Alumnus Daniel Lee (Graphic Design 07) recently returned home to New York City after completing six weeks of volunteer work at Lily of the Valley, an orphanage in South Africa that has been providing love and care to children abandoned or orphaned due to the HIV/AIDS pandemic for over 20 years. Below Daniel reflects on his days in South Africa and discusses the experiences that have influenced him to return for an additional six months to continue his work at the orphanage.
Lily of the Valley
I’m excited to share about my experiences here at Lily of the Valley, a children’s orphanage in South Africa. Today is my last full-day before returning back home (New York City), and there is much to reflect on. I hope that the little I can share now will encourage you to take the journey that I am on. Just to provide a bit of background, I have been living in New York City the past 4-years working as an interaction and user experience designer. I am fortunate to live in such an amazing city where I often meet great people and discover many opportunities. This past June however, I stop working and put everything on pause. I was feeling miserable! I felt burned out physically, emotionally and spiritually. I was living the life I had pictured, but I couldn’t explain what caused it to feel so tiring. I didn’t want to go down a path I didn’t understand or think through.
After 4-months of hanging out and enjoying summer in the city, I decided to submit an application to volunteer at this orphanage I heard about through friends. I can’t say I was excited about going abroad. I didn’t even make plans to stop over in Cape Town or Kruger Park! The plan was to be selfless by paying for my own ticket, raising money for equipment and spend time entirely at the orphanage. The trip was set for 6-weeks which I thought would be more than enough time. But now I realize it wasn’t enough. I’ll share more at the end.
Lily of the Valley started 20-years ago as a hospice for orphaned HIV positive children. Back then, the mortality rate was 97%. Thanks to improving antiretroviral medication, the mortality rate at Lily has dropped to less than 1% giving an HIV positive child the possibility to live as long as anyone else. Most of the Lily kids are HIV positive and were left by parents who couldn’t support them. Others found there way here because of neglect, abuse or abandonment. There are 124 kids (4 over their legal limit) from baby to 21-years old and despite their limitation, sometimes Lily will take a child if the situation is extraordinary. In my first week, I got to see a girl with a learning disability walk into her new home and meet her housemother. It was beautiful.
Lily of the Valley sits on a large land that it owns. Next to Lily is a game reserve called Tala and occasionally you will see wild animals on the compound. There are 19 houses in the children’s village each with its own houseparent, and other houses and offices outside the village for staff and volunteers. Half of the volunteers are high school graduates from around the world who have committed 6-months. Others are professionals who volunteer for a year or longer. Right now there is a speech therapist, a 1st grade teacher and a new sports coach.
Outside of Lily is a town called Mophela made up of many hills covered with circular houses made from dirt or concrete. Along the main road you will see people of all ages standing or walking around doing what seems to be nothing. There is a high unemployment rate in this area. Lily of the Valley has expanded over the years to not only care for orphans, but to care for the community. They provide Mophela their only health clinic, computer center and day care center all free of charge. Lily is partially funded by the government but mainly operates through donations. Sometimes funds are short or the government cuts funding so a farm at Lily was established to offset operational cost by growing and selling tomatoes to local distributers.
When I arrived for the first time, I was surprised by how spacious and beautiful the location is. Its an amazing environment for the kids to grow up. There is so much space for them to play, explore and rest. I’m also not the type who finds children exciting to be around, but I really enjoy spending time with the Lily kids. Most are really friendly, playful and always looking for attention. Lily is also a Christian organization that practices and encourages a life of faith. Some of the kids choose not to participate in worship services but for many, faith gives them hope and peace.
After my 3rd week, I became more familiar with the older kids referred to as the “uptop kids” because they live outside the children’s village on the top part of the compound which is also where I was staying. I was beginning to see the challenges Lily faces with these young adults. They are anxious to be busy, earn money and ultimately be independent. But they lack skills, education, discipline and knowledge! I was allowed to come out for 6-weeks in hopes that I would be working with these kids and teaching them computer skills, but they barely understood how a computer works. I assumed too much!
I started to ask myself what was stopping me from staying for another 6-months or even a year. I learned through this thought process that real sacrifice will cost me something and it won’t be out of convenience. My 6-week itinerary wasn’t long enough. Everyday the volunteers would discuss how some of these kids are going to make it outside. And I guess I felt ridiculous participating in the conversation when I was already set to go home. There is a need for more volunteers with life experiences who are willing to give, give and give. I was thinking to myself “how dare I come here and think I’m doing something good!” I needed to reflect and reevaluate myself.
By the end of this trip, I had realized that I was very passionate about what I was doing at Lily. I want to share as much as I can the things I learned and enjoy in life with the hope that it might inspire someone. I organized a “movie appreciation night” to show the kids some of my favorite films like the Star Wars Trilogy and The Shawshank Redemption. I also helped one of the volunteers organize the “Your Future” presentation to kick off a program that will help some of the younger kids prepare for potential internships and job opportunities. Everyday I would think of an idea for activities, classes, and programs that would be a new experience for the kids.
Unfortunately, Mophela is how they see their world and there are no places nearby for inspiration. There are no bookstores, no movie theaters, no concerts, no restaurants, no shopping center, all the things I realize I take for granted. When you get to know the uptop kids, you feel like they’re living in a box.
South Africa is one of the most developed countries in Africa. It is not the Africa that most people might think of. There are many opportunities to get a great education and discover an enjoyable career. And this is especially true for the Lily kids if more volunteers would be willing to help guide them. Every other week there are wonderful individuals and companies who stop by to visit the kids and I honestly feel that the kids have become spoiled. They grow up having all their basic needs met, but with over a hundred kids and a few long term volunteers, there are hardly enough help to teach and discipline them to reach their fullest potential. And this is the side of an orphanage I didn’t think about. Short term volunteers with great intentions actually do very little to help. However it did give me an opportunity to see my own potential.
I’m excited to say that I have decided to fly home and get my VISA. These older kids are the future of Lily of the Valley and I feel privileged to have an opportunity to be a part of their life. Volunteering at an orphanage was truly a great personal experience and if you have a heart to give, give and give, I would encourage you to come visit!
To learn more about Lily of the Valley click here.