Fight On

by k.kozel / 1. October 2012 07:40

When asked about my greatest challenge here in South Africa, most people expect me to say AIDS. Living in the country with the highest rate of AIDS, where 5.6 million people are infected, 300,000 die each year, and 1.9 million children have been orphaned by the disease, I can understand why one would think AIDS is my greatest struggle. But the right answer isn’t always the expected one, and the truth is that my greatest challenge this year has been my relationships- my relationships with my patients, my community, my co-workers, God, and myself.

In the beginning of the year, it was easy to fall in love with all of the patients in the Respite Unit and get attached to each of them. But by April/May, I could feel myself pulling away, writing home less about the patients and more about camping trips we went on. I knew I was detaching to protect myself from further pain and heartbreak at the loss of another friend. I told myself to not waste this precious time, to reengage and reconnect, but I just couldn’t bring myself to follow through. My heart was too weary. It took both time and the support of my community (AV and South African) to move past this and dive fully into Respite again. This process required me to embrace death, and to stop fighting an impossible battle against an inevitable part of life. I have by no means mastered this embrace, but I have started down the path and it has taught me to love and cherish every moment and every breath we have together.

As soon as I began to make peace with death, I was able to bond and reconnect with patients. This was an awesome feeling to rediscover but it also reintroduced me to each unique struggle that my patients and friends have encountered. “This is all so unfair,” they’d tell me. “Why me?” No one deserves the pain of AIDS, nor the shame that too often accompanies it. But it’s all the more heart-breaking when you learn that someone was born with it, or even worse that they were raped before they hit double digits- that they didn’t have a hand in their own fate, that they were sent into battle before they could even hold a sword. 

When I sit with patients and hear these cries, I feel their words echo within myself. I yearn to provide them with any words of comfort or hope, but everything I think or say sounds hollow and empty. The truth is that it is wildly unfair, and though my patients never seem to, I become angry with God. So I demand answers. Where is God? Why her and not me? Why allow the suffering of children- innocents who should be sleeping over at friends’ houses instead of in hospitals? I have no answers to these questions yet so I apologize if you were expecting a neat and tidy ending to this. But while my relationship with God has been challenged beyond anything I expected this year, I am trying to remind myself that a challenge is not always a bad thing, but rather an opportunity for growth. These experiences have undoubtedly led to growth, and I am now flexing spiritual muscles I never knew I had.

This growth has contributed to my least expected, but at times most challenging, relationship: my relationship not with, but to myself. That may sound a bit strange but I often feel as if there are two Kellies. There is pre-SA Kellie and post-SA Kellie, and there is also first-world Kellie and volunteer Kellie. I see these dichotomies in my interactions with family and friends back home and ‘family’ and friends here. I see it when I think about the new pair of shoes I’ll put on my Christmas list and in the face of a patient who asks me for the shoes off my feet because she has none and has to walk long distances for water and firewood. I feel it when we go out to dinner with the Augustinians at a fancy, expensive restaurant in Hillcrest and the next day bring food to a rural town where people line up with old dented pots or butter containers to get just a few scoops of rice and beans. Again I have no answers as to how to reconcile these two Kellies. I know I can’t (or won’t) forsake everything in the name of solidarity to try to live like the Zulus. It’s simply not feasible in America. Plus I have plans and dreams: I want to go back to school, which certainly doesn’t lend itself to a vow of poverty. But at the same time I know I can never forget what I’ve seen, and I can never unlearn what I now know. I can only hope to take what they’ve taught me home, and to put these words and feelings into practice as often as possible.

This year has honestly been the most challenging, formative, and incredible year of my life. Despite the past 5 paragraphs, my relationships have also been my greatest joy this year. I’ve learned to embrace the African philosophy of ubuntu: that a person is only a person through another person. I would not be who I am right now if not for each person I met this year and every relationship I formed. My roommates have been invaluable to me, and while we’ve certainly had community struggles, I know I could never have survived this year without them. The patients are a constant source of happiness and inspiration for me, and I know I will carry every one of them with me for the rest of my days. Our interconnectedness and dependence on each other as humans has never been clearer to me. Though relationships are challenging at times, I believe that these bonds are what ultimately see us through life’s much bigger challenges, providing us with the strength to fight on.


Kellie Kozel

South Africa 2012


Internationals 2012

Struggle and Support

by j.zwijack / 5. September 2012 06:36

In so many ways, Peru is a completely different world.  And Chulucanas is a completely different world within that.  Day-to-day activities and the basic details of life are a stark contrast to the way things happen in the United States, so it’s a given that work and everything that goes along with it is completely different than anything I had ever experienced before.  In some ways, I enjoy immensely the striking difference in my work here in Chulucanas.  But in other ways, it has been an extreme struggle.  At times it can still be a struggle.  

In the mornings I work in the health office of the Augustinian parish.  Our office provides very basic medical attention to simple injuries and ailments as well as a fairly well-stocked pharmacy that provides medication to the lower-income members of our parish and the neighboring parishes at a discounted price.  My background is not in medicine and I have never had any experience working in the health field.  But I was excited to learn something new and to work doing something that would not only help others, but also that would challenge me to step out of my comfort zone.  There is one other woman that was working in the pharmacy when I started that had been there for years working with the past volunteers.  She had a background in medicine and an extensive knowledge of the parish and how the system works.  Since these were all new things to me, along with everything being in Spanish, which I still wasn’t completely comfortable with (especially when my conversations were involving health issues), I was grateful that I would be sharing my time in this office with someone who would be able to help me learn what I needed to know and support me as I become more comfortable with what I was doing.  And for the first two or three weeks of work, this was the case.  She and I worked together and in just those two weeks, I learned a lot about the medicines, about the patients that come frequently, about the parish in general, and about how the office is set up.  But then, after two or three weeks, she stopped showing up.  Days went by where she didn’t come in, then weeks, then over a month passed without her coming.  Even now, almost seven months later, she only comes in every so often.  As it turns out, the reason she wasn’t coming in was that her daughter had a baby so she was needed at home to help with the baby.  And now, she is in the parish more helping in other capacities and then when it’s needed, helping out in the pharmacy.  Now, I am very comfortable being by myself in the office.  I actually enjoy being the only one working there at times.  But those few months at the beginning were an incredible struggle.  I had to learn something completely new, in a different language, without very much help, and that is pretty important (it’s a little more serious if you make a mistake with prescription medication than if you do something wrong teaching English).  A big part of the struggle was that you would think something like that wouldn’t happen.  In the U.S. it would be highly unlikely (not to mention illegal) for some who is untrained to work alone in a pharmacy with prescriptions.  Aside from the situation being frustrating, I couldn’t believe that it was actually happening.

All things considered, I love my job.  A lot.  I love the people in the parish that work with, I love the people that come in to see me, and I love doing something completely new to me.  These are the things that made it easier for me to get through those few months.  I also had the support of my community and of other friends and family here in Chulucanas.  This is a place that can be very frustrating even when things don’t go wrong, not to mention when more drastic things happen that add struggle to whatever is already happening.  But this is also a place where you will never have trouble finding someone to talk to and that can support you and care for you when things aren’t going ideally.  This is the nature of both Chulucanas and of being an AV.  If something like this was going to happen, I was in the right place and with the right people.


Jamie Zwijack

Peru 2012


Internationals 2012

Stuck in a Moment

by k.abdo / 7. August 2012 09:30

Have you ever had a time in your life when a series of events or a long journey feels as if it is one beautiful, challenging, life-changing moment? Throughout my time in South Africa this one such moment has taken form as the days progress. My time here has been nothing short of remarkable and the longevity of this moment has affected me in ways I could have never imagined. It has been a culmination of events that have gradually built off of each other to create this moment that I am so thankfully and helplessly stuck in.

A sixteen year old boy is confronted with a serious issue at an all-boys home. When the topic of homosexuality comes up some boys scoff, tease, laugh, and react in other immature ways. All the while this older boy, who the other boys look up to, keeps a respectful demeanour throughout the entirety of the discussion. After the boys are told to strictly stay away from boys that participate in such behaviour and are dismissed, this young man finds a serious flaw in the advice given. His realization is one of overwhelming maturity: understanding that to ostracize these boys would be the greater sin and that we are called, instead, to love these boys even more than we normally would. 

A learner in grade 7 is showing immense progress in his academic studies, particularly in English. It is not all due to his natural ability to understand difficult concepts, but in his unwavering work ethic. Coming from what little means he has, among other obstacles, he continues to persevere with the longing desire to continue his studies in one of the top high schools in the area. When word gets out that a scholarship will be offered to two students to said high school his work ethic grows to new heights, studying, reading, and practicing English tirelessly. The test is taken and a young boy whose academic future was uncertain has been solidified for the next five years. I know for this particular learner it is a priceless gift and an opportunity that will not be wasted.

A patient is admitted to our respite unit not knowing where or who she is. She is emaciated and slowly withering away from the monstrous disease that is AIDS. This patient is at our unit for several months, clinging to life, battling a disease that is relentless and unforgiving. As I watch this woman suffer, day-in and day-out, I can only pray for a pain-free death or a miracle. Remarkably, the latter happens. I can not explain it and struggle to comprehend her recovery. In a matter of weeks, the woman is back on her feet—walking, talking, and smiling from ear to ear. She discharges herself from the unit and has since continued to lead a full and healthy life. Ready for the next battle. Knowing she can win. 

A moment can change our lives in unimaginable ways. These three events within my big moment have only furthered my commitment to my work and to those I serve. Many people I have met share the same respectful, dedicated, and courageous traits these three individuals possess. I can only hope that this moment continues to profoundly impact my life, far beyond my journey in South Africa.  

Kevin Abdo 
South Africa 


Internationals 2012

The Importance of Child Development

by j.moretti / 24. June 2012 03:36

For the past five months of living in South Africa, I have found many differences between living in the United States and here.  In the United States, we drive on the right hand side of the road and the driver sits on the right side of the car; in South Africa it is completely opposite.  On the side of the road here you will find monkeys, instead of squirrels.  These differences are apparent to anyone who comes here, but a less obvious difference is the discrepancy in beliefs about child rearing.  It is common knowledge for most Americans that between the ages of 0 to 5 years old, children's brains are like sponges.  This is a crucial stage in a child's life where they to learn how to speak, interact, and explore at that young age.  Since serving at 1000 Hills Community Helpers in the toddler room, I have learned that the Zulu women believe that you should not interact with any child until they are of school age and their baby teeth have fallen out.  This statement has baffled me and may be a cultural difference I will never fully understand.  On my first day my co-worker Julie showed me the toddler room and explained to me these Zulu beliefs in child rearing.  Since we agreed that child development at this young age is essential, she asked me to help explain to the Zulu teachers in my classroom how to interact with the children through the use of puzzles, games, drawings, and other activities.  At first, I was hesitant to step in and restructure the entire classroom for fear that I would be overtaking the role of Fikile, the main teacher, and the other Zulu women in the classroom who have been there for years.  The language barrier prevented me from clearly communicating my task in a way that helped the teachers realize the importance of interacting with the toddlers without potentially offending their cultural beliefs. 


On a typical day there is a two hour time period used for singing songs, playing with puzzles and other educational toys, and playing outside.  While I would prefer to have each teacher sit at a table with 4-5 toddlers and do a specific activity, the Zulu teachers would prefer to let the kids play on the veranda with little toys or run around on the playground while they sit and talk amongst themselves.  It is frustrating for me to see this passive behavior, or their indifference to the children hitting each other with toys, but then I remember the cultural differences and how they are not educated to be teachers.  Many of them are working at the center because it pays well and they need the money to support their families.  Their main focus is not on the toddlers’ development but on making sure there is food on the table and clothes for their children to wear.  What right do I have to come into their classroom with my American education and restructure their routine?  The challenge comes in finding a balance between my ideas on child development and the inborn cultural beliefs of the Zulus.  It is completely natural for me to sit on floor with the kids or help them down the slide, but for the Zulu teachers this is not the norm.  


It has not been easy balancing my thoughts and actions as a volunteer with the Zulu culture of education, but my communication with the teachers has been more open and they have started to see the importance of structured activities.  Whether it is their joking about me being the main teacher or looking to me for the next song to sing, the Zulu teachers and I have established a mutual respect for each other and our mission to help these precious toddlers.  The smiles on their faces and the energy they have every day is what inspires me to push for a structured environment.  I truly believe that these children are the future of South Africa and deserve to have someone who pays attention to them and cares about their development.  At home, these toddlers may not have enough food to eat or clean clothes to wear, but at school those worries should be put on hold so they so they can be happy little smiling toddlers who hold the future of this country in their hands.  


Janine Moretti

South Africa, 2012


Internationals 2012

When the Students are the Teachers

by m.rigsby / 25. April 2012 11:30

There are days when the kids drive me crazy.

I’m a full-time teacher at St. Leo Primary School in rural South Africa and, while I love my job, I have to admit that there are days when I don’t. There are many issues to confront when teaching English to those who barely speak a word but the most difficult has been bridging the uncertain waters of the culture gap. I come from a family that recognizes the importance of education and a society whose school system enforces the structure and discipline needed to ensure that educational goals are met. The transition to a remarkably different culture – one in which any structure is an exception to the rule and in which parents disagree on the value of any Western education at all – has been tough.

In the beginning I was frustrated with myself for not getting through to the students. That feeling subsided, giving way to a weariness with my classes for simply not “getting it”. The third phase of my blame assignment focused on the teachers with whom I worked. Working, I decided, was an English word they had not yet understood. I found it difficult to make a steady lesson plan because each week brought a new excuse to close the school. From union strikes, to state department visits, to memorial services for distant teachers neither named nor met, school was closed for business. Volunteers have a reputation for landing at a site with dreams of remaking the culture in their image. How quickly reality can awaken even the most ambitious dreamers.

I realized very soon in my service year that I would receive very little help from the teaching staff at St. Leo: a curriculum was nowhere to be found; a schedule and class list were nonexistent; and all too often my morning drive would end in a U-turn at the closed doors of a school whose students’ potential was being strangled by a culture born out of a struggle not to learn and achieve, but simply to exist.

And there’s the point: I am inextricably bound to my native culture as the Zulus are to theirs. I have arrogantly walked through the doors of a school and concluded the staff was lazy. I have been frustrated by students who fail to study or do homework. I have questioned why no one here seems to care in the same exact way I do. And now, though it took me far too long, I have realized the bitter shame in judging another person whose culture I never took the time to truly understand. The Zulus are a people who lived for too long under an apartheid system that subjugated the tribal religions, cultures, and social order they regarded with honor. The oppressive Bantu education system was an important tool in apartheid tyranny.

The cycle that began in these schools continues. Those that I teach with were at one point students of apartheid. It’s no wonder they don’t share my enthusiasm for educational development. But some of my students will grow up to be teachers themselves. It’s in this dream that I can help shape a new reality. At St Leo, I’m fortunate to spend every day with these children who are willing to teach me the importance of educating myself before trying to bridge the culture gap alone. Call me crazy, but I wouldn’t trade these days for the world.


Matthew Rigsby

South Africa 2012


Internationals 2012


by c.pompa / 11. March 2012 21:18

Last Monday I started working at CEO Betania, an empowerment center in Chulucanas. Although I really enjoy teaching and computers, I dreaded going back after day one. I had 23 students in my class and was scheduled to teach 3 hours every day Monday through Friday. During the first class, I noticed some students knew a lot and expected to learn “theory” and for me to “dictate”. I could not help but worry and stress thinking I had no clue about computer theory or what I would dictate to them. I stared at a book with the parts of the computer and stressed even more thinking I was completely unqualified for this position.

On the first day of class, I had asked each of them to write on a piece of paper their previous experience with computers and why they were taking that class/what they wanted to learn. I took a glance at it after class, but as my stress grew, I could only think about how impossible this would be, how I wasn’t prepared to do such job, and how these students deserved a better teacher. 

On the second day, I asked how many were coming from outside of Chulucanas, and 13 raised their hands. Later during the break, I sat down with a group of students and learned that one of them traveled 25 minutes only to come to my class. She works on the field and this was her only way of continuing her studies. So that night, I went back and read their papers more carefully. Only 6 had a well-rounded computer experience, but 17 wrote none and/or that this was their first time learning. And most wrote to have a better future or be a better person as to why they were taking that class, something I wasn’t expecting.

I then realized what I had in front of me and the potential of this class. I began to think what taking this class meant for many of them, learning about something that could give them a better future. Their parents may not afford to send them somewhere else to a University, but they are doing their greatest effort to continue learning and progressing. 

As I was preparing for my third class, I became fascinated by how bites work, and remembered how much I like technology and how I truly find it fascinating. Later on that day I loved telling my students the difference between Kb, Mb, Gb, and Tb and had a great time in class. I was able to see how I’m making a direct impact on their lives by sharing with them something I believe is one of humanity’s best advancement. 

My first challenge as an AV was believing I was capable of doing my job. God put me here and I didn’t think I was good enough for it. The last line of the commitment statement I wrote before coming here says: “…and above all to trust God at all times”. Now, I realize I didn’t trust myself and I didn’t trust God. He knows I am capable of teaching and giving those students what they need. The answer to all of my stress (and probably all of my worries in general) was sitting in front of my bed all the time “trust God at all times”.

Cynthia Pompa

Chulucanas, Peru 2012


Internationals 2012

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