Last Monday, I held the most gorgeous little baby boy in my arms in the maternity ward of a Somerset West hospital. 1 week old. Abandoned by his mother only a few hours after she had given birth, without wanting to know whether she has given birth to a baby boy or girl. I struggle to think of another time when the brokenness of this world has been as tangible as when I was holding that tiny little life in my arms. Sadly, his story is not unique. Every year, 500 babies are abandoned by their mothers, unable to care for them, just in this area of South Africa. Babies being left in parks and outside hospitals, hours old.
You wouldn’t be blamed for thinking the situation was hopeless. As I held that baby I certainly did. But, I was proved so so wrong.
17 years ago, the Thembalitsha Foundation, of which the Village of Hope is part of, was started by one couple from their garage, after hearing God’s call. On Monday, I had the chance to go and visit 4 of the 7 projects of the foundation. Having seen the incredible influence of the Village of Hope on the community of Grabouw, and experienced the amazing work of ThembaCare, I was blown away by the extent to which the Thembalitsha Foundation is reaching people all over the Western Cape.
Bosom Buddies, one of the projects, was the reason I came to be in that maternity ward. Every week, as new mums are about to be discharged, volunteers go into the hospital and hand out packs with all the things they need for their baby’s first day. Often these mothers will show up to the hospital in a taxi, give birth alone and then walk out of the hospital without so much as a nappy or even a blanket to wrap their newborn in. These packs, carefully prepared and colour coded for the sex of the baby, provide them with all the essentials, and the volunteers offer a friendly and congratulatory face for these women who may have not had any family around them while giving birth. We saw several mothers that morning, waiting to leave with their new gorgeous babies. While one had a husband who she said would care for her and her son, another had no-one except her own mother. Having the opportunity to bless these ladies with a pack and being able to pray with them and show them love was incredible. These volunteers I’m sure provide comfort in some form to these ladies, and often they find themselves praying for girls as young as 14 or 15.
What of the little baby boy? He had been paired with a ‘kangaroo mum’, who was visiting him almost daily in the hospital and spending time bonding with him. When he was well enough to leave the hospital, she would be taking care of him for at least 3 months before he was put up for adoption. Hope in a seemingly hopeless situation.
Our second stop on the “Themba Tour” was to The School of Hope, Athlone. Crammed into a small building, the project offers a second chance at education to young people who dropped out of school before finishing their Matric or Grade 12. They currently have 70 pupils enrolled, and over 200 on a waiting list. Here, education is a great leveller. Once you have gained your Matric, if you work hard, there is no reason why you can’t go on to further study, with scholarships available for top students. We met two pupils, both from Zimbabwe, who for different reasons had dropped out of school at a young age, only to then realise their mistake a few years down the line. School of Hope, they told us, has rebuilt their confidence and given them that second chance. Both now hope and strive to finish their Matric and go on to further study. School of Hope does indeed offer them hope. But, there is a real need for new premises. 200 young people just like them wait on a list for their second chance. Tragically, just a week before we visited, a young man had been mid-way through his interview to be enrolled when he dropped dead of a suspected drugs overdose. A young guy wanting to get clean of drugs and better himself through education. How many more like him could literally have their lives saved if School of Hope is able to expand and grow through bigger premises?
Walking round the back of School of Hope, we came to our next stop on the tour – ThembaCare, Athlone. Unlike the ThembaCare that is just down the road from Village of Hope in Grabouw, this hospice is specifically for children and babies. Many, but not all the children here are HIV positive, and are referred here by local hospitals either to be started on anti retrovirals (ARVs) or to spend their last days. As with the precious little boy I held at the Somerset West hospital, it is not uncommon for children to come to ThembaCare having been abandoned in hospitals. We were told the story of one baby who was admitted into the local hospital by his HIV+ mother, who then admitted herself and unfortunately passed away. The hospital was not aware of her connection to the child and, believing the baby had been abandoned, passed them on to ThembaCare. It was only a few months later that the baby’s father, unaware that his wife had passed away in hospital, was finally able to track down his baby. I can’t tell you how hard it is to wrap your head around some of the stories that you hear here. We had time at ThembaCare to play with the little ones, and it always blows my mind that kids so young could have such unbelievable stories. I dread to think where they would be if ThembaCare Athlone did not exist. This place really is a safe haven where they can get love, care and specialist medical treatment. And within that, the stats really speak for themselves. When ThembaCare was first started, the number of children dying here was 97%. Today, incredibly and in only a few years, that figure is just 3%. Hope in the darkness.
Our final stop on the whistle-stop tour of Thembalitsha was Graceland pre-school, in the stunning scenery of farms on the outskirts of Stellenbosch. In my opinion, the scars of Apartheid are never more apparent than when you take a closer look at the farms. There are still very clear hierarchies in place, and it seems that the people themselves are reinforcing the wrong views: farm owners are white, powerful and rich; their farm workers are black and poor; and the coloured people are in between. That might sound pretty unbelievable; as far as the wider world is concerned, Apartheid is no more, but unfortunately its legacy lives on. It is this segregated farming community that Graceland serves. Graceland aims to provide an education that helps kids get it right from the start. They are given pre-school education, but it was amazing to hear of how the teachers are dedicated to instil confidence and dreams in these kids from a young age. As the head teacher told us: “if these kids tell us they want to work on the farms like their parents, that’s great. We just don’t want them to think that’s all they can ever be.” It was incredible to hear how such a small place is striving to tackle the stereotypes and issues going on around them. Even things as simple as a set “hug time” during the school day, to allow an opportunity for the kids to show love to one another, and be shown love, seem like such simple and trivial things, but it was sad to hear how before this, a hug was alien to many of these children.
Even more heartbreaking is the stories we were told about how these children, as young as 2, are already accepting and taking on the stereotypes and hierarchies lived in by their parents. When twins, also “coloured” but with much paler skin than the other children, started at the school, teachers noted how the other children treated them differently. The children were afraid to argue or fight with the twins, and generally treated them as if they were superior. Apparently, the behaviours of their parents had been picked up. Old Apartheid ways being communicated to a new generation. Fortunately, the teachers have worked hard to show the kids that they are the same as one another, regardless of skin colour, but it was a massive demonstration of how big a task they face. They are really tackling the problem at the root, in childhood, but it seems like it is going to take generations of children growing up with the message, and then passing that onto their own children, before there is long-term change. But, with Graceland, there is hope; change has begun. And if you needed more hope, the head teacher of Graceland, at the forefront of the battle and doing an incredible job was in the first ever graduating class of School of Hope. A girl, given hope through a second chance at education, going on to bring hope to the lives of kids.
When I was holding that tiny baby boy, I felt heavy with the amount of brokenness in this world, and the lack of hope. Fast forward to the end of the tour, and driving back up the mountain to Grabouw, I was struck by the pure scale of Thembalitsha, and the incredible stories of hope. When I think about Village of Hope, and all the incredible work it has done by taking in children and then reuniting families, that seems like a lot of hope given to a lot of families. Then, I think about the 300+ kids a week we reach through sports, and that seems like a lot of kids being impacted. Add in the other ventures of Village of Hope, and that’s a heck of a lot of hope, just from one project in one town. Then when you take into account the 6 other projects, what can sometimes seem to us like small ripples on a very big ocean, seems to become more and more significant. I would love to know the figure of people that have been impacted in some way by the work of Thembalitsha. What started out as a God-given vision from a garage has grown to have massive impact on the Western Cape.
If you needed another story of hope to be convinced, this week we also saw the conclusion of an incredible one. Two children, who were at the Village of Hope for 3 and 5 years respectively, through an incredible chain of events and in the ridiculously short time span of just 10 months, have been formally adopted by an American family of 5. These kids are literally being given a family, and a brand new life, full of opportunity, directly through the work of those at Village of Hope and Thembalitsha. If that’s not a story of incredible hope, I don’t know what is.