The Day I Met The Children
There are moments when life grabs you and forces you to pay attention. These are the moments that you did not expect, but secretly, deep down, you had hoped for. Moments that will change who you are on the inside where it matters most because you step out of your protective cocoon, realizing there is something greater than you, a purpose that must be filled; a moment that unearths a passion so deep and meaningful that it causes an undeniable ache to manifest inside you. A moment when you realize that freedom of spirit means that you stop caring about yourself or what problems may exist in your life and you focus on something that’s been missing. Oh . . . it is an ache so powerful, a clarion call, that you cannot ignore its beckoning. You will follow wherever this calling leads you, a grand adventure to be sure. And the next time you look in the mirror you don’t recognize the person staring back at you.
This moment appeared to me in March 2017 while I was part of an IBM Corporate Service Corps team sent to South Africa that is tasked with creating a design framework to analyze data related to government housing (Human Settlement) so that the West Rand Development Municipality can leverage more influence with the provincial government and the decision-making process to reduce the backlog of requests for housing. One day our team took a field trip to view some of those housing projects, some of them already occupied and some still under construction. I was focused on the housing project, and I didn’t see what might be coming my way.
Our assigned host, Henk, who works for the West Rand Development Municipality, arranged for a Braai after our field trip concluded. A Braai is a South African version of an American standard: the barbeque. But a Braai is more than just enjoying the meat cooked over an open flame, it is really about relationships, conversations, laughter, sharing, and ultimately saying goodbye while promising to see each other again. Our host for the Braai, a beautiful woman named, Thandi, invited all of us back for another Braai and promised to cook us an even better meal, though I really don’t know how she could have prepared a better meal. I ate two tenderized steaks and a quarter of a chicken. I wanted to take a nap afterward. But I didn’t see what was just around the corner, both literally and figuratively.
Back in the van and ready to head back to the office at the West Rand Development Municipality, Henk said, “I’d like you all to see a very special place, an orphanage. It will be just a short stop and it is on the way.” Henk said this a bit dismissively as if the stop was no big deal. Henk is a man with a booming voice and an infectious laugh so deep and resonating that you want him to keep speaking. “We’ll only spend a few minutes and then go back to the office.” Only minutes later we pulled up to a brick building and got out of the van. Children, some dressed in school uniforms were playing in a patch of red dirt with spots of weeds that passed for grass. St. John the Divine Orphans and Outreach is located in the township of Mohlakeng, Randfontein, Gauteng, South Africa. The children surrounded us and they were all hams, hoping we’d take their pictures. I asked if we could indeed take pictures and were granted permission. Inside the recently completed multi-centre we met Mrs. Patricia Matrite, also known as “MAMA” to the children. She explained that the children were about to eat, something called Samp and Beans. Samp is made from corn kernels that have been coarsely chopped and formed into a thumb-sized chunk. Think pork and beans but the samp is substituted for the pork. We met other women who helped at St. John, those women were known as ‘Magogo’ an endearing term for grandmother.
Then it happened. While the others followed Patricia for a tour, I followed the sound of music. Passion and emotion was pouring out of another room. That was the first sign of the ache inside me. I was on auto-pilot and stepped inside another room where I watched a room full of children singing and dancing. After completing one dance another song began to play and a young girl in front of me dropped to one knee and began to lead the next song. This performance would obviously be spiritual. She looked to the sky with open and waving hands. She then joined the others lined up in rows. As the music played the children danced in choreographed motions. They smiled and performed a dance of thanks and gratitude. Overcome with emotion, tears welled in my eyes. And then I felt something drain out of me. Maybe it was stress, or maybe it was pride, but as the children danced, I could not control my emotions. I lost track of who I was, if only for a few minutes. I felt gratitude that God had brought me to this place, to see this performance, on this very day. I knew that Henk had let us to St. John the Divine Orphans and Outreach for a purpose, and I would find out later that the orphanage is near to his heart. Had God used Henk to lead me here? We could have gone back to the office and not spent a moment thinking about these children. No, I and the others had been brought to St. John the Divine for a purpose. Henk joined me in the room and sang along as the children began another song; I could tell that Henk loved this place and these children.
Henk took me to meet Milton, a jolly man who could be Santa Claus if the job ever opens up. And then a question just popped out of my mouth: “How can I help?” I had not planned to ask the question. I think the ache that had been brewing inside me, up to then undetected, made me ask the question. Milton didn’t hesitate and led me to the ‘computer room’ where were tables pressed against the wall with about 30 antique display monitors standing on them. I asked more pointed questions. The staff was proud of the computers, but there was only one old tower (the PC itself) and it didn’t work. A few keyboards were within sight. The orphanage didn’t have any computers for the children, only a dream.
“What do you need, Milton?” I again asked. “How can I help you?”
Milton smiled. Oh . . . it was one of those smiles from a man that let me know that perhaps he’d been waiting for someone like me, a man with an ache brewing inside so powerful that I had been brought to tears only a few minutes earlier.
“We need computers. We need programs to teach our children skills to prepare them for university. We just had five former orphans graduate from University.” Milton was proud of that accomplishment. Milton had the audacity to dream big. More questions. More answers. He wants to teach St. John’s children skills that can be used in training for future jobs so the children are not destined to live in poverty. He wants those children to be productive adults and not to be dependent on the government. The hope of Future generations can be assured. And then I found out that Milton and Patricia are married to each other, and married to this orphanage. This man and woman, two wonderful people, have dedicated their lives to the growth and welfare of these children. Milton and Patricia aren’t just looking for computers for those children. They want hope that a better can be claimed for those children.
Already the mechanisms were rotating in my head. How can I help? Perhaps a Go-Fund-Me campaign to raise money for real computers. Operating systems. Programs. A teaching curriculum. Teachers. Objectives. Strategy. Tactics.
You get the picture. I know that I was brought to that orphanage for a reason. I have to do this and don’t have a choice. This is only the beginning of a journey. There is work to do. I have to complete the work I was sent to South Africa to perform. But when I returned to my hotel room that evening I looked in the mirror and saw something in the corner of my eye . . . a tear born of an ache that must be satisfied.
I have been engaged with the mission of St. John the Divine Orphans and Outreach since then, and now we have a beautiful website (www.stjohnorphans.org) and Facebook page: @stjohnorphans to promote the mission of this wonderful organization!