For about a year, I felt a pull towards the idea of volunteering in Africa. It wasn't because I thought that the people there were less fortunate than anyone else, I know that there are people suffering everywhere, but for some reason I felt like I needed to go Africa. I told my mother, who is a saint of a woman, and likely where I get my extreme sense of wanderlust and philanthropy from, about this feeling I had to volunteer in Africa. Her response? "So go."
So I did. And what an amazing feeling I have just saying those three words. I saved all of the money I possibly could in those ten months, which wasn't much, but it was enough to afford a plane ticket, a volunteer house fee, and a suitcase full of school supplies for the kids I had yet to meet in Muizenberg, South Africa. I wasn't worried about the money though. I was worried about whether or not the kids would like me! More so, the thought that I wouldn't be able to contribute as much time and money as I would have liked to in order to really make an impact.
That's when I thought of creating HeartSleeves.
I was immediately relieved of my feeling of the kids not liking me the second I stepped foot onto the dusty, empty outdoor area of the Muizenberg primary school. It was cloudy, and cold, which added on to the initial depressing ambiance of the less than adequate play area for the kids. I had never taught little kids before, not to mention, had a severe lack of experience with any, so wasn't entirely sure how I was expected to just walk into the school and begin volunteering as a "teacher".
"Teacha! Teacha!" The beyond adorable little boy in a messily put together school uniform yelled, as I walked into the tutoring room that was designated for the volunteers. Within seconds, a little girl was holding my hand, while another clung to my hip like I was her favorite person in the world. For the rest of the week, I spent my days drowning in the purest love I have ever felt before in my entire life.
These kids, who will probably never have the opportunity to leave their home town in Capricorn (where they live in a town of tin shacks with their families called "Townships") were so incredibly happy just to interact with the volunteers, that they would prefer to hug and talk to us, than play at recess.
These kids, who had absolutely nothing compared to what kids in the States have, were happier than any child I have ever seen back home, despite the lack of often over-looked luxuries like toys and clothing, not to mention technology. Instead, they enjoyed things like learning how to spell our names, and coloring. In fact, art was one of the most popular classes we taught, and it was considered a privilege just to be able to use the colored pencils.
Speaking of technology, letting one of the South African kids take a photo on my iPhone was considered a reward for completing a spelling assignment, which, by the way, came after their normal studies taught in Afrikaans. I'm definitely not a expert when it comes to knowing a child's age, but I could tell how old the kids were by how fluent they were in English, because unlike the majority of American children, these kids are taught multiple languages in primary school.
They are also taught respect. Which is why I have so much respect for them. These kids, most of which come to school each day with nothing to eat for lunch, will share whatever they have, even with the volunteers who have food. As much as I wanted to bring them food every day to aid their obvious hunger (which I did sneakily, sorry DTR), there was something else that I noticed.
Each of the kids have a school uniform that they wear every day, but only one. Uniforms are a great idea, especially in areas of high poverty, because it reduces the issue of having to have multiple outfits to wear weekly, but that is the underlying issue that bothered me so much. Most of the kids didn't even have a clean white T-shirt to wear under their school uniforms. I had even overheard one of the teachers mention that she had went out and bought one of her students a shirt because of how bad his looked when he took off his uniform sweater for Physical Education.
Finally I had discovered why I needed to go to Africa. I needed to go to Africa to inspire others to be the change that this world so desperatley needs.
I needed to see that there were innocent lives in this world that deserved equal opportunities, and that people like me (with not that much money or time) could make an impact on those lives. What I experienced was the pure, undiscriminated love of a child who wanted nothing more than to hold your hand and hear about where you live, whether it's in Istanbul, or Los Angeles.
I needed to go to show the world that that type of love exists and that no matter what you have or don't have, it's not about the "have", it's about the "give". I needed to go to figure out what I could do to make the world a better place, and while I can't solve every problem that I would like to, I do have one goal;
To boost these amazing kids' lives and confidence, and most importantly, return the feeling of love that they so easily gave to me.
Heartsleeves is a simple effort with a simple goal that will spread an enormous amount of love and happiness around the world. Heartsleeves will give those amazing kids, and even more amazing kids around the world, the enjoyment and confidence they not only need, but deserve.
For each HeartSleeves shirt that is purchased, two childrens' shirts will be donated to the kids in the primary schools, starting in South Africa, and hopefully expanding around the world.