Stepping off the bus I was instantly greeted by an endless flood of smiles. Kids ran from all different directions to greet us. Each one grabbed a different hand as they adopted us into their family at Botshabelo.
Botshabelo is a community that was founded by Marion and Con Cloete. It was established to help children affected by or infected with HIV/Aids. Many of the children living there are very sick and/or are orphans. The community has grown over the years and now the Cloete family is responsible for over 250 children.
The first thing we did after we arrived at Botshabelo was visit the cemetery that is home to many of the children’s, parents, siblings, and other family members. The girl that had first greeted me at the bus walked me around the cemetery, we passed graves of children and adults. We arrived at a grave where a young woman was putting her son on the grave and letting him play. She told me that this was where her mother and her grandmother were buried and that she was letting them know about her son and letting him meet them. I was taken aback by the nonchalant attitude around death that the children seemed to possess, and the grace they carried themselves with. These children were so joyous to be alive and to have a community, that everything else was just not as important. The girl took my hand and we walked back to the main house where we could pick her out a brand-new outfit. She picked out new jeans, a shirt, underwear, socks, and a jacket. The shine in her eyes was something that will never leave my mind. Kid after kid that I helped carried the same shine and excitement as they could pick out brand new clothes and shoes. The littlest things made the biggest difference in all these children’s lives.
The rest of the day was filled with playing, singing, and dancing, and when it was time to leave I felt heartbroken. I looked at the faces of these smiling kids and I knew that I needed to come back. Even the smallest things we can do can change these kids’ lives in a positive way; there is no excuse to not do them. If you met these kids, there is no way you wouldn’t want to help.
I have never been more grateful to meet and listen to someone talk than Marion. She, along with her husband and two daughters created Botshabelo, where they house close to 250 kids, educating them both through school and about the good and hard parts of life. The moment we sat down with the kids our age, and begin to listen to Marion speak, I was taken aback. Every word she said she spoke with passion. I knew she truly cared. The one statement that she continued to repeat, and caused to me to think a lot, was to be an extraordinary, ordinary person. At first I found this to be slightly confusing but the more she spoke about who she was, and her life journey, it became clear. Her message was for me to be myself, to use my talents. And, for some reason, the way she made me feel gave me the confidence that I lacked. For that, I am truly in awe of her.
Our last two hours at Botshabelo we had a talent show and the kids there performed and we sang. This was such a fun experience. At the end of our time together we all started to dance to the music that all the kids there knew. Different parts of the song had dance moves that went to them, and there was a part in the song where we would all clap. A young girl, who was very quiet, stood near the edge of our dancing and every time we would clap I would turn to her and clap. I wanted to scoop this sweet girl up into my arms, but I didn’t want to intimidate her. At one point during the dancing, I was standing by myself and I felt a hand on my leg. It was the girl, Leah. As I turned and looked down at her she put her arms up and I swooped her up in my arms. I held onto her for the rest of our time there, right until I stepped onto the bus. She was the sweetest little girl. Although she didn’t talk much, right as we were leaving she turned, made eye contact, and said come back. And I promised her I would.
Before stepping on the bus, I went to thank Marion for all that she had done with her life and tell her how much of an impact she had had on me. She gave me a hug looked at me said, “You are beautiful, please do something amazing with your life.” I nodded. She went on to say that Leah never lets anyone hold her.
I will never forget Leah. She taught me that sometimes silence is better than speaking because when you do chose to speak those words will have a major impact. I am honored to have met Marion and her amazing daughters. I consider her a hero and I hope to return to her soon.
I stood in the middle of the Botshabelo outdoor area and waved to every new face that looked my way. I said hello to a lot of the kids but I hadn’t made any connections yet. I looked around and spotted the most adorable little boy chasing a soccer ball across the dirt all alone. I walked over and said hello. He looked up at me with a confused expression on his face and then continued to play with the soccer ball. I was a little disappointed, but quickly brushed it off. We were then told we would be going on a walk to the cemetery where a lot of the children had loved ones buried. When we started to walk, I was led by three boys. An 11-year-old boy named Given, a 7-year-old boy, and the same little boy who had previously ignored me. I later found out that he was 6 years old. We walked in a line with Given holding my left hand, the other boy holding my right hand, with the younger boy holding his hand. Half way through the walk, I asked the 6- year-old if he wanted to ride on my shoulders. He smiled the most adorable smile I have ever seen and nodded. From then on we were together for most of our visit until we had to leave. He didn’t speak a word of English but with the help of Given, our translator, I understood every time he pointed out a new cow or when he wanted to get back on my shoulders. The thing that made me like him the most was his smile. He held so much genuine happiness on his face when he laughed that it made me smile. We laughed and played so much together throughout the day that when it was time for us to leave, he was falling asleep in my arms. I felt sad to have to put him down and give him a hug for the last time. We stuck together for the last few minutes as everyone said their goodbyes. When it was finally time to get on the bus, I heard one of the older ladies laugh when she saw him staying with me and then told one of the older kids to take the poor little tired boy, since he looked about ready to pass out at this point. I will miss my little friend very much and I hope I get to see him again one day.
We arrived at Botshabelo around 10:00 am and immediately unloaded the donation bags from the bus. We mingled with the kids, dogs, and puppies then walked with them to the graveyard. I walked with two little girls; Leah and Dipuo. We would run ahead of the slowpokes, “baaa” back at the sheep, and make our arms into tunnels for people who walked past us. I taught Leah how to play the game slide and we kept laughing because we would do it wrong. Dipuo didn’t talk as much but we exchanged many smiles and laughs with each other.
Marion Cloete gave us a real life TED Talk. Some of the most memorable points were: feed your passion, ask if your dream is yours or one your parents imposed upon you, that each of us knows what we came into this world to do, we must simply discover it; strive to be an ordinary extraordinary person, discrimination happens everyday at many different levels, join organizations, and sign petitions you care about.
A “boat-rocker” is someone who’s never afraid to say what they think, no matter how much drama they might stir up. This term came from the mouth of Marion during one of the most inspiring life-pep-talks I’ve ever heard. She told us that the only way to make a change in the world is to be a boat-rocker, and to be what she calls an “extraordinary ordinary person.” She emphasized genuineness and self-expression. Her eyes shifted back and forth, examining each person listening to her, holding a gaze that could cut through souls. She could see everyone’s story from that gaze, and she wanted us to not be afraid to tell it.
Everyone has a passion, something that you– and only you– dream about. This isn’t the vision that your parents, or your teachers, or your peers have for you. This is who you are, and it’s who you must be. You can’t change the world if you let others change you. Be yourself, and from following an ordinary passion, you will do extraordinary things.
I’ve always wanted to change the world. I’ve never really figured out how, but hearing from Marion that being genuine and following my dreams is the only way to do so was nothing short of great news. After her speech was over, I thanked her and told her how much she had inspired me. She stared at me intently, and told me that I was going to do great things. “You have the look,” she said, “I can tell.” Whether she believed those words is something I can’t be sure of, but maybe all she wanted was for me to believe in myself. I didn’t tell her about my passion for music because all I need to know is that I can, and will, follow that passion for as long as I possibly can. Hopefully, I’ll never forget to thank my friends and family that continue to support me, and hopefully I’ll rock some boats along the way.