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Small Acts, Big Hope: Working with Disabled Orphans in South Africa

By By Rebecca Plevin, courtesy of Abroad View

Studying abroad in Cape Town, South Africa gave one college senior the chance to help children in a place where joy seemed unlikely.

Sometimes, hope is found in the most unlikely places. Emily Harris, who studied abroad in Cape Town, South Africa, found hope and inspiration volunteering at Golden Girls, a home for mentally and physically disabled orphans.

The Princeton University senior was initially overwhelmed by the desperation--the children at Golden Girls each owned only one set of clothes, ran around barefoot, and some were covered in scabs. Many had mangled arms and legs--conditions that could have easily been solved in the U.S. by wearing corrective braces. The home housed 65 children in only two rooms. Glass and trash were strewn across the hard dirt; barbed wire surrounded the Langa township compound, located in a Cape Town slum neighborhood.

"[Golden Girls] was such a hopeful place in what should be a very upsetting and depressing area," explains Harris. Each afternoon, Harris and the other volunteers from the University of Cape Town would massage the children's legs and arms for physical therapy. The volunteers would then play with the children: face-painting, carrying individual kids outside to the makeshift swing set, and teaching them to count and sing.

The children get very little personal attention, so "a smile and a hug mean so much more to them than anyone can imagine," Harris says.

She would always bring her digital camera to the home and even taught some of the children how to use it. There were no mirrors at Golden Girls, so many had never seen images of themselves.

When Emily's parents visited Cape Town, they brought 50 new hardback books from their home in Bethesda, Md. Though the books were in English and the children only spoke Xhosa, Harris says kids would pile on her lap to listen to the stories and look at the pictures.

"There is so much that they need: bedding, a working toilet ... they lack so many of the necessities for survival in life," says Harris.

Since returning to campus, Harris has been trying to find ways to raise money to send back to Golden Girls and is already hatching plans to return. "I miss seeing their excitement and joy," she says.

The Abroad View Foundation is an international education organization that fosters global awareness and cross-cultural understanding among study abroad students and international students.

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