Archive for Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Volunteers have learned from inside out

April 24, 2007

As the first wave of runners left Mill Valley High School's parking lot Saturday in the Run for Mercy, volunteer Destiny Watson found herself fighting back tears.

The Shawnee resident had been to the event before; she ran in it two years ago and has been volunteering with Oceans of Mercy, the organization it benefits, ever since. But on Saturday, she saw the event with new eyes.

"The whole community is taking part," she said of her thoughts as she watched the runners and walkers leave on the 5K route. "There are these little kids, and they don't know the kids they're helping, but they're just out there, trying to help."

Watson was emotional because she now knows exactly who the funds raised at Saturday's events will help. She knows just what Oceans of Mercy will be able to do to better the lives of those affected by AIDS in South Africa, thanks to each participant, as well as everyone who contributed to the Petals of Mercy plant sale, also held Saturday.

Watson recently returned from a Mercy Trip to South Africa, where she and 30 others got a chance to see first hand how the AIDS pandemic has affected those in South Africa. They not only visited the Oceans of Mercy Children's Village, home to 13 orphans whose lives have been affected by AIDS, but they also went out into the community to teach children and others about the disease.

Teresa May-Teerink of Shawnee and Zachary Panfili of Kansas City, Mo., coordinated the education efforts for the Mercy Trip, creating a program they called "Lubabalo," which means grace in the South African language Xhosa.

Panfili, a native of California, had previously worked with another organization to provide AIDS education in Tanzania. He said he was happy to learn, upon moving to Kansas City, that Oceans of Mercy was a similar organization that was also setting up a permanent presence in South Africa and addressed the reality of the situation there.

"It was really refreshing for me to come into an organization that was willing to talk about the visceral nature of the disease," Panfili said. "But they also bring a message of hope."

Mercy Trip participants visited schools in Port Elizabeth to present the program to students in grades five through nine. First they spoke to the children in a school assembly, covering how AIDS is transmitted and how it can be prevented. Then each Mercy Trip participant went to a classroom to answer students' questions.

Education is perhaps the most important part of preventing the spread of the disease in the country, where misconceptions about the disease are widespread.

Those on the trip also trained 12 local volunteers how to care for people living with the disease, giving them totes with First Aid supplies and formalizing them as AIDS workers in the community.

Those on the trip were also faced with some of the sad realities of South Africa.

"There were a lot of elements of the trip that weren't so glamorous," Panfili said. "The incidence of rape and molestation, people who get HIV and are ostracized by their families. People were dying everywhere."

So part of the volunteer's mission at the schools was also affect a change in the culture, to empower girls, letting them know it is OK to say "no" when men make sexual advances, and to teach the boys that it wasn't cool to abuse women.

"The kids were pretty in tune; they wanted to learn," Watson said. "We told them to choose life. We taught them that there's hope if you have HIV, that they have a future if they try."

So on Saturday, as Run for Mercy participants stepped over the starting line, Watson and the others could picture the faces of the children they'd met and knew the difference the runners and walkers were making.

"It was definitely a good feeling," Watson said. "It put it more into perspective."

James Lawson, event coordinator, said this year's Run for Mercy had about 970 participants, which was on par with last year's event. The run raised about $24,000, though that number will surely go up -- Lawson said proceeds from the coinciding Petals for Mercy plant sale have not been totaled yet.

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