From NYC to J’Bay : Kelley’s Ithemba Experience

South Africa was never a place I ever dreamed I’d visit. South Africa was never a place I dreamed I’d be given a chance to fall in love with.

Not long ago I was presented by Luo the opportunity to travel to Jeffreys Bay, South Africa to visit Ithemba. I knew very little of the organization other than its mission is to set children free from poverty. I am the director of the children’s ministry program at Trinity Grace Church TriBeCa in New York City and have the pleasure of being in the same congregation as Gavin and Lindsay Tarquinio, the founders of Luo. I was passionate about the children of our church learning how others, children in particular, live and how we can love and serve one another. I knew we had to partner with Luo and introduce our kids to the kids of Ithemba.

Our children’s ministry began to learn about South Africa and the children of Luo. We started to pray for them, write them letters, film video messages for them and financially sponsor two of the safe house children. One video message from the kids of the safe house was all it took to know I loved these children beyond measure. Never did I once imagine I’d get to squeeze the little faces of the children I prayed for from afar.

I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived in Jeffreys Bay. I knew my love for children would most likely translate into loving these kids, but I had no idea I’d leave a part of my heart with a couple hundred smiling children in another country.

There are few words to describe what it feels like to have dozens of kids you’ve never met sprinting towards you the second you walk into the door. I guess for me, the words would be “overwhelmingly wonderful.” Instant friends, we were. Within moments, the glasses I had on were broken into pieces and children were fighting each other for a spot in my arms. My heart was full of joy and happiness from day one. Their faces were of pure beauty. Their smiles were unlike anything I’d ever seen. Their laughs and their spirits could make the saddest of days joyful. I could spend hours watching them learn about shapes, how to brush their teeth and their favorite, taking pictures of each other with my camera. However, I’d be lying to say I didn’t leave the Ithemba School everyday pleading with God for His love to pour down on these precious souls in miraculous ways.

I knew I was going into a situation with children who were hungry, malnourished and in need of medical attention. What I wasn’t prepared for was how much these kids needed to be loved. We all need love, yes, but you could see it in their eyes: a deep longing for someone to love them. Someone to invest in them. Someone to hold them. Someone to tell them they were beautiful and most importantly, that God adored them.

All I wanted to do during my time in J’Bay was hang out with a bunch of preschoolers who didn’t speak any English and pray they felt my love for them and the love of Christ through me. I spent the majority of my time with the preschoolers giving hugs, throwing kid-after-kid-after-kid up in the air, listening to them burst into laughter at my sorry attempt at learning their language and my personal favorite, taking endless amounts of pictures of their sweet faces. I could have stayed in those moments forever.

Our group got to spend quite a bit of our afternoons hanging out with some of the older children receiving Luo scholarships. Although I adored my time with the preschool kids, I must admit there was something so very special about talking to kids who have been so greatly impacted by Luo for a great portion of their lives. The older kids were the ones whose stories I got to learn, whose hearts I got to peak inside and whose dreams I got to hear. These were the kids I feel like I was able to pour into in a more tangible way. I loved one-on-one conversations with some of the older girls just chatting about how good Jesus is, what they aspire to do with their lives and even silly things like braiding our hair and taking “selfies.” I felt so lucky to be able to speak Truth into their lives and encourage them in any way possible. I wanted them to know I loved them and that God’s love for them far outshines mine. I wanted them to know they are worth something and to keep dreaming. I wanted the kids to know that their dreams aren’t their dreams, but God’s dreams for them.

All the time we spent with the children was incredible but getting to meet the children of the safe house was an experience I’ll never forget. I immediately recognized their faces from our video communication with the children of our kid’s ministry. The second one of the little boys we sponsor walked into the schoolyard, he sprinted right over to me and yelled my name. He told me how much he loved our video from New York City and that he wanted to know all about my life back home. There are certain kids that touch your heart instantaneously, and my sweet Denzel did just that. I pray of the day we are reunited.

It’s nearly impossible to put into words an experience like the one I had. I know we’ve heard it time and time again, but I truly am a changed person through my experience with Luo. I knew I’d come back with more insight into how so much of the world lives. I knew I’d probably think differently about the way I was raised and the home I was privileged to grow up in. But Jeffreys Bay taught me so much more.

I learned what it truly means to love and care for people. It taught me that love really is the greatest gift we can give and receive. My passion and my desire to love others better is so much greater now than ever before. I want everyone to know they’re cherished and cared for. My experience greatly changed the way I view the kids in our church and the kids I interact with on a daily basis: my prayer for them is that they know deep in their souls that I love them and want nothing more than them to feel that love.

Thank you, Luo, for opening my eyes. I love you so. I will be back….you can count on it.

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