Apr 22, 2019
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Students travel to South Africa

Brittany Lovato has literally run out of lap space. The 17-year-old, who lives near Watsonville, Calif., sits in the middle of a play yard in Johannesburg, South Africa, giving the most important gift she can give — her time and affection. The young recipients of Brittany’s gifts are an exuberantly joyful swarm of children at Cotlands, an orphanage for children infected with or affected by HIV.

Although literally a half-a-world away from their homes in California, Lovato and her fellow Mount Madonna School juniors and seniors have arrived in this country of contradictions for a journey of learning and discovery. It is the culmination of their Values in World Thought class led by teacher Ward Maillard.

As the students leave the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, whose exhibits document the institutionalized brutality and racism of the South African history in the 20th century, they encounter a group of black youth proudly singing the country’s National Anthem. The song, a metaphor for the new South Africa, which Archbishop Desmond Tutu calls “a rainbow nation”, is sung three times — first in Zulu, next in Afrikaans and finally in English.

While severe economic disparities still exist between black and white, South Africa is a work in progress and these students are witnessing a moment in history as the nation evolves. Rather than coming as tourists, they are here to talk with people that are part of working toward a brighter future.

Before leaving for the trip the Mount Madonna students collected enough donated clothing to fill 28 duffle bags to be given to nonprofits in South Africa. The group travels to Cotlands orphanage, where they will make the first delivery.

Cotlands Marketing Manager Lindy Nieuwenhuizen welcomes the group to the orphanage, which is bright and clean. She offers thanks for five bags stuffed full of donated baby clothes and gives a short tour of the facility. Cotlands’ Johannesburg orphanage, along with its other facilities are home to more than 4,000 children who are either HIV positive themselves or come from families that are unable to care for them due to HIV/AIDS.

The group enters a colorful play yard full of 30 exuberant 2- to 6-year-olds. No sooner had the students entered the yard did the smiling youngsters descend on them to fill every lap and shoulder and the California teenagers matched the young children smile for smile.

“It was very happy and they were all really excited that we were visiting.” Brittany says, “They were acted like they were part of our family and each of them needed to have a lap to sit on.”

During the day Archbishop Tutu’s son Trevor guides them through the famous black township of Soweto (Southwest Township), and by a squatters’ camp housing thousands under shacks made of corrugated tin and other materials.

Another stop is Conquest For Life, a nonprofit that trains older at-risk teens and sends them out into the community where they connect with more than 14,000 elementary school students in Johannesburg each week offering hope through anti-drug and other positive messages.

Seventeen-year-old Haley Turner of Aptos, Calif., and her schoolmates anxiously walk the three stories up a narrow creeky staircase in a listing brick building located near the railroad tracks not knowing what to expect. As soon as they cross the threshold they are greeted with welcoming South African smiles from more than a dozen radiant youth from the Westbury Township.

The American and African teens break into small groups to share their dreams and give voice to their aspirations. Haley says, “At first it was awkward, but as we talked they became super friendly and were so interested in what we had had to say. The were all really passionate about their future and had goals linked to their passions.”

Lamb chops are grilling on the barbeque in the dirt backyard behind the Conquest For Life building. The Mount Madonna students join their South African counterparts for a meal. In one of the oldest bonding experiences known, people of different backgrounds sit down and break bread together.

After the experience Haley says, “The more found out about them the more we saw similarities.”

By Shmuel Thaler, McClatchy Tribune

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