Adapted from "A Week at SOS Children's Village, Tlokweng, Botswana," by Annie Arnzen, on the "A Precious Cause" website. Used with permission.
Annie first went to Botswana in 2006, when she was in eighth grade. She and her family attend the North Parish, Unitarian Universalist, in North Andover, Massachusetts. She is still helping to raise funds for children affected by AIDS in Botswana .
"Look out the window, Annie," my dad exclaimed. Gripping the arm of my seat, I gazed out the plane window. For the first time, I laid eyes on the country of Botswana.
Over the years I had heard many stories from my dad about his time in Africa while in the Peace Corps. When I learned he was going to Africa on business, I asked to go along. I was eager for an adventure, to attempt to make a difference and to find my own stories in this place, which felt a world away.
My dad said he would bring me with him to Botswana. He had two conditions: One, I had to find some meaningful work to do while we were there. Two, I had to earn the money to pay for half of the ticket. With those words, I could already see my wildest dreams begin.
While earning money by babysitting, pet-sitting, and shoveling snow for our neighbors, I got my heart set on working in an orphanage. When I learned that Botswana has the second worst rate of AIDS in the world, all I could think was, there must be thousands of children whose parents cannot take care of them because of this disease.
Finding an orphanage in such a small country, so far away, that would allow a thirteen-year-old girl from the United States to volunteer doesn't sound easy. It was even harder than it sounded! Finally, five days before our trip to Botswana, we got a call saying the SOS Children's Village would be happy to have me. I felt like I was on top of the world. You can imagine the awe and joy I felt while sitting on the plane, finally flying to Botswana.
The next morning, as we pulled in through the front gate of the SOS Children's Village, it felt like we were entering another world. I was expecting something that looked like the orphanage in the movie Annie, but I was greeted by something very different. I was startled by a cluster of fifteen houses painted in neon shades of purple, pink, blue, green, and brown.
There are two SOS Children's Villages in Botswana. Both villages have sixteen houses as well as a few youth houses, providing a safe environment for four hundred children. In each house they build a "family" of about ten children, including a mama and an auntie to look after them. Brothers and sisters who come to SOS together are not split up. The purpose of SOS is to build families for children whose parents cannot take care of them, and educate them so they can flourish on their own in the future.
After Derrick James, the director, gave us a tour of the orphanage, my dad and I expected time for a typical American good-bye. But the principal of the kindergarten said, "Come with me," and I quickly followed. I looked back at my dad, whose face was a mixture of shock and encouragement as he watched me walk away.
We stopped in front of a small building, which stood just before the kindergarten. "This is where you will work with the babies," she said and then turned and walked away. I stood and looked at the door for a few minutes. Then I took a deep breath and walked in. I was greeted by ten little faces the color of ebony, all between the ages of one and three.
A woman walked over to greet me. She introduced herself as Mama Florence, and those were the only words of English I would hear from her all week. For the entire week, I played and worked with those ten little children.
When I arrived home, I was full of new stories, experiences, and friends. But I felt so empty thinking about the children I was leaving behind and could no longer do anything to help. This is why when I received a letter from Derrick James six months later, a bubble of joy rose within me. His letter said SOS was trying to build another orphanage, because there were still so many children who needed a safe place to live and learn. Derrick said an orphanage costs a lot of money. They were still $300,000 short. He was writing to see if there was anything I could do to help here in the United States.
This was my chance to make a difference for those kids who had made such a difference in me. My family and I started a project called "A Precious Cause" to raise money for SOS. I have been speaking at churches and schools and selling jewelry to reach the ultimate goal of $300,000 for a new orphanage for the children in Botswana. I have been moved by the outpouring of support from people who did not know about SOS before hearing my story. My hope is that as more people learn how the disease, AIDS, is hurting the children of the world, they too will be moved to make a difference.