By far, the most impactful (not a real word, I know) part of our time in South Africa was working with the kids at Bridges Academy, supporting the staff at Bridges (both the Academy and the Retreat Center), and our trip into two of Cape Town's townships - Phillipi (Fill-i-pee) and Sweet Home.
We had our mental ideas of "service" seriously challenged on this trip. Because we were there as individuals and friends of one of the teachers, we had a very different experience than any of the groups that come through. We were there without a personal agenda, prepared to fill in however they needed. Jason spent his days shooting photos- of the kids, of the staff, of the school, of the retreat center, of Bridges' programs in the Townships. (For those of you just tuning in, my husband is a photographer with a Master's degree in his field.) In the past, from his experiences on missions trips, he's gotten so used (because he's 6'4" and built like an offensive lineman) to being put to work doing physical labor. In this case, however, what they really needed were his specific skill set - the things he does every day. And his contributions were so much more valuable to them as a photographer simply because it was a major need they had at the moment.
My days were filled with doing odd jobs around the school - things that needed to be done but kept getting pushed down the priority list simply because... well... there's a ton to do. I just kept my ears open during the day, and found odd jobs to do - organizing the library (literally pulling every book off the shelf and deciding what to keep, what to sell and what to give away), organizing TWO craft closets from hell (just like the books - deciding what to keep, what to give away and then putting them back in a way that makes sense), taking inventory of the kids "tekkies" (tennis shoes) so they'd know what sizes they still needed before they gave the students new shoes, typing up the students annual letters to their sponsors in the States. I even sowed up a big stuffed monkey that was about to go to a new home in the townships. Just whatever needed doing. In the afternoons, after school, I worked with the dance team and the choir. I gave command singing performances all over the school because the kids kept asking, and really, how do you tell African orphans no? I filled some needs they had artistically, bringing fresh material and ideas to kids who were just so hungry for more. And you know? They turned around and taught me. In fact, they totally and completely challenged everything I know about how people learn music. They sing organically. Music is so much a cultural birthright, and has so much value, that they sing (literally) all day long. Life is truly like a musical - and they'll break into song and dance purely for the joy of it.
Di (the Retreat Center Director, choir director and all around amazing person) fully believes the arts are healing, and with all that these kids have experienced and seen, you better believe they can use as much time in the arts as possible. In fact, if we can find the money and the time, I will be going back sometime in the next year for about five or six weeks to stay with Steph and direct/choreograph a musical. The kids are hungry for it, and it's something that I could literally do in my sleep (not that I'd be sleeping, I'm just illustrating a point that it would be so easy for me to fill that need.) Because if it helps some girl cope with the death of her parents, or heal emotionally from being raped in the townships, then it would be selfish of me not to give in a way that has always come so naturally to me.
Easily the most powerful day we had there was our visit to the townships. Susan Wadley (who founded Bridges of Hope and Bridges Academy) took us in with her for the day so Jason could get photos, and I think that both of us were forever altered. You see, I've seen extreme poverty before - in Mexico, Central America, Egypt - but nothing could have prepared me for what I experienced in Sweet Home. Let me give you a quick recap of our day (because I could go on about it forever). We met Mamalu (who works with Bridges and identifies potential students in the townships) and all of the recent matric's (graduates) for lunch outside of Phillipi. To hear how Bridges Academy changed their futures (they're all going to college or trade school) was so inspiring!
From there, we went to Beautiful Gate, a safe compound outside of Phillipi that provides community education programs for families, and houses children with HIV/AIDS. Babies with AIDS - rip my heart out. Anyhow, Beautiful Gate is not a part of Bridges, but allows Bridges to use their facilities for meetings and new student interviews.
Next we went into Phillipi, which in the last few years has developed enough that it's now a "nicer" township. That means there are some permanent structures there, and not just huts. Bridges raised the money to build the first church in Phillipi, and as such maintains a permanent office there. They also use the church facilities for some of their programs - CHE (Community Health Evangelism) and OVC (Orphans and Vulnerable Children). We picked up Susanda (another Bridges staff member), and she took us to another township, Sweet Home.
On the financial scale of townships, Sweet Home would be at the bottom. There is no formal school in Sweet Home and there are no permanent buildings. It is a township in the saddest sense of the word. In Sweet Home we went first to the home of McCloud for a home visit. The family has fallen on the hardest of times (the government screwed up their financial support), and the family (husband, wife, husband's sister and eight children under age 12) live in a two bedroom shack made of metal roofing and lined inside with scrap pieces of plywood and cardboard. The family gave up their one chair and wooden bench for us to sit on and piled onto a twin bed to visit with us. This was looking at the face of poverty, and this is the environment that the students at Bridges come from (only the students at Bridges have no parents and live with other family members).
After our home visit we went to the Sweet Home OVC (Orphans and Vulnerable Children) group. They meet several times a week, and it's a safe place for these kids where they build friendships with others who have the same experiences, play games, and have Bible study. They also use OVC to identify students for the Academy when it's time. There must have been 25 children of all ages in the OVC at Sweet Home and I wanted to take ALL of them home with me. It just broke my heart.
Photo by Jason.
We also went to the "Kresh" (preschool) in Sweet Home that has developed out of CHE (Community Health Evangelism). This is an affordable preschool and micro business that has really become successful. Anyhow, I got to visit with the babies for a while, and turned into a human jungle gym. Melt my heart.
All photos by Jason.
After we finished all of our visiting in Sweet Home, we went back to the church at Phillipi to attend the OVC program there. After being in Sweet Home, Phillipi felt like an upscale resort. The financial difference from one to the next was shocking. The OVC group in Phillipi is even larger, maybe 40 kids, and they ran it entirely in the Xhosa language. It's amazing, though, if you listen to tone and vocal quality, you can still get a sense of what's going on, even if you don't speak a word of the language.
Photo by Jason.
I think we were both forever changed by our day in the townships. Coming back to Bridges, and seeing all that the kids are provided with, courtesy of Bridges and their individual sponsors, I had a new appreciation for the schools. They are fed regular, quality meals, the have a safe place to sleep, people to care for them, and a quality education. Plus they're way out in wine country, which is SO beautiful. Most importantly, though, they're safe, and their futures are being changed for the positive in so many ways. I mentioned this before, but feel I should mention it again - Bridges has a 100% graduation rate. That's incredible!
But mostly, I think, I was there to support and encourage my friend. To make sure she ate regular meals (she's so busy that she'll grab a handful of trail mix and call it lunch). To know that someone back home has actually met her kids and understands a little bit of what she does day in and day out. Did you know that Steph is not a paid employee? She raises support from family and friends for her living expenses and teaches there for free. This is someone with Bachelor's degrees in Biology and Chemistry, a Master's in Chemistry and a teaching credential. And she volunteers her life and her education for these kids because she loves them. Plus, she also volunteers to coach both the boys and girls soccer teams (for which she is also beyond qualified). I've always been proud to call Steph my friend, but let me tell you, I've also found even more respect for the path that she's chosen to walk.
If you want to know how you can support Stephanie Cowell, Bridges Academy, sponsor a student, or just help us get together some needed items that we're sending to Bridges in March, please let me know by Facebook, email, or in the comments section below. I'm happy to get the correct information to you!