INTRODUCTION: One of the 13 year old kids we sponsor named Sizo invited us to his church for a special surprise. So, all of us girls pile into the van and trek to Grace Christian Fellowship Church to see what he has in store for us. We sit through a beautiful service titled "I am a Winner" about how everyone can be a "winner" if you put your faith in God - no matter what you have done or what you have failed to do in the past. I thought about how it applied to our children we sponsor as they have risen above the horrible hands they have been dealt and continue to thrive despite their many every day obstacles.

Then the pastor introduces our group to the church stating that we are Sizo's "special friends" and calls Sizo forward. Sizo takes the microphone and says that he owes his future to his sponsors in Indiana and how lucky he is to have us in his life and then dedicates the song "You Raise Me Up" to us and proceeds to sing beautifully a capella. Of course our service-learning team goes crazy snapping pictures, taking Flip video footage, and frantically wiping the tears off of our faces so we dont miss a single moment.

I wish these kids I met years ago when I was living in Swaziland had even a fraction of a clue as to what they do for me every single day... THEY raise ME up to be a better person - less selfish, more giving, more loving, and truly inspired. My life is more purposeful because they are in it.

Day one - MAY 10th: My bladder the size of a peanut is never a good thing on the journey from Indianapolis to Mbabane, Swaziland. After climbing over a sleeping Kait the whole 18 hour plane ride, we spend the night in Johannesburg only to wake up to have a 5 hour drive to Mbabane and there are....NO toilets in sight for miles. Behold! We finally see a tree!! So, Kait and I had to have our friends (and drivers) Pam and Amilcare stop so we could run through a field of burs to squat behind the only tree we have seen to give us some privacy. I spent the rest of the drive picking burs out of my pants, shoes, and....undergarments, but WE MADE IT!

Immediately upon reaching town, we went to Selula Sandla Orphanage to play with the kids. It is against Swazi culture to seclude and stigmatize children who have lost their parents by placing them into traditional Western orphanage facilities, but the country makes an exception for Selula Sandla because most of the children here are HIV-positive. The caretakers are trained to provide proper nutrition and to look for health indicators of HIV-related infections. Also, it is strategically close to Baylor's Pediatric HIV Center where all of the children are treated with ARVs (anti-retroviral drugs). Minus some tattered clothing, they actually appear to be the healthiest kids in town due to their 3 meals a day (including protein!!) and constant access to healthcare facilities. Our team painted nails, colored, made bracelets, sang songs, and rejoiced that the kids who have suffered so many health challenges in their short lives were all momentarily healthy.

Future GHFP Goal: This orphanage has no means of transportation and no nearby playground facility. The only time children are able to leave the small compound is to go to Baylor for HIV treatment or to school right down the street. The Program Coordinator asked us to build them a small playground with a slide and some tire swings. Who wants to help? We already have a Swazi automotive company willing to donate the tires and perhaps other building materials (thanks to Pam!!). We are planning a volunteer crew to go next summer (late July 2012) to build the playground, and a subsequent crew immediately afterward (early August 2012) to paint the playground and a HOPE mural.

MAY 11th: Unpacking and organizing 1,000 pounds of donations is quite a chore! We were lucky to receive brand new medical supplies from OWENS AND MINOR, food packs from KIDS AGAINST HUNGER, books from HALF PRICE BOOKS and Christine & Lia's church, toothbrushes, sanitary pads, shoes, clothes from HANCOCK TELECOM, art supplies from FOLLETTS BOOKSTORE, stuffed animals, school supplies, vitamins, etc. As always, I told the girls they should not bring anything they did not want to leave behind in Swaziland - even their suitcases! Usually I ask the girls to meet me with empty bags so they can fill them with donations I have acquired. This time, the girls went above and beyond and found the donations themselves! My favorite was Lia and Christine telling Folletts Bookstore on Purdue's campus that the one single t-shirt they were going to donate was not going to be sufficient and subsequently getting much more! :) Way to go girls!!

Medical Supplies donated by Owen's and Minor

Below is only a fraction of the 1,000lbs of donations. Thanks everyone!!

The students went on safari today at Hlane Royal National Park so Kait and I could get some business done. Swaziland is a very traditional country and there are formalities that have to happen before a team is welcomed into a village. We met Bheki (eLangeni Village Facilitator) at the Primary School where we spoke to the headmaster to receive permission to work with the kids this week and received the bill for Celimphilo (more about her later) and Gcinile's 2011 school fees. Then, we hitched a ride to the Secondary School where the headmaster took us on a tour. When I first toured the school in 2007 there were two structures in place (one without a roof), 1 teacher, 1 grade available (form 1 or freshman year) and no electricity or running water. Now all 5 forms (grades) are available and there are 400 kids with about 10 buildings including woodworking, textile and design, agriculture, and listening lab! The headmaster is amazing and works hard to acquire donations and support from other countries and his hardwork pays off for the kids! I was amazed to see that some of the kids spend their own money to ride public transportation from their homes in the cities (Mbabane or Manzini) 30 minutes each way into the rural village to go to school - this speaks a lot about the quality of school. The only downfall to this school is that the reason why they are able to provide such a stellar education is that they will not allow OVCs (orphans and vulnerable children) who cannot pay the school fees to enter. Many rural schools will allow orphans to attend despite their inability to pay but that dilutes the education for everyone because there is no money for good teachers, or textbooks, or computers. That is why Anne Fogler and I started raising money for orphan education funds a long time ago - these kids are getting an education at eLangeni that will allow them a better chance at escaping a life of poverty.

In Swaziland, education is not free. It is around $600 USD per year for a child to go to school. For an orphan with no caregiver like those of ours in child-headed households, this financial feat is impossible. The Swazi government tries to help out by offering an OVC grant that will cover half of the orphan's school fees, but $300 USD per year is still impossible for kids living on hand-outs from poor neighbors. And the disappointing news Kait and I discovered was that due to the failing Swazi economy, they reduced the OVC grant to only 25% of the school fees making our kids' tuition $450/year. One of our kids was dropped from the government grant entirely because the government said that he didnt fill out the paperwork properly. (The children have to prove every year that they are still an orphan to receive the grant...as if their parents might some day miraculously return from the grave.) We are supporting 12 kids (11 owing $450 per year and one owing $600) so now we owe $5,550 each year rather than the previous $3,600. Challenging since Kait and I are teachers, but we get a lot of help from family and friends and the kids are worth every penny!

May 12th: This morning we woke up for breakfast to the smell of fish sticks - Kait's favorite!! We then went to the Manzini Market and sweated our butts off (I thought it was Winter in Swaziland??) while supporting local artisans. ((Give Hope, Fight Poverty (ifightpoverty.org) has many Artisan Direct products you can purchase to support the women artisans as well as GHFP programs. You can purchase these through our eNewsletter or by hosting a Party for a Purpose.))

Afterward, we went to the Swazi Cultural Village where the students are able to learn more about Swazi tradition and culture, watch traditional Swazi dancing, and hear incredible singing. The highlight of the day was watching the monkey's raid our van. Kait and I tried to save the day by chasing them away, but they took one look at the peanut butter crackers in Kait's hand and decided to charge after us instead. Kait didnt want to "encourage their negative behavior", so instead of throwing the crackers at them and hightailing it out of there - she decided to go an alternative route and.... shoved them down her pants. I am sure this episode will end up on YouTube as the students so kindly got it on tape.

Then we went to Lobamba Clinic where we met up with my friend Nelly who is an HIV-positive Expert Client. She is compliant with her medication and takes great care of herself emotionally and physically, so the government pays her 850Rand/month ($136 USD) to work full-time at the clinic encouraging others to get tested and counseling them when they are positive. She also helps with checking compliance of patients by counting pills and educating them on how to properly take their pills and what nutrition is necessary to stay healthy. We went on a tour of the clinic and learned about the successes and challenges of their small facility. There are 8 nurses on staff, a number of Expert Clients, and ZERO doctors. There used to be a couple of doctors from Zimbabwe but they have since quit. Due to the lack of a medical school in the entire country and the poor wages doctors are paid compared to Swaziland's surrounding countries - there are VERY few doctors (most on a short stint from the US, South Africa, or Europe). So the nurses alone see over 250 patients per day. They frequently run out of supplies and their days are filled with patients too sick for them to be able to treat with their limited medical equipment. (Thank you to OWENS AND MINOR for their generous donation of gauze, syringes, suture needles, hospital gowns, slings, splints, and gloves - this was truly a blessing) They are in the process of building an HIV testing lab on site so that they will no longer be required to ship their bloodwork to South Africa for testing. They also hope to be able to treat HIV-positive children and infants. (Right now Baylor is the only facility equipped to do so)

May 13th: Kait and I took the students to meet the Princess Chief of eLangeni today. She had just a short time because she had 3 funerals this weekend for family members who passed away. In a country with the shortest life expectancy in the world (32 years of age), loved ones dying is frequent and painful. During our short visit, the Chief explained her role in the army and her training as a nurse and midwife. She is also a leader in HIV prevention for the nation - such an AMAZING lady. She was very happy to see that I have returned with a group again because many people promise to do so but don't.

Future GHFP Goal: The Chief explained to us that for her students to be competitive enough to go to college, they need to be computer literate and this needs to start at an early age. Most children do not have electricity and have never even seen a computer until high-school. She asked that we supply the Primary School with 4 or 5 computers loaded with English literacy programs so the children can learn English, learn to type, and learn about how to use a computer. Who wants to help???

We then went to eLangeni Primary School where we dropped off donations of books and school supplies. Kait taught the 5th graders how to do a weaving project that all of the kids (and the Swazi teacher) enjoyed. Then, we played with them during the morning recess. This recess allows time for some of the neediest children to receive a free breakfast. All children receive a free lunch consisting of porridge or mealies (ground corn meal). For many of the kids, this is the only food they will eat for the entire day.

If you look closely, you will see Katy, one of our Purdue students in the middle. :)
Proud of her weaving.

Finger-licking good!

The 5th grade class holds up their masterpieces!!

Then we headed off to the Secondary School (high school) where the headmaster held an all-school assembly in our honor. It was so amazing to see all of the kids again. The headboy (senior class president) welcomed us to the school and stated on behalf of the students that they were happy to see us. Then the school's quartet (including our very own Sizo - first picture below) sang a couple of songs for us. Then they asked us if we prepared any songs for them...although the students offered to sing "Row row row your boat", I told the headmaster we unfortunately were musically challenged.
All-school assembly
Then our sponsored orphans took us on a tour of the school - the Purdue students were impressed as they saw the opportunities available at arguably the best high school in the country. Then, we sat in the computer lab to talk with the students. Each student said what year they were in school and what they wanted to be when they graduated...their dreams - accountants, doctors, nurses, teachers. I am so happy that we are playing a part in helping them come true!! When the students were asked if they had any questions for us, Sibusiso raised his hand and said "Only to ask if we may say thank you". Then their eyes lit up when they saw the bags of donations with their names on them. It is amazing what a couple of bags of KIDS AGAINST HUNGER meal packs and a pack of crayola markers means to the kids in eLangeni!!

We told the Msibi's and Maziya's that we will be coming back tomorrow to pick them up to go to town. The kids rarely ever get to leave their village and little Celimphilo has only been to Mbabane to take her little brother Mazwi for his HIV treatments. Sizo said "I am so happy I can hardly contain myself". Then he asked what time we were coming to pick him up because he wanted to look sharp!! :)

May 14th: Today was a day of many firsts for our kids! When Pam and I went with our kombi (mini-bus) to pick up the kids for a day in the town, they were all anxiously waiting in their finest clothes. We took them to the mall where we met up with Kait and the Purdue girls and went to Mr Price for a shopping spree. The Purdue girls all pitched in some of their own money to make sure that Nosipho, Nomfundo, Sizo, Mazwi, and Celimphilo all got to select a new outfit and pair of shoes. The kids were very excited!

Mazwi and Celimphilo (Celie) Maziya in the Purdue girls' sunglasses The kids holding their bags of new clothes and shoes at Mbabane Mall

Purdue girls and the eLangeni kids at Mbabane Mall

Then we decided to take them to the theater to see Gnomeo and Juliet since they'd never seen a movie before. Little 7 year old Mazwi was on the edge of his seat the whole time! Afterward, 17 year old Nosipho pulled me aside and asked if I would come with her into the Pick N Pay (grocery store). She pulled me into the hygiene aisle and asked if I would buy her some sanitary pads. 13 year old Celie was right behind us, so I asked her if she needed any. She hunched over very shy and shook her head "no". Then, as Nosipho and I headed toward the register, Celie quickly grabbed an economy pack and came running after us. The things we take for granted... like not having to use dried cow dung during our period.

The next "first" was pizza!! We had a Debonairs pizza party - the kids loved it and the littlest two (Celie and Mazwi) ate the most! When I dropped them off, Sizo said that he made something for us. It was a painting (with the supplies Kait and I left for them in November) and it said "You are Most Welcome - to the Most Beautiful Girls in Indiana". Haha, thanks Sizo.

May 15th: After going to Sizo's church this morning, we picked up the Maziya kids and brought them to the Msibi homestead to spend the day with us. We did art projects (clay, story quilts, weaving, coloring, etc). Nomfundo, Nosipho, and Sizo all did "before and after" story quilts. One square was their "now"/before and the other was their dream of the future/after. Nomfundo's before was her family (the 3 kids listed above) outside of their house. Her after was her as a pediatric nurse with her patients. Nosipho's before was her wearing traditional Swazi attire and her after was her fashion design store. Sizo's before was him outside of his house and his after was a music album he recorded called "You Raise Me Up".

Seeing Mazwi smile melts my heart. It happens much too rarely.
The Msibi's showing off their new outfits!
The clay masterpiece.

Celie working hard at her storyquilt.

Mazwi would not put the DoodlePro down for a minute!!

Goodbyes are always heart-wrentching. A year is SO long in a child's life (and mine!)!! We said our goodbyes to the Msibi's and Kait and I promised to be back next year. Then Kait, Kristen and I drove Mazwi and Celimphilo back to their house. It was pitch black because they do not have electricity. We stepped inside to show them the toys and food (KIDS AGAINST HUNGER) we brought for them - they LOVED the teddy bear, barbie, light-up truck, and clothes. Just when we were getting ready to leave, a drunk man appears at the door and approached little Celie. He said something in siSwati and Celie replied with a short tone. I still wonder what words were exchanged. It was time for us to go, so we waited for the man to walk away and made sure he wasnt lingering around before we left. As I was walking back to the car, the tears would not stop pouring down my face. Are Mazwi (7) and Celie (13) scared of being alone? Does that man commonly come around at night? Does anyone prey on the little kids alone in the dark house? I cried for them but I also cried for the tens of thousands of other kids in Swaziland in similar situations. The child-headed household phenomenon is increasing with the HIV prevalence and these children are easy targets for theft and abuse.

May 16th: Today we went to the SOHO Welcome Center to paint a LITSEMBA ("hope" in siSwati) mural with the pre-schoolers that Art With a Heart teacher Kristen Busenbark marvelously designed. Since we were only equipped to paint with 5 pre-schoolers at a time (imagine all 50 with permanent acryillic paints in their hands!!!!), I was the designated kid-go-getter. Along the way on one of my trips, I saw the teacher's son who I met on the last trip in November. He is about a year old now, remembered me, and immediately he wanted to be picked up, but I saw that he had completely peed through his pants... So I grabbed a random sweatshirt I saw lying on the ground and wrapped his booty up in it. Hopefully no one was planning on wearing that in the near future!

There are many needy kids at the Welcome Place. One of the girls about 16 was there in the morning to bring her little brother (age 3) to school. She said that her mom and dad left them alone and she had no idea where her parents were. A little girl was born with only one eye. There was a little boy who was albino and had severe skin and eye problems. The needs were overwhelming in this rural village so far away from towns.

She is in need of a glass eye.
After the mural was completed (it turned out BEAUTIFUL, thanks Kristen!!), we played games with the kids. I decided that duck, duck, goose was easy enough for pre-schoolers, but they never quite got the hang of it. Getting them to form a circle was easy enough, and they knew to stay seated when I tapped them on the head saying "duck", but when I got to "goose" it was total chaos! All 50 pre-schoolers immediately jumped up and chased me all over the school yard until one of them tackled me and the others piled on top. Getting yourself free of 100 pairs of little hands is not an easy task!! Prince Fikeveni Dlamini stopped by to check out the SOHO facility. He is originally from Swaziland but moved to Indiana to pursue a degree at Purdue. He has always been a major supporter of any endeavor that SOHO has done and is a true blessing to his people back home in Swaziland.

Circling up for Duck, Duck, Goose.
Pre-school mural painter. All of these small pieces were put together to form the masterpiece.

Singing their morning prayers.

We left the SOHO Welcome Place to go to Baylor's Pediatric HIV Center. Dr Eric took us on a tour and answered questions. We learned that in Swaziland, they start treating people for HIV when their CD4 levels drop below 350. In the US, we start treatment at diagnosis or at least by 500 T-cell counts. By 200, the victim will start experiencing lesions and there will be major devastation to their immune systems (we learned that the term AIDS is no longer actively used, but at 200 the person technically has full-blown AIDS). We learned that 50% of babies will get HIV if their mothers are not treated and 50% of those kids will die by their second birthdays. The doctor almost lost his composure when he told us a story of a 14 year old "miracle" patient who has never received treatment for her HIV she contracted at birth and whose t-cell count has been dropping dramatically. It was 15 in November and 5 when he saw her today. She has TB and pneumonia but her father will not let her start ARV treatment because he is afraid it will kill her. The doctor tried to explain to him that it was by NOT being on ARVs that she was slowing (actually now rather quickly) dying - but he could not get through to the father. She and her father left the clinic today with no ARVs. Dr Eric said that the hardest part of his job is knowing that there are treatments available in the US for the pateints he sees, but these treatments are not available in Swaziland - so sometimes he turns people away with conditions where there is a cure... it is just out of reach.

After Baylor, I dropped the girls off to get some dinner and Kait, Kristen, and I went to the Wholesale store (kind of like a Sam's Club). We noticed when we dropped the Maziya's off yesterday that the only thing they had in their entire house was a dirty caved in mattress laying on the floor. The Purdue students pitched in their own money (again) to buy them pillows, sheets, blankets, and comforters. I am so proud of my students!! We also picked up 2-3 months worth of food, candles (no electricity), cooking oil, matches, and soap. While the Purdue students were eating dinner, Kait, Kristen, and I ran back to eLangeni to drop off the goodies. We picked up Bheki to help us deliver them. When we got to the Maziya house, the older brother was there and he had Hannah's Purdue basketball shorts on. Celie came to the door wearing the necklace I left and Christine's bracelets around both ankles clutching her new teddy bear. We said our goodbyes again, but this time it was much less sad - Celie actually hugged us back although Mazwi just stood there stiffly as usual - but hey - I'll take what I can get! :) I love those little kids so much it hurts.

May 17th: We are headed back to the US today and it is bittersweet because I am leaving the kids but I am energized to raise $ and awareness so that Kait and I can do more in the future. Give Hope, Fight Poverty's upcoming focus in Swaziland will be:

1. Recreational: We promised Selula Sandla we will come back next summer to build a playground for the HIV orphans.

2. Literacy: We are committed to the Princess Chief to create an English literacy computer lab at the eLangeni Primary School.

3. Educational: As always until the children graduate, we will be sponsoring the school fees for the child-headed households of eLangeni.

4. Medical: We will continue to support our collaborators, Baylor Pediatric HIV Clinic and Lobamba Rural Clinic, by providing medical supplies.

WE NEED YOUR HELP!!!!! There are endless ways you can help: You can always donate money to one of the above causes (even $5 helps!!). Or you can host a Party for a Purpose (with our Artisan Direct goods) that will raise awareness and funds for one of the above programs. Help us to network with others who may be able to contribute. Write a letter to your hometown paper. Gather donations for our next trip to Zambia in December (need suitcases, art supplies, children's toys, chewable vitamins, sanitary pads). Join us for one of our upcoming trips (find them on our website: ifightpoverty.org). "Like" our facebook page Give Hope, Fight Poverty. Pass this blog on to friends or family.

Please contact me if you are interested in learning more: anniefightspoverty@gmail.com.

It feels so overwhelming every time I come. I know that the VERY little I have been able to do over the last number of years (with your help!!!!!) has changed their lives but there is SO much more I want to do for them and SO many other orphaned children I want to add to our team. That is why my friend and business partner Kait Mariutto and I decided to start our own nonprofit: Give Hope, Fight Poverty (ifightpoverty.org). In the Selula Sandla orphanage earlier this week, I saw a sign with a Mother Teresa quote: "We, ourselves, feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop." I know I am partial, but I am certain that even if these children were but single drops of rain... the ocean might as well be completely dry without them. They are my inspiration to be selfless... to live simply so others can simply live.

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