A group of Lehman students and administrators traveled to South Africa June 4-15 to work with, and learn from, non-profit agencies in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Here are accounts of the group’s experiences from Amanda Dubois, coordinator of community service / service learning and new student orientation, and from Chief Librarian Kenneth Schlesinger, a former Fulbright Fellow to South Africa.
From Amanda Dubois:
Following a very successful alternative spring break trip in which thirteen students traveled to Apopka, Fla., to volunteer with the Hope “CommUnity” Center, this summer’s trip by Lehman LIFE (Leaders Involved For Everyone), led by the Office of Community Engagement and New Student Programs, brought seven students to South Africa.
Before I tell you about our experience there, let me explain what students must do to accompany their peers on a Lehman LIFE trip. First, they must complete twenty-five hours of service with the Office of Community Engagement and New Student Programs to gain a sense of what the needs are in our very own community. These students then take the knowledge they have gained here and use that to inform their practice and empower grassroots leaders in other parts of the country and world. They apply for the program, vote on their top choice for a trip, and, if selected after a series of interviews, are chosen to participate in one of two trips.
Starting in September, students attend weekly trainings and meetings to find out about current issues facing the population they will visit, plan for events, and most importantly fundraise (as students are expected to raise funds for 100 percent of their entire trip).
This particular group of students took part in qualifying programs such as the Breast Cancer walk, LemonAID for HIV/AIDS awareness, Fun Run/Walk, The Bronx is Blooming, Lehman College tours for foster teens at Abbott House, Computers For Youth, and Holiday Elfing with Visiting Neighbors. They raised over $21,000 through the Fun Run, Turkey Trot, Donate-A-Dollar Day, off-campus restaurant parties, Payday/Snackday, and a bake sale at the Music Department’s annual Jazz Concert.
They took part in twenty-six preparatory meetings, fund-raising workshops, faculty and staff meeting presentations, and countless hours of raffle ticket sales, answered requests for local business support, as well as donor correspondence letters and emails, and prepared and distributed loads of flyers.
As you can imagine, bringing David Benito, Karstina Wong, Elizabeth Lora, Juliana Feliz, Mayi Custodio, Donya Locke, and Kim Singh to South Africa was an honor. Having staff participation from Merrill Parra, director of Student Disability Services, her daughter Emily (who fit right in as an honorary Lehman LIFE member), and Lehman Chief Librarian Kenneth Schlesinger was a complete complement to our already amazing group. I do believe, however, that the most effective way to describe the student experience is in their own words.
Karstina Wong wrote in her blog entry that “the essence of Lehman LIFE was truly revealed during our volunteer experiences at Nkosi’s Haven and Alexandra Society for the Aged in Johannesburg.” At Nkosi’s Haven, students volunteered in the kitchen, preparing meals for mothers and children with HIV and AIDS, as well as tutored the children after school and provided much-needed support in the nursery. They met with Gail, an amazing grassroots leader who began this organization after adopting her son, Nkosi, who was diagnosed with AIDS and fought at the young age of eight to end the stereotypes of those with HIV/AIDS. Nkosi passed away at age 12, but his legacy lives on through Nkosi’s Haven. In Alexandra Township, students took part in the township’s centennial through its very own “Sancoma” ritual, spent time with an amazing group of college student leaders known as the “leopards,” and helped to serve evening supper to over 400 children at the Alexandra Center for the Care and Welfare of the Aged.
While at Nkosi’s Haven, Juliana Feliz discussed on video that Lehman LIFE to her is not about “rescuing” anyone, but rather in assisting others in recognizing their true potential through our interactions with them. Just when she thought no one was looking, I saw Donya tell a young shy girl, who loved to sing, not to let anyone ever silence her voice. Later that night, Elizabeth reflected on the experience that she had with a young girl who did not have a father to present with a Father’s Day, so she gave Elizabeth a poster of a car to give to her own dad when she returned to the U.S. This was a heartfelt moment for both Elizabeth and the entire group.
When we moved to the Alexandra Center for the Care and Welfare of the Aged, David Benito exclaimed, “This is a day I will remember for the rest of my life” after participating in a very personal experience with local community members during their Centennial celebration of Alexandra Township.
On our first full day in Cape Town, students were given a tour of the rich history of the city and enjoyed a dinner at a local family home. Our hosts, Trevor and Joann, shared the challenges of providing an education for their daughter with epilepsy. At that point, Mayi Custodio shared her dream of traveling back to her home country of the Dominican Republic to open a school for students with disabilities. Trevor and Joann encouraged Mayi to continue her work and not to forget all that she had learned in South Africa to help inform her practice.
Moving on to our volunteer project in Cape Town, the students blogged: “Today, we divided ourselves into two groups to better serve the needs of the Mayibuye Archive … We traded positions throughout the day so we can all get a feel of what the other one was doing. We spent an amazing morning with Charlene, Jarryd, and Adrian — students from the University of Western Cape. Charlene is a 31-year-old South African of Indian descent; Jarryd, 23, is working on his B.A.; and Adrian is working on his honors degree—the equivalent to our senior year in college. It was amazing to find people close to our age that have such a sense of forgiveness. Take Charlene for example: in the past, she has been kicked out of restaurants because of her skin color. She said she was extremely hurt, but at the same time she understands that they acted the way they do because of what they have been taught as children. We were amazed that they are not upset and are able to rationalize and take into account the history of the country.
The rest of the group continued their work from day one in the art room, in which we archived posters and t-shirts from the Apartheid era, learning that we were the last people that will ever touch the documents and items before they were sealed in a protective coating. Wow!”
I would have to say that one of my proudest moments was meeting Theo, from California, who was interested in raising funds to bring his students to Johannesburg once he found out what our students were doing. Our group invited Theo to the dinner table, and the students gave an impromptu fund-raising workshop for more than half an hour, reviewing everything they had learned and accomplished from September 2011 to now. What a proud moment for Lehman College. Theo was amazed and commended our students on a job well done.
Another proud moment for Lehman came when the students visited Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned during Apartheid. They used the knowledge gained from all they had learned over the prior two weeks to ask questions beyond the range of the general public. Their experience volunteering at various organizations, meeting political prisoners, and examining personal documents at the Archives provided a unique insight into the world of those in South Africa. A sociologist from Australia leaned over to Kenneth after learning about our students and commented “You must be so proud.” Indeed we are, Lehman College. Indeed we are.
From Chief Librarian Kenneth Schlesinger, a former Fulbright Scholar to South Africa:
When Amanda Dubois and I began informal discussions about this trip to South Africa, we aspired to develop a program that would combine meaningful community service for Lehman students with a solid grounding in understanding South Africa’s complex history and cultural heritage.
Our first stop was Nkosi’s Village, a residential community outside Johannesburg for children and their mothers with HIV. Inspired by the vision of Nkosi, a young AIDS activist who succumbed to the illness in childhood, Director Gail Johnson built a facility whose function has changed from hospice to support community. Lehman students rolled up their sleeves and volunteered in the kitchen and laundry, provided support to pre-school children, and helped teens with their homework. It was also an opportunity to witness a social service organization with dire financial challenges and internal staffing capacity issues.
With the assistance of my colleague Bongi Dhlomo — who ended up being the Fairy Godmother of this trip — the group spent an active day at Alexandra Society for Care and Welfare of the Aged. Set in the midst of Johannesburg’s oldest township (celebrating its centennial this year), the Alexandra Centre is a veritable beehive of activity with services for the elderly, pre-schoolers, and everyone in between. We observed its sports program for youngsters (who mobbed us), visited the Library and Multimedia Centre, and were treated to an African drumming demonstration.
As part of their celebrations, our hosts invited us to a tribal dance in which student David Benito was asked to participate (a high honor). As an attending male, I was requested to contribute to the Zulu ritual cow slaughter, but fortunately this did not come to pass! The Lehman group was particularly impressed by the Leopards, a group of young adults being trained for future leadership roles, corresponding to CUNY’s Urban Male Leadership program, though both genders are active participants.
In beautiful Cape Town, students volunteered for two days at Mayibuye Archives, one of the country’s leading anti-apartheid collections. Situated at the University of Western Cape, it contains the Robben Island papers of former political prisoners. Lehman students processed political posters and T-shirts from rallies, inputted cataloging records, and organized documents for the Historical Papers collection.
To contextualize its community service experiences, the group visited the Apartheid Museum (similar to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum), Hector Pieterson Museum (a memorial to the 1976 student Soweto Uprising), and Constitution Hill (the new Supreme Court built on the site of a former notorious prison). We also facilitated discussions with former political prisoners and prominent South African journalists, as well as psychologists and social workers in the HIV service community. These discussions were rich, stimulating, and provocative.
South Africa is a leading tourist destination, so we also had some fun! We took a Peninsula tour outside Cape Town, with stops at Cape of Good Hope, where we saw African penguins, and later strolled through the glorious Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. Further, we had our fill of cultural entertainment, including the dynamic liberation play Woza Albert! at the historic Market Theatre, and a rousing concert by Hugh Masekela in his hometown, Johannesburg. Bongi Dhlomo asked “BraHugh” to sign autographs and be photographed with the students, a true high point for everyone.