraged the mother to keep her daughter active and distracted with other things so that she did not fall into the despair again.
We went back to the center, and helped in the computer room, and then in the kitchen.

 We helped to distribute dinners through the kitchen's window/serving sill, to many, many children.  After dinner, there was a large crowd of children and lots of laughter outside the kitchen window...below, see Brian DiMasi entertaining the kids by taking their picture, and then stretching the photo or widening the picture, to distort the was a BIG hit! 
Sad to say goodbye, again, to the great people we met during this visit.  The angels living on earth...

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Day Three: Cape Town HQ & MFULENI (Mmmm-Full-eenie)

On Thursday, we flew from Johannesburg to Cape Town, about 2 hours south, and on the coast of South Africa.  We began the trip with a visit to MaAfrika Tikkun's headquarters, to meet Gala and Catherine, for a quick lunch.  We then headed to the first of the two locations we would visit in Cape Town, Mfuleni.  One of the first things Lisel and Lungi showed us was the garden, which was quite large, but the soil was mostly sand!   The centre works hard at adding nutrients to the soil to encourage growth, but it's costly and wind erosion and irrigation issues makes the garden's success a great challenge.  These people must work with what they have, so educational programs to encourage the Mfuleni Centres' recipients to tend a garden at their homes is also promoted.  Unfortunately, the cost of maintaining a sandy garden with the proper additives, as well as having to pay for more seeds, has led to a mostly "one-time" effort for these very poor people. 

Next, our group split up and we were put into groups for home visits.  This was probably the hardest part of the visit for me, as I was too shocked, uncomfortable and self-conscious to do anything but try to "fit in."  We walked across an expanse of sand (several hundred yards away from the centre) and entered the community of homes.  Many of the homes within this shanty town were nothing more than corrugated metal  “walls”  fashioned into a home with 1-2 rooms; others were made of cement block and/or stucco materials with a kitchen, living area, bedroom, and plumbing.  Electricity was available to some, refuse is collected on Thursdays. Like many areas in the US, one could see some homes which were obviously cared for, and some which were surrounded by what appeared to be trash.  Many were no more than corrugated metal, pieced together with wire, and somehow fashioned into a shelter/home.  Occasionally, a home would stand out because of a beautiful flower garden, or a meticulous, paved sidewalk, or lace curtains in the window.  Much of that was of course in stark contrast to the whole picture, but looked like little beacons of hope on the street.  I was not comfortable taking pictures during these visits into the community, because it felt disrespectful.  There were so many people watching; I wanted to just be polite and low key.  I even kept my sunglasses off, so that I was not "hiding," and people could see my eyes. 

Our first family had no home.  They had a plot of sandy grounds between two shacks, and a shelter which was made of the corrugated metal and some plywood, while they waited for their home to be built.  A mother, teenage boy, twin boys (5) and toddler (2) lived in a shack which was 6 x 12 feet.  As we made introductions, it was clear that the mother was very, very shy, but that the boys were quite happy to have the MaAfrika Tikkun weekly visit.  On the sandy plot, under the sun, we laid out squares of plywood, and covered the plywood with a bedspread; this was to be our "schoolroom" for the session.  The boys were told to listen and behave by their mother--universal motherhood rules!  We used a  puzzle to name body parts; the boys were very excited to put a puzzle together, and were rewarded by all of us with all of the correct answers.  We used a book to cover the color "yellow", and the boys were asked one by one to recite, "yellow CHEESE, yellow CHICKEN, yellow BALL, etc."  It felt terrible to put the toys away after each exercise, knowing the children had no toys of their own.  We sang songs (a version of Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes", but in their native language.)  When the visit concluded, we all helped to put away the blanket, the plywood, etc., and said our goodbyes.  The cluster of neighbors and other children who had gathered to watch the visit waved goodbye.  Lungi "two" is a most gracious worker.

Our second visit was quite a walking distance away, which gave me a great opportunity to see first hand the village.

I was looking at a stunning garden, when I heard a sort of moaning noise which got louder as we approached the second home we were to visit.  The ladies I was with told me the sound was coming from the very house we were to visit, and they were puzzled by the sound as well.  We went into the home, and found that the child we were to visit was grieving and sort of "keening"...she was nearly 3, and was missing her father terribly.  We were told that her Daddy was killed in traffic, on the way to work, four days prior.  (more to come)

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Day 2 The Ronnie & Rhona Lubner Child & Youth Centre at Phutaditjaba in Alexandra

Day 2 MaAfrika Tikkun Trip
Today our Safelite® group began the day by attending the official launch of the Ronnie and Rhona Lubner Center, at Phutaditjaba in Alexandra Child and Youth Centre.  Nestled in a very crowded shanty-like town, the center stands out as shining example of good things to come for the youth of this community.  Set to employ 100 local residents, the centre’s ceremony included Ronnie and Rhona (who considered this gift in celebration of their 50th wedding anniversary).  Ronnie also said in his brief speech that he and his wife decided to invest in this centre because “this is the right thing to do.”   Area community leaders, religious leaders, tribal members , business partners and guests enjoyed a presentation of music and dancing by a several of the centres’ childrens’ groups, all to honor the centre’s opening.

A very special guest, Miss South Africa Bokang Montjane, addressed the crowd with her statuesque beauty and heartfelt speech, as well.  Admitting that she was going “off script” for part of her speech, she was adamant about her belief that the government is trying to make change, but that the communities were also just as responsible to work in tandem to create change for the youth of South Africa, to create better communities and a better future.  In particular, she would like to stop seeing “children marrying children”, but rather that they be given the educational  opportunities  to improve their  quality of life.

Matt, Brian, Miss South Africa Bokang Montjane, Betsy, Mike
Rabbi Dovid Hazdan concluded the ceremony with a song we Americans did not understand, but the joy and enthusiasm of the crowd singing it was the perfect ending of this significant event.
Next Stop:  MaAfrikan Tikkun in Diepsloot
Diepsloot--a community within a community.  These great folks are doing wonderful things here:

Maintaining a garden to help feed the centres' children and families. 
(Picture to come)

Pumping water which is fed by the childrens' "merry-go-round"...the more the children turn the merry go round around, the more water is fed into the holding area (see picture).  This provides water for the centre, as well as for the irrigation of the centre's garden, which provides some of the fresh vegetables and fruits for the children and some of the eligible community members.

Computer Lab for children and teens to learn from the ground up, these important skills.  Wendy, 18, is working on a homework assignment and kindly allows me to participate (see picture.)  Her assignment is to focus upon the question:  "What is a memorial, and what should be memorialized?"  She has chosen to focus upon the women in South Africa who were a part of the early voter registration movement (from 1930's to 1950's.)  Wendy was not as familiar with Google as we are-- I was able to show her some of the navigation tools within the site to find her information.  I was very impressed with the care she took to NOT plagiarize (which her homework greatly emphasized), and the effort she made to name all of her sources within the paper she was drafing.  Wendy will be submitting her assignment next week, and promised to have the MaAfrikan Tikkun computer instructor, who has email, send me the grade she receives on her project.  I hope to send her a message after this as well.  This centre is the only opportunity she and others there have to work with a computer, which is essential to creating a CV/Resume, in order to seek employment. 

Below:  Creating a library for children to have access to information not available to them within their community:  see picture, in the background.  Note:  bicycles donated by Safelite were used for 30 minute ride into outlying community during visit.)

Each one of these centres is like a unique community, within a community, filled with strong and hard-working people taking care of each other.  We are grateful to Diepsloot's leaders and members who were so open and willing to share the great initiatives in which they're involved, as well as the challenges they still face.


Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The team at Orange Farm – Arekopaneng

 Posing with our friends

  Special Needs Room

 Garden, sporting sign with Thanks to Safelite, for the bicycles.

 Signing the banner...will bring the banner to the 2011 Vegas Triathlon

Day One MaAfrika Tikkun

Today we visited the MaAfrika Tikkun Headquarters, as well as two locations, Orange Farm and Hillbrow.

 We met many wonderful and welcoming people, and were amazed by the children who were so joyful. 

The visit began with a short tour of the Orange Farm facility, and then a special welcoming musical presentation by teenagers using drums and other instruments (see photo).  It was very uplifting--there were so many shy smiles (and those trying NOT to smile, as teens will do!)

Behind a fenced in area, one- and two-year olds stood to watch the "ceremony", and to stare shyly at the visitors (us).  We learned to say what sounded like "shop" and to rub or click thumbs with the children as a sign of hello.  Having upwards of ten little thumbs raised toward you at a time was so adorable, and interestingly, once the greeting was acknowledged with a youngster,  these little people moved aside for their friends to be acknowledged as well.  This kind of respect for their friends (following courtesy rules at this age) surprised and mesmerized me...I stayed there until there were no more raised thumbs.

The visit continued with each area of the center being introduced by the responsible manager.  Each leader was very clear about the goals of the area, and had amazing control of his/her group of children.  The children were curious and respectful, energetic and happy.

We assisted the leaders with a sporting activity just prior to lunch, which allowed us to interact with a smaller number of children.  Children seem to be universal in their quest for team spirit, fun and skill (picture to come).  The activities for this age were straightforward, and I was again impressed with the cooperative nature of the kids as they took turns completing the skills we asked of them.

We had lunch in a modest board room, and reflected with the staff our observations of the morning.  We sat with the centre's administrator, Rita, who is also a pastor.  As she spoke of the centre's works and her philophy as a mother, a caretaker and a manager, I was transfixed by the similarities and connection I felt to her ideologies around providing the basics (food, medical care, education, love) to children.  She was a wonderfully giving leader to listen to; MaAfrika Tikkun is lucky to have her.

While we did not eat lunch in here, this is a picture of the children's cafeteria.

The centre's staff were very proud of the library which was very modestly stocked with books-- I thought of the libraries in the states that are crammed with books; and of the multitude of "half priced" book stores, and compared that over abundance to what was in front of me...and felt deflated by the difference.  "If only..."  if only it was easier...after all, how many extra books are there just within the homes of the people I knew?  So easy to think of boxing those up and shipping them, but the expense of sending something this heavy across the globe, and of the customes paperwork feels daunting.  I wonder if Fed Ex or UPS would donate their service for something like this?  Wouldn't it be great if they would do that for many types of donations? 

Below is a picture of  polite and well-spoken Timothy, who works in the Orange Farm Library.  He was on a computer when we entered the library, and manages the library's inventory.  I was surprised to see that Timothy was missing parts of his legs, as he rolled back from the desk for a photo shot.  I thought of him later as we left the centre, and wondered how he has fared through his life, in the very, very challenging poverty that surrounds the centre.  Dirt roads, shacks, lack of plumbing...I can't imagine the strength he must have.  I find myself thanking God that that he has found a vocation working with MaAfrika Tikkun.

We then visited more of the facility, and met more staff and children.  We spent about 20 minutes in one of the rooms, where the babies were still crawling.  These children were much more shy and anxious about us visitors.  We got on the floor and tried to interest them without scaring them. 

This little girl would look me right in the eye and stare, for long moments....she was such a beautiful baby--she allowed me to hold her, and I wondered about her family, and her situation.  I thougth about how she was fortunate to be involved in the Orange Farm program, as all the children looked well-fed, adequately dressed, and looked well-cared for. 

Though we spent a few short hours with this team of staff and children, we connected on a very basic level, and it felt like we were leaving good friends as we said goodbye.  Turns out we would see Rita the next day at the opening ceremony, who greets us like we are now a part of her family.  We are indeed blessed to be acknowledged in this way.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Why Volunteer? Why MaAfrika Tikkun?

I am convinced that we are obligated to live our lives with certain responsibilities:  to embrace religion and live with that embodiment, to be kind to one another, and to be the very best that we can be.  I am also certain that our obligations to take care of one another should not be limited to our own families, but should reach out to those vulnerable members of our communities.  Living a life of giving will provide life’s most fulfilling riches.
It feels so fortunate, and humbling, to be able to experience a trip to MaAfrika Tikkun, a charity helping some of South Africa’s most desperate men, women and children.  Traveling due to my career with Safelite® and Belron® has made the world seem so much smaller, and more like extensions of the communities of which I have been a part.  So, to visit an organization making extraordinary changes in peoples’ lives by providing education, food, counseling and funding for many other services which will allow people to sustain a dignified and significant life, will likely be an event of a lifetime for me.
I struggle to describe the emotion I feel when I am asked what this trip means to me, and what I expect to “get” from the experience of volunteering for just one week, at MaAfrika Tikkun.  I expect to learn that there is a whole other world of challenges and difficulties I cannot fathom.  I expect to see parents loving their children in the same way as I.  I expect to feel heartbreak at seeing children raising children, but also hope, that the skills and counseling being provided will allow them to flourish in their own ways.  And I hope to show that we come from another continent, but that our hearts are open, and that caring for other communities is universal. 
My experience with other charitable organizations has allowed me to personally witness how some of life’s tragedies can be mitigated and even reversed by the funding and personal care of others.  Seeing it first-hand provides a level of understanding which can translate into approaching fundraising with a truer sense of purpose, given that first-hand knowledge of the good the monies can do.  I expect to be able to share the plight of the townships’ vulnerable, after seeing it personally, and to continue to make a difference by helping to sustain the programs’ services.
It is a great privilege to be afforded this experience, and I am so very thankful.