From a deep desire to assist the less fortunate, Kelly Beckwith Verduin and her husband Wendell Verduin, of Poulsbo, Washington, created and nurtured a non-profit called SideBySide:South Africa that empowers impoverished South African communities to create sustainable programs that help their children thrive, “Working together to make a difference, one child at a time.” One of SideBySide:South Africa’s most recent initiatives is called Game-Changer for Girls, providing personal hygiene kits and health education for girls in the South African communities where SideBySide already works. In addition, since 2004, the Verduins have sponsored an African child named Progress through World Vision. On their most recent trip in October 2017, after working with their SidebySide partners in South Africa, the Verduins took a side trip to Zimbabwe, finally meeting Progress in person.
McCall Digest: What was the original motivation for creating SideBySide:South Africa and how long has it been in existence?
Kelly Beckwith Verduin: The idea came out of a visit to South Africa in 1998. Wendell and I went on a five-week holiday driving from one end of the country to the other and back. Wendell’s Dutch ancestry is what prompted our visit; the Dutch were responsible for putting Apartheid in place, and Wendell developed a curiosity about South Africa after reading Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton in college. We arrived four years after the official end of Apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela as President. Prior to this, tourism was virtually non-existent for folks from the United States because South Africa was under sanctions.
In 2005 we visited South Africa again after making contact, in a round-about way, with a pastor in a settlement church. The church had a desire to start a garden and a regular Sunday hot meal program for children who were coming to church. For many, this would be their only meal for the day.
SidebySide:South Africa was born in December 2005 to help nurture such programs. Our Mission Statement is: To come alongside South African community champions in partnership to provide critical services such as food, early childhood education, and humanitarian aid for the people they serve. We consider ourselves pump-primers because we don’t provide continuing funding of programs but instead help create programs and then require local champions to run them and find local funding sources to maintain sustainability.
MD: What sort of programs does SideBySide:South Africa support and promote? How many trips have you made to visit program partners there, checking firsthand on the progress made?
KBV: We’ve done garden projects, built creches (daycare buildings – starting with one that was serving 60 kids in a tin shack, then constructing a four-classroom building that has been functioning ever since), community centers where local champions can provide after-school meal programs, tutoring, sewing training, food parcel distributions, daycares, and early childhood development programs. These buildings typically double as churches because South Africa doesn’t have a lot of social services like we do in the States, so especially in rural settlements, the church is typically the safety net.
We also initiated a home-based early childhood development program where mothers and grannies are trained and provided employment by teaching children ages one to six in their homes. For women who have never had a job, this is incredibly empowering.
Our most recent trip in October was our sixteenth visit. We will continue to go at least once a year but hiring in-country staff in early 2017 has helped take the pressure off of our need to be there.
MD: How did SideBySide:South Africa become associated with Days for Girls and ultimately create its own program, Game-Changer For Girls?
KBV: We learned about Days for Girls through our local Rotary Club. In January 2017 Wendell and I took the Ambassador of Women’s Health training taught by Days for Girls founder, Celeste Mergens. After going through this training and learning about the amazing washable menstrual hygiene product that Days for Girls developed so that girls wouldn’t have to miss school, we asked several of the women “champions” we have been working with in South Africa and if this idea had value. They were ecstatic, saying “Absolutely – yes, we need this in South Africa!”
Days for Girls is based in Bellingham, Washington, has an office in Seattle, and chapters all over the United States and the world. Women volunteer their time make hygiene kits. After meeting with Days for Girls and the Poulsbo Rotary Chapter, we decided to start a pilot project through SidebySide:South Africa called Game-Changer for Girls. Some 600 kits were donated by Days for Girls and shipped to South Africa. Five women champions in South Africa were trained as Ambassadors of Women’s Health to deliver the essential health and hygiene training component when they distribute kits at schools and other locations. The demand and response has been amazing. We exceeded our goal to empower 1,500 girls by the end of 2017. Our goal for 2018 is to empower 3,500 girls. We now have two micro-enterprises registered with Days for Girls where women (and some men) have been trained to sew and manufacture hygiene kits for girls which will last two to three years with proper care. The micro-enterprises are not yet sustainable so SidebySide has budgeted continued support through 2018.
MD: When did you start donating to support an African child through World Vision? What did that support entail and how did it evolve over the years?
KBV: I had always been aware of World Vision and their child sponsorship program. In 2004 a representative from World Vision spoke at the church we attended and that led to our sponsorship of Progress Matambanadzo in Zimbabwe; she was three years old. Financial support is provided through an annual pledge paid directly to World Vision from which school fees are covered and other financial support is given to the family. Their school year ends in mid-December so for Christmas I would send World Vision a year-end gift. We received photos showing what was purchased for Progress, for example, a new uniform, shoes, back pack, or blanket. One year they purchased a goat and another year a cow. World Vision’s policy is that any funds over $200 are shared with the community. Packages are limited to a 6” x 9” manila envelope so we were limited to letters and anything that could fit into an envelope that size. It was fun to receive letters, initially written by Progress’s parents or older siblings; when we started receiving letters written by Progress it was very exciting.
MD: What led to your visiting Progress? What practical hurdles did you encounter in your quest to meet her?
KBV: The idea to meet Progress came after visiting our account on the World Vision website. I noticed the tab “Visit your Sponsored Child.” Unaware this was an option, I clicked onward and decided this is what I wanted to do for my 60th birthday. I shared this fantastic gift to myself with my husband and he was almost as excited as I was. The application was easy to download, complete, and submit. A date was set, confirmed with the sponsored family, World Vision Zimbabwe contact information was provided, transportation to/from Harare to the family was confirmed, an itinerary provided, and so forth. For something not likely done very often, World Vision did a good job of making the process as easy as possible, even for seasoned travelers such as my husband and I.
Progress is now 17, married, and – in October 2017 – about four months pregnant. Her husband, Lemon, is 18 and the head of his mother’s household, since his father is “late” – the word used in the African culture to describe someone who is deceased. They are still children, but worlds different from their peers in the United States. Life for them is hard from the outset. Survival is built into their DNA: drawing and hauling water, tending crops and livestock, helping raise younger siblings – all part of their life as soon as they can walk.
Kelly Beckwith Verduin Describes Meeting Progress
We are picked up at our guest house at 9:00 am by Farai, our World Vision rep who will take us to Progress’ remote village in a rural area of eastern Zimbabwe called Mudzi; it is about 20 kilometers from the Mozambique border. The highway (I use this term very loosely) is a two-lane road, no shoulders, with a very abrupt lane edge. We did not know at the outset how dangerous this road would be on the return drive after dark.
First stop is the World Vision Zimbabwe office where we met Krescencia Shoko, Sponsorship & Child Protection Manager, and Madrine Chiku, National Gender & Advocacy Coordinator. This is a new experience for them, meeting sponsors who have come to visit their sponsored child. Madrine was quite interested in our South Africa pilot project, Game-Changer for Girls. She has never heard of Days for Girls, even though they have a chapter nearby in Harare.
Most villages here are not seen from the tar road. Only after turning off onto a dirt track do we start seeing small homesteads interspersed among the scrub brush, rocks, and hills. Every so often a jacaranda tree is seen displaying its lovely purple flowers, a glimpse of beauty seemingly out of place in this very rugged land. We cross a couple of dry riverbeds which are impassable during the rainy season; for three months these rivers cannot be forded. The World Vision vehicle we’re riding in is the ever-sturdy Toyota Land Cruiser that can handle the rugged track. It feels very much like being on a game drive in the Timbavati. Vehicles are an anomaly here – everyone we pass takes a good look.
We finally reach our destination: the homestead of Progress and her family. I see the standard rondavel with thatch roof and a couple other block/mud buildings. Many people are present, family and others from the community. No telling how far they walked to get here. This is a big event. Progress and her family are like rock stars. I’m sure most if not all of these folks have rarely, if ever, seen a white person.
Climbing out of the vehicle, I see Progress approaching with a huge smile on her face. I wonder if it will it be OK to hug her. Ms. Shoko said I would have to ask permission of Progress’ parents to give her a hug. Thankfully Progress didn’t pay attention to that rule because she gave me the biggest hug, a signal for the rest of the folks to sing, shake our hands, and give us a hug.
As guests of honor we sit at a small table in the yard with Progress while others sit in their respective groups – men in chairs under the mango tree, women on the ground by the rondavel. With Farai as our interpreter we are welcomed by David, Progress’ father. After Progress welcomes us, we tell everyone how honored we are to be there. Lots of smiling.
Lunch is served inside the home where the family joins Wendell, me, Farai and Progress. Other family members will eat later with everyone else outside. Lunch consists of goat, goat intestines, pumpkin leaves (like spinach), and millet, a starchy substance which is the “utensil” used to pick up the other food.
We exchange gifts we brought and they in turn give us a bushel basket of home-grown onions and a plastic two-gallon bucket 2/3 full of home-made peanut butter. I’m not a peanut butter connoisseur but it’s good, although not as sweet as what we find in the United States. I brought a jar of jam for Plaxedes, Progress’ mother, and suggest they put the jam and the peanut butter together on some bread and voila, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich!
We are also given a small basket of the most unusual cucumbers I’ve ever seen, with sharp protrusions, looking like a sea cucumber on steroids. And lastly, we are given grass mats for sitting on the ground.
The very rural setting where Progress and Lemon live makes me thankful of our decision to sponsor a poultry farm rather than the seamstress course that was Progress’ other option for continued support from us. Given her remote location, how would she obtain a sewing machine? How would she purchase fabric and supplies or make a living sewing in this area, so far from any kind of community or formal settlement where people gathered to buy and sell? What we don’t want to do is contribute to something that is not successful or sustainable, preferring to avoid the “when helping hurts” dynamic. Millions of dollars are directed for projects to help uplift impoverished communities, but how many of these projects fail because there is no plan for sustainability?
We feel terrible that we cannot bring the gifts they give back with us to South Africa and ultimately back to the States. (We trust our host Farai to share everything with his colleagues.) The gifts of vegetables, peanut butter, and grass mats are like gold to them and so precious to us. I think it would be helpful if World Vision gave some guidelines to the host family.
Visiting Progress was definitely worth doing, especially for me because I have been the one corresponding and sending small gifts to her over the past 14 years. Was it a disappointment to learn that Progress was already married and pregnant at age seventeen? Absolutely. But after seeing the world in which she lives, and will likely live the rest of her life, I must accept that this is her life, her culture, no matter the dichotomy between first and third world. It is nothing I can change, no matter how much I might wish it, or how much time and money I give. I must not let my Western lenses color this rich culture and heritage Progress and her family possess. Progress seemed very happy and for that I am thankful.
Our knowledge based on years working in South Africa certainly prepared us for what we saw and experienced meeting Progress in Zimbabwe. For many people, sponsoring a child is the closest they will get to visiting because it is expensive to travel, especially to such remote areas. And while World Vision was great to work with start to finish, many people will be afraid to take this leap, to go to a part of the world that is totally out of their comfort zone. Visiting does give the sponsor the complete picture, but on the other hand, it can be discouraging to see the level of poverty, making one feel helpless to be the agent of any meaningful change. Sponsors should focus on the smaller picture of what helping an individual child will mean, for that child, the family, and the immediate community.
There is no question that visiting a sponsored child will be a life-changing experience – for the sponsor, the child, the family, and the community.