Ten years ago, I met Berlina Nama, a sharp, precocious 9-year-old Namibian orphan. Her parents both died of AIDs and she found herself in foster-care, living in Rehoboth, Namibia. I was spending part of my summer volunteering in the local orphanage there, filling in for the kindergarten teachers and eating some meals with local families. Berlina’s foster mom cooked me delicious traditional dinners and in return I babysat for Berlina and her brother, Josef. But Berlina, especially, won my heart!
First, let me make one thing clear: I am a retired elementary school teacher with a passion for the orphans of the world. But also, I am an opportunist who absolutely loves to travel as I photograph, sketch and journal about the cultures I visit.
I got the volunteer-idea, honestly, from my own daughters. The oldest once volunteered in an orphanage in San Jose, Costa Rica, as part of her Peace Corps stint. I traveled there to visit her and she took me to the orphanage. Our youngest daughter helped improve and provide for a Haitian orphanage set up quickly and by necessity, after the big earthquake that hit Port a Prince several years ago.
The idea began to materialize in 2003 when, standing in line to register at a World Conference in Zimbabwe, I met a young Zimbabwean man in front of me in the queue. We struck up a conversation and it turned out he worked in an orphanage right there in Bulawayo. On my back was a large pack full of toys donated by my elementary school children from Monument, Colorado; about 85 stuffed animals! I wanted to give them away, somehow there in Africa, but didn’t have a plan. Godfrey told me about his job at the orphanage, the AIDS children, and about their limited school-system and I knew immediately that was where I would make the toy-donation! Serendipity? Coincidence? Opportunity?
I offered the stuffed animals to Godfrey to give the children, but he said, “No, you are going to come with me and give them out yourself!” – my first encounter with the determination and confidence of an African. The next day I took a bus to the orphanage, met up with Godfrey, and distributed the animals. There were exactly 85 orphans for my 85 toys… another coincidence?
Every orphan got a gift, but many began to cry at the give-away. Godfrey explained that for most of them, this is the first toy they have ever owned for their very own… to keep! They didn’t have to share. I was amazed, I was smitten, and I was “bitten”. Bitten by the volunteer-bug. I even went home and asked my 2nd, 3rd and 4th graders to start saving their stuffed animals for children around the world.
And I learned it is so easy: just type in “English-speaking volunteer+orphans+worldwide” and one can Google a number of opportunities. And that is how it mostly happened that, for the last ten years, I have found myself at orphanages in 7 different countries, and on 3 different continents. I am an opportunist who loves to travel, so it should not surprise anyone that this school marm, who hailed once from the flatlands of Kansas, seems to end each trip with a Himalayan trek or an animal photo safari in Namibia, or sightseeing the Ethiopian stone churches, or bouncing in an auto clear across the
Island of Hispaniola to some remote and pristine hidden beach. One of my most unique memories was walking along a trail, side-by-side with a Masai warrior near Nairobi. Although, being spontaneously trunk-lifted atop an elephant in Nepal takes the cake in my “book of lifetime highlights”, though… I mean really!
The children I worked with have been orphaned by many different events, such as a village mudslides (in Nepal), or AIDs parents in Namibia, or a severe, earth-swallowing Haitian “quake”… or even the political situation a few years back in Kenya.
Also, diseases like polio and tuberculosis, and even starvation took the lives of some of the African parents. This I learned first-hand while visiting the children at the Black Lion Hospital in Ethiopia. Another time I found myself in a remote sub-Saharan Hospital “playing parent” to (again!) Berlina and Josef during the second visit I spent in Namibia.
They had their tonsils out and it is a required tradition that a family member sits with the child for the 3-days recovery in most hospitals of Namibia. I brought them brown-bag lunches, washed their sheets, their faces and their hands and entertained the children. This is expected, as there is no food-service or laundry in these cut-rate African hospitals.
Both of our daughters still work in humanitarian-aid-related organizations and the opportunities will most likely continue to appear for me to follow my passion as I visit them. One lives in Central America and one in the Caribbean. I love to give all the credit to these daughters, who have been role-models to me, and thus, have introduced me to the cause of the “Orphans of our World”.
I think the moral of my story is that there are so many awesome volunteer opportunities out there, all around the world, really and so many warm, and appreciative people in every country, people who will take you in and show you their culture. The relationships you make as you volunteer will stay with you the rest of your life.
Amazingly, after ten years with no communication, both Facebook and email helped Berlina find me again. She is now a young adult and a month ago I received this email:
Do you remember me? You came to my foster-home in Rehoboth, Namibia and babysat for us. You taught us art projects and played outside with my brother Josef and me. You showed us how to make paper frogs and jump them across our hospital room. I remember! I learned so much from you about giving from your heart. And I have grown up in the past ten years since you saw me!
I am currently completing my grade 12 part-time (at the NAMIBIAN INSTITUTE OF LEARNING). Classes are in the afternoon, and during the morning hours, I have a part time job to earn a few bucks to pay for my studies.
I turned 19 a month ago. My passion and interest are children, also.
I have a great desire to help less privileged children, especially orphaned children, to believe in becoming a success some day. Then they can, through that success, in turn tell other children who have similar situations how to overcome them.
The above mentioned is what I’d love to accomplish in the near future.
But currently I deal more with little children, I have quite a great love for little children. Above all, I do my best to show kindness, love and support to everybody who seem to need it, for I know how important it is to feel loved and know there is someone who cares! (Are you somewhere in Africa right now? ) Across the miles, Berlina
When I got that email, out of the blue, I cried, hard. Like they say in Kenya, “My heart was filled with happy-happy!”