One question I’ve always had trouble answering is, “What is your long term plan?” I can organize and implement everything from a small task to a large-scale international project as well as anyone, but setting and achieving 5-year goals for myself is a real stumper for me. Given my history, it makes sense.
My mother died suddenly when I was just shy of twelve, and later significant losses were also sudden. As an adult, the majority of my professional life was spent in a very fulfilling career in hospice, with the last 20 years of it in management. As anyone who has worked in the field of hospice has learned, no one is guaranteed tomorrow, so make the most of today. A 5-year plan? Really? I may not be here in 5 years, so why spend time planning that far ahead?
Another lesson learned from hospice work is that at the end of life, people have more regrets about what they didn’t do than about what they did do. This lesson goes very well with a spirit of adventure that I’ve always had: no, not adrenaline rushing daredevil adventure, but such things as a strong interest in travelling far and wide and learning about other cultures, or taking and creating jobs that did not involve following in anyone else’s footsteps. Given this background, I had the idea back in 2004 to engage our hospice program in a national entity that was then called the Foundation for Hospices in Sub-Saharan Africa, the purpose of which was to match American hospices with partner programs in Africa. As I said, I always wanted to travel, but Africa was never on my radar. This sounded intriguing however, and I thought to make a productive partnership, it would make sense to meet our partner. We were matched with an inpatient hospice and palliative care program in the inner city of Johannesburg, South Africa, and in the fall of 2005, two of my colleagues and I flew to Johannesburg and stayed for almost two weeks in the volunteer wing of the facility. Little did I know that that trip would be the beginning of a major change of direction for me.
Shortly after arriving at the hospice, we were greeted by a young man named Lucky, who was a patient there, awaiting discharge. Lucky had been orphaned as a teenager and had been living on the streets before he was admitted in very serious condition. With good palliative care, he regained his health. He invited us to attend the nightly prayer meeting that was held in one of the wards. Of course we went, thinking it would be a good way to connect with our hosts, regardless of our differences in religions, and never mind that most of it was in Zulu and we didn’t understand a word, but it was indeed the beginning of a bond.
During our time in downtown Johannesburg, we couldn’t help but notice the overwhelming presence of homeless people, literally lining the streets. At some point, Lucky said to me, “You know, none of us want to get sick and die, but we’re also afraid to get well enough to be discharged, because that would mean going back to the street, where we will have a hard time staying healthy and the cycle will repeat itself.” Over the course of the week, I became aware that Lucky was very intelligent, articulate, witty, compassionate with the sick patients, and he had a spiritual depth about him. I wondered to myself what someone like him could do after he was discharged so that he could make a productive, fulfilling life for himself. I told him I could imagine him being a pastor. His eyes lit up, but the light quickly faded as he couldn’t imagine how that could ever happen. The next day at a meeting of the hospice’s parent organization, I saw the chaplain and asked him how one becomes a pastor there. He smiled and said, “I’m on the faculty of Hebron Theological College. Do you want to see a brochure?” I told him about Lucky, whom he knew, and I decided to offer him the opportunity to enroll, which he of course accepted. The cost was less than what my son was paying just for books at college at that time. It was a home-study course, so he would be able to do the assignments from home and turn them in to the chaplain. Home was going to be a room in a transitional housing facility owned by the parent organization as an alternative to discharging patients back to the streets.
In South Africa, the first level of study after high school is for a certificate. The next level is a diploma, which is about the equivalent of an AA degree, and then comes a Bachelor’s degree. I told Lucky if he got his certificate, I would come to his graduation. He said, “Not if – when I graduate!” Normally, Lucky is quite talkative, but he was very reserved with everyone over the next few days. The night before we were to leave, he announced to everyone, “By now most of you probably know why I’ve been so overwhelmed, thanks to my new mother.” This blindsided me, but for some reason, I chose to take him seriously, and he meant it seriously. He became the first addition to my now large and wonderful African family.
He completed his certificate with flying colors, and I returned to Johannesburg the following year to enroll him in the diploma level of study as well as to spend more time at our partner hospice, getting to know the patients and offering consultation in hospice and palliative care. By the second visit to South Africa, my heart was hooked, not so much by the place because there wasn’t much charm in downtown Johannesburg, but by the people. I told the program manager that if she would like me to volunteer there in two 3-month visits per year, I would take an early retirement from my job in the US and come back the following year. That was in October 2006. In August 2007, five days after my retirement party, I was on a plane to Johannesburg and the beginning of a life I could not have imagined.
At my party, my friends contributed to a monetary gift for me to use in Africa. Just like what happened with Lucky and the chaplain, what I needed to do with the money seemed to present itself to me with crystal clarity: there were children and youths needing replacements for missing teeth; there were young adults needing education and vocational training to pursue their dreams of self-sufficiency; there were people needing health care that was not available in the free public health system; etc. Over time, people found out what I was doing and kept donating money for me to continue these efforts. In the ensuing years, I registered a nonprofit organization, One Future at a Time, so that I could expand my scope, which eventually led to working also in Rwanda and Uganda, giving people access to education, health care, and personal empowerment that would otherwise be unavailable or unaffordable.
This life path has been and continues to be an amazing adventure. I just show up and the next step somehow presents itself to me. People ask me how long I’m going to keep doing this. I am strongly connected to so many dear people in Africa who have become like family to me that it would be like asking a person which one of their children will they decide never to see again. I’ll continue until I can’t – but hopefully that will be a long way off.