Volunteer travel in South Africa

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Volunteer travel is a growing segment for the baby boomer travel world. Do you remember the guest post that we published from Rebecca Wilk’s about her volunteer vacation in Guatemala? Today, Rebecca is back to share another volunteer travel experience—this time she’s taking us to South Africa.

Two vivacious girls at Open Arms Home for Children

I didn’t fully understand how phenomenal the South African Open Arms Home for Children was until my husband and I saw the magnitude of the need during our volunteer travel experience in the country. Did you know that over 20% of South Africans are living with HIV? On average, 600 people die from AIDS and 250 babies are born HIV positive each day. Because of the prevalence of HIV/AIDS, the average life expectancy in South Africa has dropped below age 37—it was 69 years of age before the AIDS epidemic began. Given this tragic situation, there will be thousands of orphaned children in the years to come in the Open Arms Home for Children service area.

Child clowning with founder, Bob Solis

During our visit to the home, near the village of Komga (about an hour away from East London, South Africa) we spent a half day in Duncan Village, a nearby Township. Open Arms founder, American Bob Solis, says that part of the reason to visit Duncan Village is to see the “before.”

A South African township is a close-packed slum of corrugated metal structures with little to no sanitation. We were guided by a social worker that I’ll call Paula, who is one of the angels stepping up to save the lives of the children who have nowhere else to turn. She introduced us to others, mostly grandmothers, who have taken these kids in and love them as their own. We also visited a primary school, hosted by a firecracker of a principal who reports that 60% of her kids are HIV positive. These ladies are doing heroic work. It’s a grim scene that I’m glad to have experienced first-hand, no matter how difficult it was to see.

Incidentally, Paula insisted on taking us to an AIDS hospice where her 29-year-old son was near the end of his life. We were honored and moved to have been introduced to him.

Cottages at Open Arms Home for Children, South Africa

Open Arms Home for Children is the farthest thing from grim. In 2006, Bob and Sallie Solis used their life savings to open the home, providing a safe, stable, family environment. There are currently about 40 children here, and with the recent completion of a new kitchen, a maximum of 70 children will soon be accommodated. Open Arms is committed to raising the children to adulthood. Six to eight children live in each cottage with a permanent house mother. The children go to pre-school on the property and attend elementary and high school in the local community.

Our group rolled up to a raucous welcome from the Open Arms staff and younger children, with singing and dancing and hugs. The kids were joyous and social, clamoring to hold our hands and wanting to be picked up. We expected them to need some coaxing out of their shells, but there was not much shyness in evidence. All this is especially impressive when you consider that each one of these children has had one or another kind of significant hardship in their young lives.

During our mostly unstructured visit, we played with the children and did some planting in the garden. My husband tinkered with the kid’s bicycles. You can imagine what an uphill battle it is to maintain 30 or so of these; he was glad to give the staff a bit of a break. I helped out photographing the dedication of the new kitchen which our Rotary Club, and several others, helped to fund. We had movie night there and went to church with the kids, ate mac and cheese and braai (BBQ) together, handed out gifts and spent a lot time with kids in our laps.

There was also a chance to meet members of the local Rotary Club and visit some of their service projects, including another children’s home and a school for the developmentally disabled. One of the unique aspects of Rotary is that there are matching grants available for clubs in different countries for working together. Our club has worked with the local South African Rotary Club to obtain grant funding for a minivan and kitchen equipment for Open Arms. Now that we’ve created personal relationships and brainstormed together, the two clubs are looking forward to our next collaboration.

Giraffe at Sabi Sands Game Reserve

We balanced out our volunteer travel with a few days of sightseeing around Cape Town, and a safari in Sabi Sands Game Reserve. But it was the volunteer portion of our trip that gave us so many opportunities to get to know South Africans and to feel actively involved. We were able to experience the huge contrasts in this beautiful country in a much deeper way than typical tourism provides. We were moved in so many ways.

All photos courtesy Rebecca Wilks.

Have you participated in volunteer travel? Come join the conversation at the My Itchy Travel Feet page on Facebook. Or send us an email with your thoughts.

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