After spending seven days volunteering at a rural South African
orphanage, Chelsea Chilman scraped the surface of a region plagued
with AIDS, prostitution and Third World living conditions, and
she’s going back during spring break for a repeat experience. The
17-year-old senior attends Valley Christian High School in San Jose
and has been rooted in Gilroy for 12 years, but her worldly
perspective spans continents thanks to an extracurricular outlet as
event coordinator for Save The African Kids mission club.
After spending seven days volunteering at a rural South African orphanage, Chelsea Chilman scraped the surface of a region plagued with AIDS, prostitution and Third World living conditions, and she’s going back during spring break for a repeat experience.
The 17-year-old senior attends Valley Christian High School in San Jose and has been rooted in Gilroy for 12 years, but her worldly perspective spans continents thanks to an extracurricular outlet as event coordinator for Save The African Kids mission club.
“I have more appreciation for everything,” said Chilman of her horizon-expanding journey made possible by three years of bake sales, car washes, miscellaneous fundraising and community contributions.
“I’ve never been exposed to something that extreme … all the things they worry about on a day-to-day basis, I don’t ever think about.”
nChilman made the 21-hour, Feb. 11 2010 flight to Johannesburg, South Africa with 14 other STAK students from her school.
The crew trekked to a rustic missionary camp in the southern heart of the continent in Phokeng, where they bunked in the evenings after repairing and upgrading a nearby safe house for children during the sweltering day.
Chilman’s pictures of her time spent at the home-turned-orphanage – referred to as “Martha’s,” after the single woman who ran it by herself – depict smiling faces, piggyback rides, group hugs and unabashed human interaction.
“When she told me about her plans, I thought there were less fortunate people she should be helping locally,” said Chilman’s mom, Lydia Chilman. “Then over the years, she became very passionate, and serious … the trip really woke her up.”
The stories Chelsea returned with are vivid and difficult to grasp for someone who’s never lived without clean, running water, a sewage system, a roof, three meals a day, shoes on their feet or a stable family model.
Like Saypen, for example, a young boy who sought refuge at Martha’s from an abusive environment at home.
Saypen lived in a one-room house with his unemployed mother, who forced him to wait quietly out of sight beneath the bed while she received multiple male visitors throughout the evening. Prostitution was her only means of consistent income.
“When (Saypen) told me that, my heart just dropped,” said Chelsea. “Saypen told me about it so casually … he’s so used to it, I guess, it was just a part of his life, like an everyday activity. He wasn’t as shocked by it as we were. That’s just how he grew up. That’s his life.”
Now, thanks to money raised by STAK, members purchased an extra bunk bed for Saypen so he could stay at Martha’s on a permanent basis.
Martha explained to Chelsea such barbaric means of getting food on the table are common in South Africa, where an estimated 70 percent of children in orphanages are sexually active, and roughly 50 percent are HIV positive – either from contracting the disease or being born with it.
Saypen’s story is one of countless circumstances, according to Martha, who’s caught young girls at the orphanage showing off money, or arriving severely beaten. She said men would linger outside schools, preying on women.
As volunteers labored in the hot sun performing facilities renovations and odd jobs, Chilman took in her surroundings and recalled seeing a 6-year-old boy named Billy sneak back and forth to the same giant trash pile where everyone discarded their garbage. She watched the boy pluck empty water bottles from the heap of refuse and fill a torn backpack until it was stuffed to capacity.
Before leaving at the end of the day, he replenished the empty containers with brown, murky water from a spigot.
“We had thrown all of our bottles away, and he went and grabbed them all up,” she remembered. “I was so surprised … he stumbled off with this huge backpack of water.”
When she asked him what he was doing, the boy said his family had no running water, and he didn’t want them to be thirsty that night.
For a number of kids, Chelsea explained, the one hot meal they received at Martha’s was all they got. Some lived there, and some stayed as long as they could before scurrying off at dusk.
She remembered the stark contrast from areas within close proximity of one another, which baffled outsiders such as herself.
“At first, I was shocked with how industrialized the country was, and how it didn’t seem all that bad,” she observed. “However, my view of the country would quickly be shattered.”
In one area, she said, her group saw malls and common suburban amenities.
An hour down the road, STAK members found themselves driving through middle of nowhere. They passed squatter camps filled with extreme weed overgrowth, people dying of AIDS, starving dogs, roaming goats and thousands of scrap metal dwellings the size of a closet filled with people so poor, and stenches so bad, it was unfathomable to the young Americans how human beings could exist in such conditions.
“The kids know,” said Chilman of the orphans living below the poverty line. “They’ve seen TV. They’ve seen what the other side of the world is like. They’re well aware they’re poor.”
Chelsea’s history teacher Myron Falkowski, STAK’s acting adviser since it was founded almost three years ago, and her parents said the trip has made a notable impact on the teen-ager.
“There were times she would get upset over something that was materialistic … now she’ll think back, and wonder why was she so upset?” said her mom.
Falkowski said when students have a chance to break away from everything they know and see various lifestyles in foreign cultures, the results can be life-altering.
“In her case, it has been really good for her,” he said. “She’s much more concerned about other people, and what they’re going through.”
Being around the children in Africa, he said, and leaving with a sense of having done something good, is a privilege – even if it’s only for a week.
Andrea Stickel, 17, who founded STAK as a sophomore with Chelsea’s help, remarked on the leaps the club has made since its inception. She said in the beginning, there was no vision of actually hopping in a plane and crossing an ocean to make a difference.
“Now, we’re one of the biggest student clubs in my school,” Stickel said. “I never expected it to be this big at all.”
Stickel estimates more than 20 members will embark on the club’s second trip from Feb. 17-26. Each traveler will need to raise around $2,100 – some of that covering trip expenses, and a large portion going toward purchasing much-needed supplies.
Last time, Stickel said, club members started giving away their own clothes. She said the children responded by surrounding their new gifts, and singing.
“We just wanted to help them as much as we could,” she said. “It was so hard to be down there and see how they had nothing.”
In retrospect, Chelsea remarked, as STAK members gave away everything they could give, the life lessons they gained were of incalculable value.
She remembered her encounter with an elderly man dying of AIDS, whom she met during a visit to a squatter’s camp. She described the victim – elated to be receiving visitors – as having bumps and open sores all over his body.
Though she was slightly guarded at first, Chelsea could tell the man craved human contact.
“I gave him a hug anyway,” she said. “I can tell it meant a lot to him.”
Supporting Save the African Kids
– Next mission trip: Feb. 17-26
– Where: Rustenburg, South Africa
– Amount needed per student: $2,100
– Donation deadline: Feb. 12
– Where to donate: Make checks out to Valley Christian/ STAK; address to Chilman Financial Insurance Services, attn: Chelsea Chilman/STAK, 8070 Santa Theresa Blvd, Suite 210, Gilroy, CA, 95020. Valley Christian will send back thank you letters and tax-deductible receipts.
– Questions: Call Jeff or Lydia Chilman, 842-3411, or e-mail [email protected]