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Do you see me now teacher? #charity #heartwarming

A little while back I was sitting in one of the classrooms/sheds with Muzzaine. Potentially one of the funniest kids I’ve ever met. She’s being raised by her grandma due to family problems and she doesn’t have much to eat at home, but she is the most opinionated and funny little kid. Her grandma is super cute as well and often helps out at Little Angels, which has made her a lot happier and more confident as she gets away from family problems and feels she’s making a difference. I’ve seen her truly blossom in the past year.

Anyway, myself and Muzzaine have always had a special relationship. Liezel calls her my “other daughter.” I started bringing her food last year when I knew she didn’t have any snacks in the afternoon. It wasn’t my idea – it was hers. Zennie thinks she rules the world and the people in it you see, so she decided I was going to bring her food, because she was hungry. She also decided she will one day get rich so she can buy Liezel and her grandma a big house and she’s coming to London to visit me. She also announced to other kids at Little Angels that since my foster kids are no longer at creche, but in school, I now belong entirely to her when I’m at Little Angels. Liezel had to explain to her that I belong to everyone. At four, she has all the signs of a world leader.

Just the other day she apparently decided that her clothes weren’t fit for going to Little Angels in. Her grandma didn’t have money to buy laundry liquid and Zennie refused getting dressed as she had to wear the same clothes two days in a row. That was just not appropriate. She found the clothes “dirty” and Liezel “would not accept her showing up in dirty clothes.” As a result she got a smack on the bum, as kids in South Africa do and she promptly told her grandma that Liezel would call the police and send her to prison. We educate the kids on abuse and Muzzaine is not one to be messed around with. Even if it was a light smack on the bum, she would not have it.

Another time when she was doing something outrageous her gran told her she would tell me and Zennie replied that it didn’t matter because I love her so much I would never be nasty to her ever. Liezel did say though that the other day when the kids weren’t listening to her she simply picked up her phone “to call teacher Maria and let her know who isn’t listening” and the whole classroom, including Muzzaine, went silent and lined up to try and get to speak to me on the phone. If I was there no one would listen to me though – it’s a standing joke that when I enter the classroom chaos erupts as everyone’s trying to get my attention, all in one go. Fights have broken out over who gets to be close to me. I can teach maximum six kids at a time, or there will be mayhem.

The time Zennie and I were sitting together in the classroom though she was building something using wooden blocks and she looked up to me and said “You will watch me build this, no?” and it just reminded me that most people’s strongest desire is to be seen. To be acknowledged. And to be loved for who they truly are.

Sometimes it’s easy to think that because we live in different countries, in different worlds, we are different. But we aren’t. Not really.

Talking on the phone to Liezel today we first went through problems, solutions, dreams… Then we got talking about men and laughed till we cried. It’s not all doom and gloom in the townships, we have quite a lot of fun too. We have to. The best way to honor life is not to get dissuaded with what it brings you, but to come to terms with it and make the most of it. And even if we struggle now, one day Zennie will buy us all houses and turn us into royalty by mere association with Queen Muzzaine herself. Pretty nice life, don’t you think?

Maria is a writer, social entrepreneur and foster mommy to a pair or twins from the township. You can reach her via LinkedIn, or Twitter: @OhMyMontgomery@LittleAngelsCT

One day in the beginning of the year I wasn’t feeling great as I had just been to the hospital for some tests for my hands, so I decided to go to Little Angels to perk up and, as you can see, hug Zennie. Liezel famously said: “The fact that you decide to come here when you are sad and you want our love and hugs, that makes me an important person. That makes me bigger than anything.”

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Love is all we have…

Today I had a bit of a shock, receiving a message from Liezel that Stacey’s husband, who was diagnosed with lung cancer earlier in the year, just got the news that it has spread to his bones and liver. I just stared at the screen, wondering what life is all about?

Sometimes I feel bad about blogging about Little Angels when I tell bad news, because Little Angels gave me more than I can put into words – the love and dedication to bringing a change to lives at that center is more than I’ve ever seen anywhere. I became a new person thanks to my experience working there. The love the teachers and children have given me and the feeling of being appreciated for what I do, so if it is just loving the kids, has completely transformed my life.

Little Angels was set up years ago by Liezel when her sister, whose kids were drug addicts, died in cancer and her own children found crystal meth (“tik”) in the streets. She promised her sister to do something and the day her kids found the drugs the answerr was obvious – keep kids off the streets. Liezel didn’t have money and till this day none of the teachers are paid and the center struggles to look after the kids with the little donations given. Yet, the teachers show up every day, working long hours. To topple it off everyone comes to Liezel with their problems – from HIV and poverty to abuse. These teachers are making a difference. Yet they aren’t paid.

Stacey and her husband as well as their two kids live in a shack. Last night Stacey and Nickla were bitten by a rat, which they are now trying to catch. It’s cold, damp and, well, not very nice. I managed to get one of my friends to donate hot water bottles to give to Tony as he can’t sleep at night due to pain in his lungs and cold. He used to be a mechanic, but due to his lungs giving in he can’t work. He did smoke, but he lives in a township – most people are high on drugs and many are criminals. Smoking seems like a small sin in that town and people just aren’t educated about health.

Many times since I found out Tony is sick I’ve felt desperate. Many times in general when I know the kids are showing up in flip-flops and t-shirts when it’s a hail storm I feel helpless. We are in need of help. Desperately.

I researched everything I could about alternative therapies for cancer when I heard about Tony, but the joke is, we can’t pay for them. One woman cured herself of lung cancer using carrot juice and I gave Liezel a juicer for her birthday as when she was using mine she felt better from her thyroid problems (she almost died from them when she was pregnant years ago and lost one of her twins). The joke? We can’t afford carrots.

I had RSI in the beginning of the year and for a while I could hardly work and spent all my money on therapies until I came across John E. Sarno’s book and the TMS Wiki, which sorted me out. I am also in the US trying to launch my social enterprise to support Little Angels, but as a result I have no money. And I feel like I’m begging.

When I was hit with RSI I felt helpless. I had to learn to ask for help – watch other people type for me. It was hard. Likewise, I sometimes hate asking for help for Little Angels, because, well, in time we should figure it out ourselves right? We should be self-sufficient. But right now we aren’t and both the kids (coming from families that can’t pay for regular childcare) and the teachers are suffering.

I want to share the joy and happiness, the hope Little Angels provide to the township of Hangberg. I want to show what it feels like when kids who are often abused at home have a haven to go to where they get loved, cared for and fed. That’s what I love about it. Yet, it feels like I’m always telling sad stories, because a lot of things happen at Little Angels and right now, we can’t always cope with it. And i get angry – how can these people who are doing so much have so little? How is that possible? How can life be so cruel? We are working on setting up a stand selling things, I’m working on an online crowd funding campaign and launching my social enterprise, we will soon look for other charities/foundations to support us. We are doing what we can, yet I feel so utterly helpless sometimes. And I have to ask for help. It’s the only thing I can do.

So if you want to help, please contact us. Email us through the Contact Page, or donate through PayPal. Or just send us a note of love. We appreciate that too. And one thing there is at Little Angels is love. I know Stacey and her family are having a hard time now, but all the teachers are helping them. That’s what I love with Little Angels. You are never alone there. There is always love.

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Stacey’s and Tony’s kids – Nickla and Kita. Cute, aren’t they? Nickla is super sweet and Kita thinks she rules the world and cracks me up every time I see her. 

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Please note: Little Angels operates under the Hout Bay Christian Social Upliftment Organization, REG NO 089-541-NPO

 

 

 

 

 

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Tales from the township – you’re beautiful…

I was talking to Liezel, the principal at the Little Angels Community Center for underprivileged kids and youth in Hangberg, South Africa today. She was telling me her asthma is bad as it’s cold, they don’t have heating at home and at Little Angels it’s only the gas heaters as there is no electricity. Gas heaters aren’t great if you have asthma and there’s been rain and hail recently and the roof in one of the sheds (aka classrooms) started leaking again. So this week there was a man who stopped by and asked her how she could keep it up? He thought her problems were so immense he couldn’t understand she was still standing – she suffers from a thyroid problem and asthma, she sometimes don’t have enough money to put food on her own table and she gets troubled knowing she can’t give the kids at creche and the youth at the center all they need – food, clothes, doctors, lives free of abuse… Yet, she shows up every day. So what makes her keep going?

She told me today what she told him: “You know, I come here every day and I want to do so much I can’t do – I don’t have the money to do it. I see kids starving and freezing and I can’t do anything. But then the kids tell me I look beautiful. They tell me they love me. When I’m having a bad day, they will tell me I’m the most beautiful person. That’s it. And you know, I’ve done this for three years with no money. And we’ve gotten far. We can go much further.”

There is this idea in Hollywood that you have to look a certain way to be beautiful. You have to do certain things to be successful. Then you walk into Little Angels and because you help the kids simply by loving them, you are successful. Because they think you are beautiful, you feel beautiful.

Liezel swore when her sister died from cancer to do something, as her sister’s kids were on drugs. She then one day, when her kids found tik (crystal meth) in the playground, realized she wanted to keep kids off the streets and away from drugs and she was going to set up a center to do this. So she did. And suddenly she had more problems on her hands than she knew how to handle, as when you aim to create something, there’s suddenly obstacles. When you aren’t trying to feed hundreds of kids, there’s no problem. When you decide to feed them, you have to figure out a way to do so.

You can say Liezel has a lot of problems, both with Little Angels and her health. And you could, because of that, say that she’s unsuccessful and unhealthy, which to some means not beautiful. But no one would tell Liezel that. Liezel is one of the most successful, loved, adored and blessed people I know. Men want to steal her away from her husband, kids want to be her when they grow up. Liezel is a very, very beautiful and successful woman.

There are so many beautiful people in this world who have never had a chance to see that they are beautiful and successful, because no one has told them so. Yet, they have given to other people. They have smiled with happiness. They have laughed with joy. They have worked with kindness and dedication. They have listened to their hearts and followed their dreams. They are very beautiful. And I hope they one day get to see their own beauty mirrored in other people’s smiles and thankfulness. I hope they get to see their success mirrored in the happiness of the people they helped. I hope they one day get to see a real mirror.

– Maria

Maria is a writer, social entrepreneur and foster mommy to a pair or twins from the township. You can reach her via LinkedIn, or Twitter: @OhMyMontgomery@LittleAngelsCT

The Little Angels Website

Liezel in the middle with all the youth leaders, her husband and Jacqui the Vice Principal.

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How to become the Oprah Winfrey of your town – a proven strategy that works…

People often ask me what it is like to work in the townships. “Isn’t it hard?” they ask. They wonder if I don’t feel down by the end of the day as I see so much poverty and pain. Normally I reply it’s the polar opposite – I’m getting a chance to do something that has a positive impact and I’m surrounded by kids who adore me, look up to me, and want to be me (sometimes hard to live up to their expectations of who I truly am, but it motivates me!). Further to that, Liezel, the principal at Little Angels thinks I’m a godsend – she constantly have people in tears telling them how we met.

I originally came down to South Africa to work with a drug rehabilitation center, where I was to teach drama and put on a play about rehabilitation. During one of my first days at the center though I was shown Little Angels, where the people in rehab took their children during the day, so that they could be at the rehab center themselves. My dream was always to work with kids in Africa, in fact, when I was seventeen and thought I was dying, I swore that if I survived I’d go and set up a nursery for street children. So when I walked into Little Angels I was overwhelmed – working with kids and youth was my dream and there I was, in the middle of the dream!

I mainly came to take photos of the kids to do some social media for the rehab center, but within a few days Liezel declared (in a way only Liezel can declare) that she wanted me Wednesdays and Fridays. That was that – although I taught a few classes for the adults at the center, I ended up at Little Angels and the head at the rehab center would mainly sigh and say my heart belonged at Little Angels.

One of my first days at Little Angels – we were in a church whilst we were relocating the actual center.

Liezel later told me that when she saw me – this tiny little blonde girl that was all shy at first – she didn’t think I’d last a week. The other teachers thought I was “yet another white person, there to “help” them, by raising money and keeping it to myself.” There had been some horror stories in the past. I did wonder why everyone seemed so hostile around me.

Liezel soon decided to like me though, although the teachers told her she was silly to put her hopes in yet another white girl.

Today Liezel tells me this story saying I was the angel sent by God she had been praying for, for years and that she is my dream come true, providing me with the chance of working with underprivileged kids. We were in each other’s prayers and dreams before we knew one another, in other words. The teachers call me the “colored white girl” and all in all, we are like an extended family. (There are the Xhosa and Zulus, as well as the coloreds and whites in Cape Town and although they all mix more and more, there is still somehow racism happening between all groups. At Little Angels we, naturally, have everyone. Rainbow nation as Madiba said.)

I can’t explain in words what Liezel’s faith in me has meant to me – my childhood wasn’t all that easy and working with the kids healed me because I was so surrounded by love. The kids loved me. I loved the kids. I would just sit with them, be with them, and wait for their shells to crack and their hearts to shine. I knew what it was like being trapped in a shell and feeling your heart inside, so different from all your scars. Your heart alive, your outside jarred. Whether a shell of anger, fear, shyness, cockiness, comedy…whatever the shell. So I waited and I loved and I became loved.

Liezel and her niece’s son, Jessie, whom she is raising as her niece is on drugs. Liezel put three of the current teachers in rehab a few years ago – today they have all gone to college, are clean, and raising a generation of kids in the township whom they hope they can prevent from ever touching drugs.

There is something magical that happens when people believe in you. Suddenly you start seeing yourself through their eyes. You see a different side of yourself. Especially if you are doing something you are actually good at – I think most of us have tried a job, or a course, we, well, frankly, sucked at. When you do something you love and which you are good at and people believe in you, it feels like you are truly living. Like you’ve come home to your dreams.

Last year a new slogan was developed, I believe by Jacqui, the vice principal: “Do not fear, teacher Maria is near.” This slogan always makes me laugh, but it also reminds me of the difficult bit – of being the one everyone is dreaming will one day bring change to Little Angels. As much as I want that to happen and believe in it, sometimes I feel intense pressure.

In the townships there is either a minor or major crisis every day. Liezel is trying to sober up half the parents whose kids are at Little Angels, protect half from being abused by their husbands, and leading HIV and Aids support groups for another bunch. Yet others are dragged to child welfare as we fear abuse, or neglect and some parents we try to keep in jail, or out of jail. It’s a constant circus. And sometimes it does get to me. What gets to me the most though is if something happens directly to the teachers, or the kids.

My foster kids – Tyra and Tyreke.

One day my own foster kids, six year old twins, were acting out a rape scene. Another day Liezel was on oxygen for her asthma, which gets bad in winter when it’s cold and of course we don’t know where to get money for gas for our heaters, or praise the lord: a solar panel system to generate electricity. Then there was the day I found out one of the teachers, Stacy’s, husband has contracted lung cancer. He’s the sole provider for the family as no one at Little Angels is paid (we look after kids and youth who can’t pay regular fees) and now he can’t work. They also happen to live in a shack, which is cold, it’s winter (the seasons are backwards in South Africa for us Westerners) and they have no money for alternative therapies, healthy foods and so on. So crisis meeting with all the teachers trying to figure out how to help Stace and her husband. They have two small kids as well. There are also days when some kids show up crying at creche because they’ve had no food at home for days, or they have been abused, or the youth leaders show up to say their parents tried committing suicide. Then of course, there are days when someone from the outside decide that I’m “sent by the devil,” (I happened to mention that if I go to church, it is to Agape, where all religions are welcome and this woman who was Christian had a fit and told Liezel to get rid of me as I was sent directly from Satan) or someone “who wants to one day turn Little Angels into an eco-center” is off her head because how dare she think she could do something like that? And organic food? You have got to be kidding me!

Stacy’s kids, little Kita (Nikita) and Nickla with Tyreke. Kita is still at Little Angels (and certain she is a princess, who can wrap the whole world around her finger) whilst Nickla has started school together with my foster kids. Stacy told me today on the phone that Nickla (the world’s sweetest kid – seriously) doesn’t want to go to school anymore “because the teacher beats her on the head for no reason.” I told her to send Liezel down there – if there is one woman who can make someone put an end to bad behavior, it’s Liezel.

Often it’s small things though – yesterday when on the phone with Liezel (I’m currently in Los Angeles) she told me it’s father’s day in South Africa on Sunday and the teachers are trying to come up with a plan to afford a nice home cooked lunch. They don’t have the money for that you see. And it makes me angry and sad and upset and confused, because I go out for dinner sometimes. I travel the world. I am trying to raise millions for my own business. Yet, I don’t have money to spare. I can’t buy Liezel much. I give what I can, but it’s not much. And I know she wants me to travel the world – I’m the messenger. The storyteller. The one who can talk about Little Angels – but sometimes, it just feels so unfair. And I get really stressed. Especially in situations like the one with Stacy’s husband – unless we get help he will die.

Liezel’s big dream, beyond turning Little Angels into a proper eco-community center for kids and youth, rather than three sheds with no electricity, proper toilets or anything else much proper, is to meet Oprah Winfrey. Oprah has been her inspiration, just like Angelina Jolie has been mine. We dreamed our dreams long before we heard of these women, but as anyone else, we take comfort in people who walked the path before us. The irony is that Liezel already is “an Oprah” in her own right. Her work should earn her millions and a talk show on national TV – she’s the entire community’s agony aunt. If you have a problem you go to Liezel – the door is always open and you might get a roll of bread if you are starving. Liezel has so little, yet she manages to help everyone else around her. And as for me? Well, they already call me Angelina in the township. But my favorite thing is hearing a chorus of voices screaming my real name as I drive into the township. Or hearing through the grapevine that little Zennie said “Everything is going to be alright, because teacher Maria loves me.” Yes, I guess it puts a bit of pressure on me, but by the end of the day – I love what I do more so than anything I’ve ever done.

Myself and Zennie (Muzzaine) – to the left!

How do you become the Oprah Winfrey of your town? You get off your ass and do something. You follow your heart to live your own dreams and you help your neighbors. It really is that simple and that difficult. It’s scary shit sometimes – showing up for yourself and others, daring to follow your dreams in the face of all the obstacles reality brings and hoping for something you haven’t yet achieved – like turning Little Angels into a proper center. But where there is heart, there is hope. Where there is will, there is a way. And where there is community, there is strength.

This is what Liezel said after reading this: Aaawww, so touching. Love you more hun. And you know, don’t worry what other people say or think about you, you are the best most trustworthy friend I’ve ever met, you are a sister, a friend, my buddy, my strength, a shoulder and listener, and best of it all: I can trust you. You did not judge us or the kids once. Thank you my friend. xxxx

– Maria

Maria is a writer, social entrepreneur and foster mommy to a pair or twins from the township. You can reach her via LinkedIn, or Twitter: @OhMyMontgomery@LittleAngelsCT

Little Angels’ Website

 

Little Angels, myself and Kita and Kita by our only tap. It was a glorious day and we were all playing with the water. I remember thinking I wanted life to always be like that – filled with love and laughter and splashing water. Even if there isn’t always money for food, there is happiness. There is community. When I spoke to Liezel this morning she put Zennie on the phone and the little one promptly declared she loved me. I also spoke with the youth leaders, whom I lead, with Stace and the twins. I felt so loved by the time I hung up I swear my grin went from here to South Africa – from the City of Angels to Little Angels. Where else do you get that? Where else are teachers allowed to love the kids as if they were their own? Where else is there community and family like that?

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Saving a life…

In the townships there are many things happening that those from the outside do not see, or hear about. Not because it’s necessarily a secret, but simply because it’s not what you talk about. When people visit Little Angels they see the staff, the kids and the youth leaders. They might drop by when the Hangberg 50cc Feeding Scheme is there and so you talk about the feeding scheme, or about Little Angels. You don’t start digging into personal stories about each and every one of the kids, staff, or friends of theirs. Having worked there for a year and a half I’ve become friends with the teachers, the kids, grandparents…so I’ve started to hear the stories. Sometimes they horrify me, at other times they fill me with warmth. They are usually not easy stories because they contain pain, but sometimes they have happy endings.

Liezel gets to hear and is involved with more stories than anyone I know. Her door is always open (sometimes to her husband’s chagrin as there is little family time left, so he complains, whereupon Liezel has to close the door and be a wife and mummy for a while, but it usually doesn’t last too long – soon the next person comes baring in) and she is the number one agony aunt of the township. I sometimes envy her because I wish I had a home where people felt always welcome and the kettle was always on. On the other hand, I don’t know how she deals with all the stories and how people expect her to fix everything in their lives – from cheating husbands to HIV, from no food on the table to understanding puberty. And sometimes she can’t handle it and that’s where I come in – I listen, I give advice and Liezel feels better. Because now she has someone to lean on.

It’s funny, isn’t it? Sometimes all you need is ears to hear you out, a bit of love and maybe a hug. Problems ease off when someone else is there to share them. That’s why Liezel loves my ears and the whole township loves Liezel. Admittedly some don’t like when she sends child welfare, the rehab center, or the police after them, but then, that’s also why they respect her – she won’t stand for abuse in any way.

So the other day Liezel was telling me the story of her daughter, Camilla’s, best friend.

There was recently a funeral as three kids, of whom one is a youth leader at Little Angels, lost their mom. She liked her drink a bit too much, but there was nothing apparently wrong with her, yet the other week she didn’t wake up one morning. She simply died in her sleep and left three children behind.

During this recent funeral Liezel was reminded of a funeral about a year ago – one of her best friends died in a cab accident and her daughter was Camilla’s best friend. I remember this as well, because it happened due to a taxi accident in Hout Bay and they stopped my car the next morning when going into the township in an attempt to ensure all vehicles were licensed. I believe one of the cabs that were in the crash did not have a licensed driver. It happens that way. It’s Africa. It’s the townships. There are many rules, but they can’t enforce them – half of the cars in use are falling to pieces and if they enforced the law 90% of the poor would no longer be able to drive. They would probably also have to hire twice the police force. And the current police force is partly corrupt, so there’s that as well.

When her mom died the girl last year was devastated and Camilla kept telling Liezel she had to help her so that she wouldn’t drop out of school, or commit suicide. So Liezel talked to her and talked to her and hugged her and kissed her. Then the other day the girl came over with some chocolate to say “thank you for caring when no one else did, thank you for being a mummy when no one else was.”

It’s these stories that keep Liezel going even without a salary; even when living in poverty. She often gets weighed down by hearing about everyone’s problems as she doesn’t have the resources to help everyone and there are many tragic life stories around her all the time. Crime, poverty and prostitution is everyday life in Hangberg. There are many people leading “normal” lives whereby they work and abide by the law, treat their families nice and stay off the drugs and keep clean from HIV, but all of them have to go through seeing many of their friends and family succumb to difficult lives. Sometimes I find it difficult and I don’t even live there. I just work there. And more than anything I fear for the wellbeing of Liezel (she has asthma and a bad thyroid problem which affects her weight and health), the other teachers and the little ones at Little Angels. Especially in winter when it’s cold and we don’t have electricity. It feels weird living a life where I have one foot in the township and one foot out, on the other hand I realize I can’t give up my life on this side. We all help, in whatever way we can. And these stories, these beautiful stories and the hugs from the kids keep us all going. It’s what makes our hearts beat stronger.

– Maria, @OhMyMontgomery @LittleAngelsCT

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Liezel at the monthly birthday bash at Little Angels – as many kids aren’t celebrated at home, by the end of each month we throw a party for all kids whose birthday it was that month and serve some cake. 

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Chatting on the Radio!

Today we had the pleasure of appearing on Smile Radio 90.4 FM here in Cape Town. It was lovely being able to speak about the work we are doing with the children in the township of Hangberg. We are so excited to see the changes happening with the kids that come to us, how their behavior changes as they get some sort of stability through the crèche and being able to share that and the passion we feel for the work we are doing is amazing! Also, all the support we get from people is wonderful as it can be tough working for nothing and constantly struggle against the odds, even if we love what we do and the kids fill us with joy every day.

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Maria, Liezel, Benito (from Smile Radio), Dennis and Jaqui