Friday, August 29, 2008

In the beginning...there was doubt!

Thinking back to the beginning of Infinite Family:-

Smiling broadly, we walked into a crowded room of a dozen or so teenage boys. A few acknowledged our presence with a disinterested glance as they crowded around two computers, craning their necks to get a glimpse of the screen. This was exciting, we thought. The children in this orphanage were already surfing the web! But as we caught sight of the screen, we found these African youth had successfully found websites featuring pictures of scantily clad women, cool cars and gangsta rappers enwrapped in gold chains. This wasn’t the entry point of our imaginations. The few boys who paused to glance at us, the three white people from the US who had come to teach them computer skills and connect them with helpful adults in the US, gave us serious pause. We reflected back on the faces of the kind women and men who had signed on to be mentors with Infinite Family. How was this going to work? Did we possibly believe that these seemingly tough, street hardened, aloof teenage boys were going to be helped by earnest Angie, kind-hearted Bea and simple, straightforward Doug?

Were we crazy?

We hadn’t flown all the way from the US to South Africa, from our quiet homes in Pittsburgh to this chaotic orphanage in Johannesburg to give up before we even tried. So, we gathered the 25 girls and boys into a little wooden hut and told them about Infinite Family and “our plan”. Our grand plan was to match these 25 children with 25 mentors in the US using video conferencing and email to forge relationships that would be mutually inspiring, supportive and instrumental in helping these kids work out a different future than the bleak one that was overtaking them, their families and their communities at an alarming rate.

The inherited future for these 25 children was dire. Every child in this room was there because one or both of their parents had died or were infected with HIV/AIDS. And this wasn’t an unusual place or an unusual occurrence…this was the norm. The 25 children in the room were the tiniest microcosm of the 3 million children left orphaned in South Africa due in large part to the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

And Infinite Family’s grand plan? Our plan was to bring adults and children together, across impossible distances, a cultural chasm while using the newest of technologies in an admittedly difficult environment. We were earnest, kind-hearted and as straightforwardly hopeful as our newly recruited volunteer mentors…and the only thing we really had on our side was need. The children needed helpful, caring adults. The orphanages and after school programs needed more adult support and activities for the children they cared for. And everyone acknowledged that the whole society needed a shining light to guide them out of a cyclically depressing future that was unfolding at a rapid pace.

Now, almost 30 months later, the boys who had been searching for pin-up models and gangsta rappers on the net look forward each week to simple, caring conversation and the smiling, kind face of their mentors. These awkward, gangly teens sitting in orphanages and after school programs, peer through a camera lens into a different world and into a different vision of themselves. A vision of themselves reflected in anothers' eyes. In their mentors’ eyes, they see reflected the possibility of success, the hope of a healthy future and brightness of each tomorrow.

Through Infinite Family, the homes of our mentors in Pittsburgh, Harlem and LA are made broader, wider, and more vibrant. And through Infinite Family, the orphanages in Johannesburg, Lanseria and Alexendra are made warmer, brighter and more hopeful.

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