Africa-bound! And only seven hours left of a 19-hour flight before I would arrive in South Africa for my third volunteer trip in three years. But this time it was different. I tried to get some sleep, but couldn’t. The doubts had begun to creep in. I’m doing this for the kids, I reminded myself. I didn’t want to worry about traveling to an orphanage in a remote area, or the fact that I was going alone, without friends or family. Or that I’d be there for a whole year, not just a summer. But I couldn’t help worrying. Plus, I had one challenge other volunteers fighting AIDS in Africa didn’t—I was in a wheelchair.
At eight years old, I was paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident. I spent months in an Easter Seals rehabilitation hospital, learning how to use a wheelchair, how to get up from the floor and how to dress myself. Basically how to live my life as independently as possible. My first day home, I found the usual list of chores on my bed. “Things happen,” Mom said, “but our responsibilities to ourselves and others don’t change.” Making my bed and cleaning my room took forever. But I could still do them, just a little differently than before the accident. I could still do a lot of things. Like swing on the uneven bars in gymnastics, as long as my coach boosted me up. Or be a part of the Friday night family dance parties my mom, dad, sister and I always had. Dad popped in a Beach Boys CD. “Surfin’ U.S.A.” came on. I pumped my arms in the air and twisted in my seat. At 16 I got a driver’s license like all my friends—only I had a car with hand controls.
Junior year at college, three friends and I volunteered at a Christian orphanage in Durban, South Africa, that took in abandoned babies with HIV. More than a third of the population in the KwaZulu-Natal province had the virus. This was bigger and scarier than anything I’d ever dealt with. But I felt a pull like I’d never felt before. I’m needed here. I know that’s what God is telling me. That I had a responsibility to others and that I could make a difference.
A church in Durban arranged for a driver to take my friends and me back and forth from our host family to the orphanage. Most buildings were one story, and my friends carried me up the rare staircase or big hill. I fed the babies, rocked them to sleep, prayed by their beds, administered medicine. I returned the next summer with my sister. My chair was never an issue.
I can do more, I thought. This time, after graduation, I made a year-long commitment to Lily of the Valley Children’s Village, outside Mophela, South Africa, where 90 percent of the children are infected with HIV. I would see to the kids’ medical needs and teach math and English.
“You can’t find a friend to go with you?” Mom asked.
I assured her that I could do plenty by myself. Still…I didn’t tell anyone at Lily of the Valley about my wheelchair. I wasn’t sure they would approve. As far as they knew, I was like any other young volunteer who comes over to help out.
Now I stared at the bulkhead in front of me, wishing that the jet engines could drown out my doubts. Who would help me if I got stuck? Would I prove to be more of a burden than a help? Okay, God, I finally prayed, I’ll go anywhere you want, but you have to be my legs.
Soon enough, I arrived in Mophela. People stared at me from the doorways of mud huts. Out in the overworked fields, farmers’ heads turned. Even a skinny cow that wandered across the dirt road seemed to gawk at me. It was a bumpy drive from the town to the children’s village, a circle of one-story houses bordering a game reserve. Wildebeests and giraffes strolled by in the distance. The driver brought my chair around. I climbed in and wheeled into the village.
Kids came up to me, touching my chair curiously. A woman ran out of a cottage shouting in Zulu. The children scattered.
The woman in charge looked baffled, but she was too polite to say anything about my chair. She showed me through the children’s village—22 cottages, each one with a house mother and six children—to the small house where I would be staying. The ground was flat but sandy. My wheels sank and slipped. I strained my arms to get going again.
“Do you need help?” the woman asked.
“No, I got it,” I said.
That afternoon, I met the six, seven and eight-year-olds in my “homework club.” The kids often missed class due to illness, and the schools were overcrowded, so extra instruction was needed. I read books to them and drew pictures. I asked dozens of questions. They just stared at the ground, not saying a word.
Those first few weeks were hard, harder than anything I had done before. Sometimes the kids went home with relatives, neglected to take their meds and came back sick. In class, some remained shy, others listless. I forced myself to keep trying. I needed to prove myself. But how could I tell if I was doing any good?
One night, a big storm hit, the only rain Lily had seen in weeks. I rolled out of my cottage the next morning and my chair lurched, the wheels sinking into mud. I gripped the wheels tight and pushed hard. The chair wouldn’t budge.
All of my worst worries seemed to be coming true. The problems I’d come to fight were too big. I was stuck, hopelessly stuck. I was alone. And a burden to people whose lives were already so heartbreakingly hard.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw people running toward me. Children, some older ones, some younger. Two of the oldest grabbed the handlebars and the others pushed me forward. The wheels came free. The kids shouted with delight.
“Thank you!” I said, surprised. “Aren’t you sweet!”
The children laughed. “You help us,” one of the older boys said. “We help you.”
You help us. We help you. That echoed in my ears all day. The next morning, there was a knock at my door. “Miss Harston, can we help you?” I opened up. The kids were waiting to push me through the mud to homework club.
The next day, same thing. And the day after that. It became our little ritual. In class, two six-year-old boys decided it was their job to help me up from sitting with them on the floor.
The more they helped me, the easier it got to help them. The kids and I bonded. One day, I tore open a care package from my parents—on top was a CD: The Beach Boys. Soon we were having after-homework-club dance parties. Sometimes the kids came over to my house. We baked cookies and they sat on my couch, practicing English by reading Bible stories. The children’s favorite was David and Goliath. “Even the smallest of us can overcome the worst things,” I told them. Weren’t we all living the story now? Fighting the giants of AIDS and poverty?
I wasn’t alone during my year in Africa. Not at all. I’d asked God to be my legs, and he’d sent the very people I was helping to help me. He’d shown me, more than ever, that anyone, even in a wheelchair, can make a difference.
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