Reaching Out to Make a Difference

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Sometimes it’s by reaching out to others in their time of need that we find a profound sense of meaning and fulfilment for ourselves. But doing so entails taking a risk — the risk of allowing ourselves to be ‘touched’ by another’s story and in doing so, becoming vulnerable to the emotional rollercoaster that may follow.

I’d like to tell you about a woman called Winnie, a woman I’ve never met. She’s an ordinary yet also quite remarkable woman who has touched the lives of hundreds — if not thousands — of other people, not just in her native South Africa but also here in the UK. In particular, as far as this story is concerned, Winnie has touched the life of a friend of mine whose name is Lisa.

Lisa used to work for the BBC television programme ‘Songs of Praise’ and, a few years ago, travelled with a film crew to the small settlement of Finetown just outside Johannesburg to film a profile of a local woman — Winnie Mabaso. In 1996, Winnie had begun noticing that many of the local children were orphans, having lost their parents to HIV/AIDS, and who were also going hungry. Out of compassion and a desire to protect the children, she started feeding them with home-made bowls of soup, a small act of kindness which — within the space of just a few years — had grown into a community-sized social action project, comprising a Day Care Centre for pre-school children and babies, and the provision of hot cooked meals to an astonishing 1700 or more children a week. Winnie’s dream was above all to give these vulnerable children some protection and some hope for their future.

My friend Lisa was so moved by what she witnessed in Finetown that she kept in touch with Winnie after she’d returned to the UK and began fundraising for her. Something of what she saw in Winnie reminded Lisa very much of her grandmother, with whom she’d spent a lot of time as a child — a warm-hearted woman who, like Winnie, thought first of others. As Lisa told me recently, she was “the type of person whose home was always open to people ‘in need'”.

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And soon those children in Finetown needed Winnie’s help even more urgently; Winnie told Lisa of a vicious rumour that was circulating in the local area — that the only way to be ‘cured’ of AIDS was to ‘sleep with a virgin’. And how to guarantee that someone was a virgin? By forcing sex on the orphaned children of Finetown. Winnie was desperate to find somewhere for the children to live where they would be safe. Back in the UK, Lisa stepped up the fundraising efforts and eventually a house was found; it’s now an orphanage where 60 children are housed and fed.

Sadly, Winnie Mabaso died in 2007, but her work goes on. Lisa set up and chairs a charitable foundation (The Winnie Mabaso Foundation) which continues to raise funds for what’s now called the Zenzele Day Care Centre and Orphanage. Just recently she flew out to South Africa with a small team of volunteers to continue the work of revamping, refurbishing and developing the orphanage and day care centre in order to provide the best possible environment for the children who live there. The orphanage continues to flourish; it was featured in a half-time report during 2010’s Football World Cup coverage and has had newspaper coverage in South Africa recently too.

The bond between Winnie and Lisa was founded in the remembrance of that close childhood relationship with her grandmother, and also in Lisa’s own feelings as a mother when she looked into the eyes of those desperately vulnerable children in Finetown. Her involvement with Winnie and the children has been, in her own words, an “emotional rollercoaster that’s given me more than I could ever give back — when I see the children smiling it’s like Winnie and my Gran are saying ‘we’re still here and we’re proud of you'”.

So what do I think we can take from this story? Two things: firstly, that individuals really can and do make a difference in the world, and that if we set our minds and hearts to it, that we can each change the lives of others for the better. We don’t have to wait for governments or large organisations to get around to it; we can do amazing things just by ourselves. And secondly, that it’s by allowing ourselves to be ‘touched’ deeply by other people’s stories that we make meaningful connections with each other, and from those meaningful connections the gifts and the benefits flow both ways — whether they be emotional, spiritual or material.

Lisa told me: “When I met Winnie, there was an instant ‘bond’ between us. I could never put my finger on it, but I just knew that it was almost as if our souls touched and she would be a part of my life forever”. As the old saying goes, “Great oaks from little acorns grow”, and whilst Lisa is overwhelmingly modest about her own part in the story of Winnie’s orphanage, there’s no doubt that by allowing herself to be ‘touched’ by Winnie’s passionate advocacy on the children’s behalf, Lisa has helped that little acorn grow, and gained a profoundly meaningful engagement for herself too.

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