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Saturday, May 30, 2015

“What is a Good Life?” by Chloe Maxwell

Morrison Academy Graduate 2015
Yesterday Chloe graduated from High School at the Morrison Academy in Taichung, Taiwan.  Ian, Spencer and I were thrilled to be able to attend her graduation, and in honor of our amazing daughter I am posting, with permission, this paper that she wrote for her “Senior Topics” class this year.  The question asked was “What is a Good Life?” 

Here was her answer to that question:

“Life is full of memories that stack up as you wait in anticipation for the next one you will make. The question is, when you look back on those memories, will they add up to the good life you might have hoped for? We spend so much time, money and energy trying to reach our next goal, get the next best thing, continue advancing through life, but I fear that one day we will look back with regret. If we take a moment to stop and look back, look at where we are spending our time, then we might have a chance at living “the good life.”

One day during my Freshman year, I was at “Cirque” practice and my “coach” wanted us to take a break from what we were doing, spread out on stage, and lay down. The Seniors knew exactly what they were doing and seemed relieved, but I, clueless, and just followed along. Our coach told us to shut our eyes and to try to visualize what he was saying. We were told to imagine ourselves in the most relaxing place we could think of. Immediately, I was at the beach. He continued to walk us through this; what the place looked like, the colors, the temperature, etc. Of course, the bell rang and we had to wake up from our happy places and go to our next class, but when I think back to my “happy place” it really does line up with what I would love in reality. If I could live on the beach for the rest of my life in the sunshine, with no worries and unlimited funds, wouldn’t that be the life, the “good life”?   We could, “Imagine there's no countries, it isn't hard to do, nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too, imagine all the people, living life in peace…” as John Lennon says in his song Imagine. The beach, no worries and living life in peace?  All of those things sounds like a pretty good life to many, but not to everyone.

I look back on my life, all 18-years of it, and so far I would say I’ve had a pretty great life. Living on three different continents, riding elephants cowboy-style in Kenya, white-water rafting down the Zambezi river in Zimbabwe, climbing the ancient castles in Portugal, watching my mom being made a Chief in Malawi, these are all memories I will have forever and might be some of the coolest things I get to do in my lifetime, but without these memories and experiences I would still say I have the good life.

Growing up in a stable family that loves me and is healthy would certainly go on my list for the “Good Life” bucket list, but it’s the small things that make it onto that list, that are the most valuable. Sitting at the counter talking to my mom as she makes dinner with Norah Jones playing in the background, family dinners when we used to talk around the table and would laugh to the point of falling out of our chairs, walking through our garden in Canada watching the plants grow while stealing a couple of raspberries, strawberries and peas in a pod along the way.

Those are the things that make life good, but there are other memories that aren’t as sweet. 

I had a friend whose life that was the polar opposite to the fairy tail childhood that I experienced. After growing up neglected, abused and raped she was forced into prostitution to become a “magician,” as she used to call herself. Five children later, at the age of 24, she was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS as well as multiple drug-resistant Tuberculosis (MDR-TB). That was when I met her, the clock started and I only had two-years to build a relationship with Gcebile.

We were complete strangers from totally different backgrounds, yet we were still able to build a relationship that would bring us close enough that we would called each other sister. This girl that had had the hardest life possible, was still full of life and joy. We would laugh together, and she would tease me about boys always putting in her piece of advice saying, “I’m watching you, don’t be off doing anything because you will look back and not be happy about it.” The last time I saw her I sat on the edge of her bed as she was tucked in, barely skin and bones. Though I couldn’t admit it to myself, I knew this would probably be the last time I would get to see Gcebile, and I was heart broken.

That memory of giving her my favorite ring that she loved so much, seeing the joy in her eyes that she was finally home at Project Canaan, and hearing that last “I love you so much my sister, I’m watching you” will stay with my forever. When receiving that phone call that Gcebile had passed away, after building that close of a relationship, many might wonder what was the point? When writing plans for the “Good Life” you might wish for, this would certainly not be on most people’s lists, but it was on mine and I would never change that. I got two years with one of the most incredible, strongest people I would ever meet. Why would I change that for a life with no worries on the beach? “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:3-4).

Gcebile’s perseverance and her character sparked hope in thousands of people praying for her around the world. Not hope as in a want or a wish, but a certainty, that God is good and his plans are best. Even the memories like this make the good life good, just in a different way than you might expect.

The perspective that I have has been developed over the years from the new cultures I have been immersed in, the diverse people I’ve gotten to build relationships with, and the incredible experiences I have had the opportunity to experience. I wouldn’t change any of it, but what does that mean for me? When I’m 80-years old and look back on my life, what will make me think that I lived a good life?

I started to think about this the past year a bit, and it made me pause and seriously think. I don’t want to be constantly waiting for the next event in my life or for the next destination travel date to come up. Instead, I want to pay attention to the present and live my life for today.

Referring back to the song Imagine with John Lennon, I could, “imagine all the people, living for today…” but maybe a better choice would be heed the words of the Apostle Paul, who said, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” (Philippians 4:12)  Paul had a purpose-filled life, and I hope to follow in his footsteps.

Reminding myself to pay attention to every moment and act as if it is my last, as opposed to just seeing the big picture and racing through. Focusing my priorities on other people instead of myself, as John Bunyan said, “You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.” Being able to look back on my life and know that what I did have a purpose, that would be the only way I could say I lived a good life, the good life.

I have been shaped and molded, and will continue to be as the years go on, but I hope that as I do I will be able to live like Paul talks about living in 1 Corinthians. “We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored! To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment.” (1 Corinthians 4:10-13).

I realize this sounds insane, and not at all like the life someone sane would want to live. It might even sounds fake as my faith is still so small, and it seems like a stretch to want to have a faith to live like this, but it is true. To live a life of total humility sounds like total freedom to me, and what Paul is talking about in this chapter is having humility and grace in our broken world.

The last thing that would contribute to the good life I might dream of, would be people. What would life be like if you didn’t have great friends to share it or go through it with? I want to make friends that will become my life-long friends. People that know me completely that I can be myself around that are non-judgmental and that I know I could trust. You want people who stay constant in your life that you can invest in each others lives and can encourage each other and be there for each other when things get tough. Not only that though, you want people in your life that you can laugh with and enjoy life with. This aspect of my good life equation would be pretty essential, but might be tougher than I realize. Life may just be a million memories, crammed together, to some people, but I will make my life, the good life.”   

Thank you Chloe for writing this.  We are so incredibly proud of you and we are so thankful that that you are such a big part of our "good life".

Live from Taiwan…I am incredibly thankful for HIS plans.


Saturday, May 23, 2015

Baby “River” in emergency surgery, twice this week.

Some of you have heard about Baby River from my blog  River was born on March 2nd, and was immediately put in a plastic bag and left on the side of the river to die.  Fortunately he was found, but not before his backside was badly eaten by river crabs.

After having a double-colostomy he came to live at the El Roi Baby Home and healed in record time!  Several weeks later he went back to the hospital to have his colostomy reversed, and the surgery happened without a glitch last week. A few days later, things took a turn for the worst.  There was a breakdown at the surgical site and River had a belly filled with infection.   The surgeon called to tell us that he needed to open up the baby again and try to close up the intestines.

Here is a challenge for us.  We are the legal guardians of the baby, and so we wanted to move the child to a private hospital in Manzini (complete with ICU and Pediatrician), but the baby came to us through a different hospital, and the surgeon responsible for that child wanted to do his very best to help make the child well again.  I totally get that, but what if we could do “better” than that by moving him? 

We had a team (Brooke, Ken and Shongwe) in the car driving to the hospital to transfer the baby to the private hospital for the corrective surgery, but what if the baby died in the car under our care (against the advice of the attending surgeon/hospital)?    We were in a tricky spot.

Thankfully, everyone involved truly does have the best interest of the child at heart. Brooke spoke directly with the Superintendent of the hospital attending to River and he assured us that River was getting good care and asked that we leave him there for the “clean up” surgery.  Our team turned the around, crossed our fingers and prayed for the surgical team.

Three days later (yesterday) I got a call from the surgeon saying that the baby was not well at all.  He needed to do a third abdominal surgery because puss was oozing out of the baby’s belly - the surgical site had broken down, again.  He would clean up the wound, but also give the baby a new colostomy so that the internal wounds would have a better chance at healing.

I “just happen” to have the best surgeon in Swaziland on “speed dial” and I had him “on call” this whole week in case we could transfer the baby.  I called him right away and while he agreed that the child should be moved to the private hospital and agreed that a new colostomy must be done right away, but in order to save the baby’s life the third surgery needed to be done before transferring the baby to the private hospital.  I wanted to pull my hair out.

There was nothing we could do, but pray, and ask El Rofi (the God who heals), to be with the surgeon and guide his hands.  Three hours later, I was called by the surgeon to say that the surgery went well, and he agreed to release the baby to us to be taken to the private hospital.

At first I planned on making the two-hour drive (each way) with Brooke, but the thought of having a 2-hour post-Operation baby in the back seat freaked me out. What if … ?  Getting an ambulance and nurse is not an easy feat in Swaziland, but we had people at two hospitals (and me) working on it.  Within an hour we literally had THREE ambulance options (ranging from $350US to free) and the child was on his way to the private hospital 75 minutes after surgery.  The hospital staff in BOTH hospitals worked together beautifully and I was thrilled to see his little face when I arrived in Manzini.

River is in ICU now and we should hear from a Doctor today on his care plan, but for now, they are keeping him hydrated and treating for infection and we have an Auntie with him 24/7. 

We are thankful for all who are praying for this little guy. We are thankful for all the nurses, doctors and Social workers in both hospitals who helped keep River alive.  He is very strong and even 3-hours out of surgery was holding my finger tightly and talking up a storm.  The cost to have him in the private hospital is close to $500 US per day.  He has a large incision across his belly and has a new colostomy that will need to be reversed (again) in the future. If you can help us with his hospital costs we would be very thankful.

To donate in the US please click here.

To donate in Canada please click here.

Live from Swaziland … it has been an eventful week.


Saturday, May 16, 2015

Would you give this swing to your child?

Home made swing - complete with chain, wire and old notebook.  Photo credit: Chris Cheek

In the next few weeks we have a container being shipped from the US to Swaziland, thanks to our friends and partners at UPS.  It’s always great to be able to send equipment and items that are either unavailable or very expensive here, not to mention a few treats that we all miss from home.

On the “wish list” we asked for more swings so that we can have swings for the kids up at the Emseni Campus.  We have had a donation of $1,000 to buy swings so we were debating whether we should spend the whole amount on getting two really sturdy swings that will last forever, or get some small, cheaper ones that might not last as long, but we could have more of them. 

Then there is the question of wood, vs. plastic, vs metal?  Our team in the US diligently researched the options and sent links to me so that I could go and look at them for our ongoing discussion of which swings to by our big kids.

And then this happened.

On Tuesday, I had the privilege of going out to visit one of our neighbors with our volunteer team from North Point Community church. When we arrived at the homestead the first thing we saw was the skin of a cow draped over a tree branch, drying to be made in to rope to harness their oxen.  Below the drying skin was a long chain with an old notebook hanging on it.  I was asked what that was all about, but I had no idea.

Cow hide hanging by the swing.  Photo credit:  Chris Cheek
We went on to meet with a family that was made up of an old Grandfather and Grandmother living with 14 Grandchildren (age 2-18), all of them sleeping in one room (the family kitchen).  They had no food, no jobs and all were suffering from poverty.  We sat and talked with them, brought them clothing, shoes, a soccer ball and a box of Manna Pack (food).  We purchased all the mats that the Grandmother had made, we prayed with them and then we said our goodbyes.

Later that night Chris Cheek messaged me and said that she had shown the photo of the long chain and notebook to several of the Aunties and asked them what the strange object was for?  They all laughed and said, “Gogo, that’s a swing!”  All of them knew that if you didn’t have a fancy swing made of wood, plastic or metal, that you just take an old notebook and hang it over a chain, and voila!  A swing!

Old note book that serves as the seat on the swing.
I struggle with this.  I want to give our Swazi children the best of what we are able to give, but part of me knows that they are missing out on the small things in life, like making your own swing out of a notebook. Lots of people do it in North America with old tires for swings, and have had summers of fun swinging on them.

I am not convinced that a notebook on a chain would be “fun” (at least not for my backside!), but I know that the old Grandfather at that homestead was doing the best he could with what he has.  And the kids were thankful.

So I have an idea.  In 2016 I would like to have the Kufundza center start making good/sturdy wooden swings, complete with chain, that can be purchased by our volunteers/donors for us to take to our church communities and to our homestead visits.  It will be a small way we can bless each family (in addition to leaving clothing, shoes and food). 

In the meantime, if you would like to help us build our playground for the big kids at the Emseni Campus, please go to this link today and do a little shopping:

Everything purchased will be shipped in early June, arriving in Swaziland in July.

I feel like there were several lessons in this story for me personally.  I will be chewing on this in the days and weeks to come.  I hope you will be too.

Rose swinging at the Kindergarten. Photo credit: Ken VanWinkle
Caleb on the swings at Kindergarten.  Photo credit: Ken VanWinkle.
Live from Swaziland … giving thanks for everything He has given us.


Saturday, May 9, 2015

Baby in hospice is virtually raised from the dead.

  On Monday I received a call from someone at the Baylor Pediatric AIDS clinic asking for assistance.  She explained that there was a baby in a hospital who had been very sick and needed help. 

The story was that the child was 22-month old and was taken to the hospital in January 2015 because he was near death.  He was severely malnourished (and had been from birth), he was HIV positive, but had not been on any treatment from birth AND he had Tuberculosis!   The clinic and hospital worked closely together to save this little boys life, but hospice was called and the child was treated in hospice with a hired caregiver sitting beside him day and night. 

Where are his parents you ask? Both parents are severely mentally disabled and the mother spent time in the Psychiatric hospital after the baby was born.  The family suffered from a “lubane”, which means that fire broke out spontaneously at their homestead (no lightening, matches or foul play) and burned everything to the ground. Swazi’s believe that “lubane”, is a result of someone visiting a Traditional Healer and having a curse put on the family that results in spirits burning the homestead and fields. 

I traveled to the homestead with the Social Welfare officer and a representative from the Baylor Clinic and it was simply devastating to see how they were living. I am not sure I have seen much worse during my community visits.  The walls had open sides with clothing trying to keep the cold air out and the only food they had were a few groundnuts (peanuts).

The child remained in hospice for 4-months and every day he got better, until he was well enough to be discharged!  Sadly, the parents were not living together and neither of them were in a position go take the child (who they had cared so badly before in his first 18-months of life).  We were told (and saw for ourselves) that the Gogo had nothing to help care for the child and did not want the child returned to her. 

The hospital and Baylor clinic started working on a plan, but were not able to find a home for the child for 5 weeks.  It was then that we got the call, but they had been warned that we only take children under the age of 12-months. Well, the truth is, we have made two or three exceptions to that rule, and this week we made another exception and welcomed little Thando to our family.

The Doctor who saved Thando's life wanted a photo of the child before he left. So sweet!
Thando turned two years old on April 11th and he still does not walk on his own, but he is a sweet boy and we know that he will develop well at the El Roi baby home.  His TB treatment is finished in June, but his anti-retrovirals will continue for life.

We give thanks to all who help support us financially so that we can say “yes” to children who are in such great need.  We know that El Roi saw Thando and has saved his life for a purpose. We look forward to seeing him grow and develop in the weeks and year to come.

Live from Swaziland … we are driving to Johannesburg to pick up a team from North Point Community Church!


Saturday, May 2, 2015

What a week: 37 children moved, turned away a baby, and a memorial service

This has been a week! 

It started with the race to get the Emseni building finished so that 20 of our biggest children could move up to their permanent home. The reason it was so critical was because we were full to overflowing in all our children’s housing. Kuthula Place, that should house 10 babies (age 1 day to 4-months), had 14 babies in it.  The El Roi Baby home, which now has 32 beds, had 34 children living there.  The Labakhetsiwe toddler home, which was built for 40 children, had 44 children living there.  We were bursting at the seams, but on Wednesday, April 29th the dominos started to fall.

First, the 10 big ones moved their bags up to Emseni. Then 10 toddlers from El Roi moved to the toddler home. Then 7 babies who are 6+ months old moved from Kuthula Place to El Roi.  With the help of awesome volunteers, incredible Children’s Campus staff, and anyone else who was around to help, all the moves went off without a hitch.

Paul, Emmanuel and Ishmael were all packed and ready to move!

Hope loves her new bed!
In the midst of the planning for all of the above I was asked to go and help assess an 8-month old baby who was reported to be disabled and needing help.  We do not knowingly accept disabled children as we do not have the staff or training to help, but as it turns out, 10% of our children have some kind of long-term disability

We were told that the mother of the baby was dead, the child was living with an old Grandfather (who is the one who reported the case to Social Welfare) and the child was starving to death.  I wondered if maybe the child was just developmentally delayed or stunted due to malnutrition, so I asked Brooke and Shongwe to come with me to the homestead, with the Social Welfare officer, to assess the situation. 

After driving for an hour, over hill and dale, then through the bush, we came to a home that had many, many small children running around half naked.  As soon as we arrived we saw the child in question, but the story wasn’t at all what had been reported to the government office. The mother of the baby was alive and sitting in front of us. The Grandmother of the baby was there as well as several other women, who were mothers or Aunties for the dozens children who were sitting on the ground watching us.  The baby was not starving to death, as was reported, and in fact, she wasn’t 8-months old, she was 8 YEARS old. The only part of the story that was true was that she was severely disabled, and we found her sliding around dirt yard on her bare bum.  She is no doubt a severely “at risk” little girl, but in no way qualified to come to live at our baby home. 

We thanked the family for inviting us for the visit and left them with some food for the children.  We must all pray for the safety and protection of that little girl.

I don’t often tell those stories in this blog, but that type of “wild goose chase” happens fairly often, but it’s always worth the drive when a child’s life can be saved.  I am thankful for those who give money to my compassion purse which allows me to buy fuel and food for those trips.

We ended the week with a memorial service for our dear friend Shirley Ward.  It was a beautiful day as we gathered with Shirley’s family, friends, government officials, Doctors and Social Workers to celebrate a life will lived.  Shirley was the one who actually set up the Heart for Africa charity in Swaziland in 2004.  She was also the one who found the Project Canaan land in 2009 and navigated government relations so that the El Roi Baby home could be opened in 2012. 

In honor of Shirley Ward.
There are no words to describe the sadness we feel to say good-bye to Shirley, but her faith was strong enough to move mountains, and we saw her do that many times in the ten years we worked with her.

The El Roi choir sang.
Shirley with Cindy Van Wyk at the dedication of the Project Canaan land June 21, 2009
Many mountains were moved this week and we give thanks for the dozens of people who made the whole week a success.  Thank you Jesus for your provision, your love and your attention to detail.

Live from Swaziland… we are going to take the weekend off.


A fun aerial photo of The Oasis reception with Emseni East to the right.