Americans answer a call to help
For months before the Bush administration came to a close, I was regularly asked, "What are you going to do next?" I had no answer - until traveling to Africa with President George W. Bush in February 2008.
On a whirlwind trip of five countries in seven days - Benin, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ghana and Liberia - my mission became clear: As soon as my job as press secretary ended, I'd return to Africa and try to help in some small way.
Why Africa? Maybe because the need is so great, and an American dollar can be stretched so far. Personally, I needed a chance to break off the protective shell built around my heart in those days at the podium, and volunteering came naturally.
Setting good examples, my mom and dad were always doing something for other people, usually through our church. My sister and I would tag along with Mom on errands for Lutheran Family Services. On one such errand, they delivered a used washer and dryer to a family that had just immigrated to America from Russia, then taught them how to ride the bus and where to buy their favorite foods from home.
The White House displayed numerous examples of Americans serving others. Mr. Bush started USA Freedom Corps after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to connect those wanting to volunteer with opportunities in their local communities. He challenged each American to donate 2,000 hours of their lives to serving others; 2 million more Americans were volunteering in 2008 than in 2001.
I volunteered at Living Hope, in Fish Hoek, South Africa, a faith-based organization that leads several programs for people affected by all aspects of HIV and AIDS. Fifty-two percent of Living Hope's funding comes from the American taxpayer as part of the Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief started under Mr. Bush. After seeing the program in action, I can attest the money is well spent.
Those two weeks we served fulfilled my husband and me in ways we didn't expect. The children had sweet laughter and innocence. They were satisfied with a piece of construction paper and a few crayons to share.
The men and women in the health-care center were able to chat and share stories, when just a few years ago their HIV-positive status was a sure death sentence. The people living in the townships shared warm smiles with us. Surprised when I'd wave to them and yell hello, they nonetheless waved enthusiastically in return.
Most of the volunteers were Americans, barred from earning even a penny while on a volunteer's visa, who had left their families and careers behind to help others. Their stories are inspiring.
Pat Ball grew up in western North Carolina, graduated in 1974 from Western Carolina University and taught in the public schools for 29 years.
She served on the local volunteer fire department and earned her certification to be an emergency medical technician. For good measure, she served as a Sunday school teacher.
After retiring from teaching, she went to South Africa in February 2005 for 10 days, or so she thought.
She said God touched her heart with a love for the people. A year later she moved there and started teaching computer skills to the staff of Living Hope. After six months, she went full time. Now she is the personal assistant to the general manager and handles all of the public relations. From what I saw, she runs the joint.
I asked what made her tick. She said, "Since I was very young, my life has been about serving and volunteering. It has been my privilege to touch hundreds of lives both in the classrooms and in my positions in the fire department, church positions and now in South Africa. It remains a blessing to me to meet people here at Living Hope from all over the world.
"I would encourage everyone to give of themselves where possible. Always, without fail, have I been blessed and gained from the experiences I have had."
Mike and Pam Talley coordinate the volunteers at Living Hope, with more than 125 teams coming from the U.S. this year. Mrs. Talley had been a dental hygienist and her husband a real estate agent in Brentwood, Tenn. They were active in their local church and enjoyed annual short-term mission trips to other parts of the world.
Then, in 2006, they felt a calling to a more active, more permanent type of service. They sold their possessions, including their home, and left for South Africa with no debt, raising money to pay for the journey of multiple years of volunteer work.
Mr. Talley said the experience is fulfilling and brings them a sense of peace. "We have been able to apply our talents and efforts to many worthwhile projects during our time here, and it's good to be able to make a contribution and believe you are making a difference in the world," he said.
Wendy Ryan is affectionately known as the bag lady, because she has helped many women, and a couple of men, find a way to support themselves through a sewing program.
Born and raised in Trinidad and Tobago in the West Indies, she came to the United States in 1973 as a student. She became a religious communications expert, working as a journalist and then as communications director for the Baptist World Alliance. One of her business trips took her to Living Hope and she wrote a book about it, but she ended up living in South Africa instead.
In Cape Town, she runs sewing and computer classes for women from a township named Masiphumelele, where more than 30 percent of the people live with HIV or AIDS. The students receive a new sewing machine once they complete the course.
Since 2006, more than 44 women and men have graduated from these sewing classes to help support their families. One of the women, Khumi, now has her own business selling bags, and she employs up to 10 other people at a time.
These are just three examples of the many Americans who are dedicating a portion of their lives to others. They serve as a great example for the rest of us. Hopefully, I'll be able to give more time than just two weeks in the future. The rewards are immeasurable - for those I may have helped, but even more so for me.