YMCA Diversity, Inclusion & Global

March 15, 2014

The True Meaning of Global Work

Firsthand Experiences From Lisa and Joanie

Note from the Air back from Cape Town

Joanie and I are on the way back to the states on our last leg of this amazing journey. While I reflect on our experience there are so many emotions and parts of our trip that I must try to convey to you.

Cape Town was probably the most compelling of the locations we visited while in South Africa. It was filled with surprises from the beautiful waterfront and money that dominates this area, to the miles of shanties and poverty that you pass while driving out to the fabulous wine country.

We stayed near the waterfront and if this is the only area you visit while in Cape Town you might think this is part of South Africa is well to do and not in need. However, our trip included visits to the YMCA's of Cape Town, Athlone, and Cape Flats which showed a completely different side of this part of the world. The work these Y's are doing is heart-wrenching and beyond anything I had ever seen in my history with the YMCA.

We split into groups the first day in Cape Town. One group spent time at the Cape Town Y and the other - the group I chose went to the Athlone Y. We were all to meet back at the Cape Town Y for lunch after our visits.

When we arrived at the Athlone YMCA location there was no fitness center, no pool, no gym. It was just a building with offices and a large room where they greeted us. They broke us into groups of two and sent us off with one of their "home care" staff. Each of us had a little different experience, but I can only describe mine.

I was paired up with Lilian and a board member, Trudy, from the Nashville Y. We jumped into Lilian's rather old- by our standards- four door car and off we went. Lilian proceeded to tell us that we were going to a woman's house who the Y takes care of. As we arrived on what looked like a decent street, Lilian put "The Club" on her steering wheel and told us to lock the doors.

The daughter and caregiver met us at the door and we were guided back to the bedroom where a woman lay under the covers. Her hands and feet were mangled from arthritis, her legs were a bit swollen, and she had sores on her back and buttocks from diabetes. She wasn't a big woman, but she could not take care of herself due to her condition.

After we said hello and told the woman who we were much to my surprise, the care giver began removing the woman's clothes and bathing her. I became a bit uncomfortable as this was all new to me. Luckily, Trudy leaned in and told me she was a nurse so I tucked in behind her and let her lead the way. Trudy was a great partner and we helped each other through it all.

We chatted with the woman, the care giver and Lilian throughout the bath. The care giver was so gentle and even removed and changed a dressing on her sores. She put lotion on the woman, powdered her, put clean clothes on her then put her on her walker. We gave them all hugs, a few gifts and off we went.

The next home we visited was of a man, Mr. Lewis, in his 80's with the early stages of Alzheimer's. What a sweet man he was. He talked about his wife and how he was going to talk to her tonight when she got home and tell her of our visit. We learned that his wife had died a year earlier. We also met a man from the Y who helps Mr. Lewis with his exercise. We chatted about his granddaughter and Mr. Lewis, then finally left for our next stop.

Lilian then took us to the health clinic where hundreds of people were waiting to be seen or to pick up their medications. The Y has a program where they help people with their medications so they don't have to wait hours for it. I found it very interesting that many of the patients were waiting outside smoking a cigarette.

We went back to the Y after this stop and we all shared our experiences. They were all a bit different but what we learned was how socially responsible the Athlone YMCA is and how much they are doing for their community. These people were so generous and giving and they are making such a different for the people of Cape Town.

The next Y we visited was Cape Town. This was quite a bit different. They have a large residence, a Y Zone program and several others. I did not spend time here due to my trip to Athlone. What I did learn from one of their directors was about their drug and gang prevention program. Brandon goes right into the heart of the community and finds kids who are on drugs, selling or in gangs and tries to help through their programs. He's a former drug addict and gang member so he "gets it". There is another Brandon from the states who has been in Cape Town for 6 weeks doing teen programming on a grant.

The last Y we visited on our trip was the Cape Flats YMCA. I could never have imagined what I would experience that day and how it would change my life forever. That morning we began our journey in 3 vans filled with mostly white and a few black Americans. Our driver went deep in the heart of the worst poverty I had ever been exposed to. As we drove in we passed people grilling chicken feet, whole chickens, and many other things outside. There were rows of containers where they set up hair salons, food vendors, and other types of businesses. No air conditioning, no running water, and in most cases no electricity. Only those with generators have electricity.

People were everywhere and I must say I was a bit nervous as they watched us driving through in our vans. I felt like I was in the movies driving through the crowds of people peeking in our windows. The only reason we were not bothered was because the Y is so respected for the work they are doing. We were the only white people in the area and after visiting the Apartheid museum and learning more about how the whites treated the blacks I can understand why they hated us and probably many of them still do and I cannot blame them.

We pulled up to a container and were told to get out - this is the Y. All 27 of us piled into this container and walked through. It was a health clinic where they do HIV/Aids testing and give out condoms. We were told that 1 in 2 people test positive for HIV. The coordinator explained to us that they try to educate the people and get them to use condoms to prevent this disease from spreading. They also educate pregnant women so they do not pass it to the child. If they stay on their vitamins and do what they need to do they can avoid passing it to their unborn child.

The coordinator shared her story with us. She had a child at 15 and did not know where to turn. She got involved in the Y program and now is studying to be a counselor and she is helping others. She began crying and we all cried with her. These YMCA staff are truly amazing, caring individuals.

The next stop on our Cape Flats journey was to a school. When we arrived, we jumped out of the vans and headed toward the playground. Some young boys were playing soccer with a half flat ball and a homemade soccer goal. They didn't seem to care and were happy when some of our guys played with them.

All of a sudden we began to hear women singing. I look over and about 15 women with scarves on their heads, African dresses, some of them without many teeth and of all shapes and sizes, are dancing toward us. I have never seen anything like it. They were simply fabulous. They danced and sang all to welcome us to their YMCA. When they were finished I hugged them all and told them how much I adored them. I began to cry and the emotions overwhelmed me. As I turned around I saw a young woman who was the coordinator of the clinic. I hugged her and broke down as I told her I loved her and that we were going to help. I left this place a different person and as much as we have helped them, they have helped us. They are full of life despite their conditions. We have much to learn from these women of all ages, sizes and backgrounds. I was touched by their generosity and their spirit.

The last part of our trip to the Cape Flats Y included a couple of dance numbers by some of their teens. These teens developed the program, choreographed the dances, put them to music, and performed for us. This is an African dance performance and the teens were great.

There is so much more to tell about the teen program, the camp, the trip to Table Mountain, the trip to the wine country, the friends and fellowship. However, I will close with a story of a young woman named Malikah from the Cape Flats Y. Joanie and I listened to her story and were moved by this young woman. She is now 17- her birthday was today. She came from a home where her mother was a prostitute and her dad was an alcoholic. She was abused and broken when she found the Y's Young Women's program. This is a program for young women to help them be strong and reach their potential. The Y staff meet with these young women for 1-1.5 hours a week to help them with their problems and be a mentor to them. Unfortunately they are losing their funding so we must find a way to help.

Malikah was shy with little to no self-confidence and was unable to speak in front of a group. We watched her address us as confident as any young person we know and Ricky, the YMCA director shed tears as he talked about how far she has come. She is in school and she hopes to go on to University.

In closing, I hope that you have gotten a sense of our journey through South Africa and the YMCA's we visited. It was a trip of a lifetime and I am so thankful Joanie was able to share this with me. Joanie and I will be making several presentations with pictures and stories. We met so many incredibly generous people throughout our travels not only in South Africa, but from the U.S.

There are 11 YMCA's who are part of the South Africa Coalition led by Norm Joyner, who by the way did one heck of a job organizing this. We thank Norm, Tom Valentine (YUSA), Kevin Washington from Boston, Eric Mann from Jacksonville, and Baron Herdelin-Doherty, YMCA of San Diego County CEO, for driving this initiative for the US.

We look forward to the continuing partnership and invite anyone who want to help to contact me at [email protected] This is real social work being done by real people and this is inspiring Y work. I'm so proud to be a part of the YMCA staff and I thank you for reading our story!

Good Day- Lisa and Joanie

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