By Kira Silk '11
In January 2008, I spent three weeks volunteering at New Jerusalem Children's Centre in Midrand, South Africa. A home meant for less than fifty children was packed with close to 85, ranging anywhere from infancy to fourteen years old. These children come from all sorts of backgrounds. Several are HIV positive, a few with full blown AIDS. Many of the girls have been subjected to sexual or physical abuse. All were very clearly in pain and suffering. My first three week visit to New Jerusalem was full of both emotional and frustrating experiences. Emotional in the sense that these kids were not receiving the care and affection they needed or deserved. Frustrating in the sense that the careworkers did not seem to care. It became apparent that volunteers were seen as replacements. When the volunteer walked in, the careworkers stopped working. It became a social hour for them, while my friend and I hurriedly changed all dirty nappies (diapers), kept the children from hitting and biting each other, and tried to calm the crying infants. The younger children, infants and toddlers, were never taken out of their cribs, let alone outside, unless it was by a volunteer.
Within the short three weeks we were there, it was clear how much a little affection and attention could do for these kids. Prince, a true bully at our arrival, had come to enjoy sitting next to us or "reading" a book rather than pinching us. Nkansane, whom we had deemed "Devil," now would come sit on one of our laps peacefully instead of running around stealing other children's toys. How much better would these children do if the caretakers always took five minutes to show the children individual attention? What if they fed the infants in their laps rather than propping the bottle up in their mouths on a pillow?
Coming home was hard. What a waste of time school seemed when I could be back in South Africa with these children. Almost immediately I began looking for ways to go back. This time I wanted to go back with a purpose, some sort of structured plan so that I was actually helping the children. The following July, I was told that I would be welcome back at New Jerusalem. I spoke with the director and planned to work with the infants/toddlers in the morning, working on development of their leg muscles and speaking. Many of these children were beyond the age for walking and beginning to talk, but had not started either. Together with another volunteer, we worked to get the children standing on their own and to make sounds as simple as "da da da" and "ba ba ba." It was amazing to see these kids begin to be proud of themselves for taking a few steps and smilingly muttering sounds to themselves as they played; to physically see how we had made an impact in their lives.
In the afternoons, I worked one-on-one with the children aged 5-6. These children were in the home's crèche (preschool) in which they are meant to learn the alphabet, numbers and small words. When I sat down with each kid, I realized that each one of them could sing me the ABC's proudly, but not one could tell me which letter was which or what sound letters made. When attempting to teach the children the individual letters, they consistently became uncomfortable and would begin singing through the ABC's again. It was both upsetting and frustrating. It was clear that this was their teacher's fault. When I sat down with them, it was apparent that they wanted to learn. They tried so hard to focus and understand what it was that I asked of them. How much would they have learned if they had a teacher speaking their own languages? All they needed was a teacher who cared about them; that was interested in their well being.