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The Little Angels Documentary – a Tale about Perception

Sometimes it seems as if things sort of conspire to come together. As if you are handed three pieces of the same puzzle simultaneously and hence, you see a bigger picture. Had you only been handed one piece, you might very well have missed the whole. (Or, erm, maybe there was no whole…)

A little while back I was devouring a catalogue by the interdisciplinary design firm Urban-Think Tank (U-TT), who we are now working with at Little Angels to build a sustainable community center. Reading the catalogue I was impressed not only by their sustainable angle and how each building served a variety of different purposes (from gathering rainwater for the poor, to enabling roof gardens to be able to sell crops and helping the environment), but also by stats showing how different buildings lowered crime rates. Turns out people are less prone to crime if they have gym to go to instead of loitering in the streets.

What also really stood out to me was that U-TT work with impoverished communities to create change. They don’t say what to do, they invite the community, within architectural reason, to say what they want.

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Me at Little Angels last winter – wooden shacks coupled with no electricity made for a cold winter. Today we have a kitchen container and a bathroom container as well.

Our future plans of building then led to me having to arrange workshops in sustainability and design for our organization, as the owners needed to know their options when asking for what they wanted and there was a lot of fear around the concept of sustainability, thinking it was “white man’s thing” and therefore couldn’t serve a poor community, whereas in fact the opposite is true. This got me pondering how knowledge is the only way to provide option. And without option people are helpless – they will take what they’re given because they don’t know they have any other choice. If there’s choice and one option is more familiar, people may also opt for that as it feels more secure. Without education anything new seems scary. As the saying goes: “Better a known devil…”

In other words: to empower people you need to give them choice and education around that choice.

Fast forward a few weeks and I found a blog on WordPress when looking around for new blogs to follow, that spoke about a woman, Prajna Desai, who wrote a cookbook in India by inviting women to do a workshop with her, sharing their recipes. She was empowering the women by letting them share their recipes, as opposed to only trying to teach them something. She let them see the value they were adding.

Prajna wasn’t so much educating people about choice, but she was empowering people by having them add their skills to the final product.

I, on the other hand, was getting busy planning a documentary for Little Angels. A documentary that will capture life in Hangberg whilst showing what Little Angels can and will do to positively impact Hangberg if we have the right resources. I knew I needed stats to back up my theories and I started to realize I was really keen on doing workshops…but on what? Empowerment seemed obvious – sharing problems and discussing solutions for Hangberg was on the cards. Tentatively I started asking the youth their opinions about problems and solutions.

The police is corrupt. There’s drug sellers at school, if I tell the police I’ll get busted. They’ll find me. The solution? Move away from Hangberg. – Little Angels Youth Member

It was clear we needed educational workshops – I couldn’t just ask people about problems and solutions. If people had the solutions, Hangberg would already be different. In addition I wanted to empower people by having them provide their skills whilst also giving them choice; options for their future, which is essentially what Little Angels will help with through education and what the documentary needs to show.

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Life in Hangberg.

Then I got talking to a client of mine, Jovani, about writing for them about the true meaning of beauty and how dresses can enhance this.

Today, dresses continue to play a major role in how women see themselves as individuals and their place in society. For example, if someone wears neutral shades and no accessories, they might be stuck not just in a style rut but also a psychological one. For others, fashion is about power, especially if they’re known for wearing low-cut necklines or sexy form-fitting silhouettes. – Saul Maslavi, CEO Jovani

As it turned out it was a friend of mine’s birthday as well, so I took her to the movies as a treat and we watched The Dressmaker. In the movie Kate Winslet’s character literally transforms lives by doing make-overs.

Gertrude ‘Trudy’ Pratt: A dress can’t change anything!
Myrtle ‘Tilly’ Dunnage: Watch and learn Gertrude, watch and learn!

I started relating this back to our building project – can architecture and interior design change how we feel about ourselves? I always said that if my surroundings aren’t a true representation of my heart, I don’t feel happy. I decided to chat to my friends at the homeware company Izzz about this as I wanted to know their thoughts and see if, erm, companies would be willing to sponsor some make-overs.

Having a space that makes you feel both mentally and physically safe is vital, especially in the era of cyber bullying, in particular for young people. By having that ‘head space’ that a safe and well thought out household or work space can give you, you can free up mental energy that you can spend on your passions. – Israar Saeed, CEO Izzz

Israar came at it from a space of privilege – mental energy to spend on your passions, rather than energy not to succumb to criminality, abuse and drugs are two different things – but by the end of the day they boil down to the same concept.

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In summer things at Little Angels are easier.

Then another friend of mine sent me a video about a photographer and designer, Jeremy Cowart, who started a not-for profit project, Help-Portrait, to take people’s portraits to empower them. As I always loved taking people’s portraits to really capture their beauty through photography, this hit home with me.

The idea of make-overs seemed to be hailing down from above.

Could I bring people together to change their perception of self and of Hangberg? Could we come up with how we want the future to look by design, as opposed to walking the paths paved by ours and Hangberg’s past? Could I then, together with sponsors, get people involved in real-life make-overs of themselves, Hangberg and Little Angles?

We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us. – Winston Churchill

What do you think? Do you think positive surroundings would help you face your problems head on (instead of, say, hiding in drugs) and overcome them? Would you join me for a three month long personal and home makeover if you could? Would you enjoy a challenge like that if we created an online group as well and didn’t just do it in Hangberg? Do you think it would change your sense of self? Please let me know if you would.

By Maria Montgomery.

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Our fight for Tony…

As some of you know we’ve been fighting to help Tony; one of the teacher’s partner, who is suffering from cancer. Here’s a video we made to try to raise some money for him and his family. It will also show you what kind of conditions some of our teachers live in, what it’s like at Little Angels and the community we work in. We’re busy planning fora  proper mini-documentary and feature about the stories from Little Angels and beyond.

To support Tony, please donate through our Indiegogo campaign on Generosity: https://www.generosity.com/medical-fundraising/your-old-bling-in-exchange-for-helping-a-family/x/1882884

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Tales from the Township – The Most Touching Moments of My Life

Sometimes something happens that touches you to the core – something so undeniably beautiful and maybe also painful that you can’t help but stop short in your tracks. It’s like a knife cutting through whatever layers of defense, numbness and protection you have put up. It cuts right through and pierces your heart so that you feel, truly feel the moment. And suddenly you see all the beauty, feel all the pain and love…the power of life is flowing through you and rushing to your head like a high, only it isn’t a high. It’s just life. It’s life when you are finally living.

It’s moments like these that make us feel more alive than we thought possible. Steinbeck spoke of them in East of Eden:

“Sometimes a kind of glory lights up the mind of a man. It happens to nearly everyone. You can feel it growing or preparing like a fuse burning toward dynamite…. A man may have lived all of his life in the gray, and the land and trees of him dark and somber. The events, the important ones, may have trooped by faceless and pale. And then—the glory—so that a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose, and dappling light under a tree blesses his eyes. Then a man pours outward, a torrent of him, and yet he is not diminished. And I guess a man’s importance in the world can be measured by the quality and number of his glories.”

Often these moments happen when we are in love, or we had that first cup of coffee of the day – it’s when hormones rush round our body shouting “See, see the beauty of this moment? Really feel it. Taste it. Make love to it. And realize you are alive for moments like these. Moments when you see life through the eyes of a lover; one in love with life.” Although I’m a strong proponent of coffee and falling in love (when I’m not heartbroken), I believe there are many other things you need to fall in love with in life to really, fully, live.

Yesterday was a big day for me. I have been mentoring/semi-fostering a few kids since moving to Cape Town two years ago and yesterday it was agreed that the twins, whom I’ve spent the most time with, will be living with me whilst I am here and with their family in the township when I travel. Yesterday I became a single mom of sorts. My almost life long dream of raising kids that need a family beside their own became a reality.

During the talk to the twins’ family Liezl, the owner of Little Angels, mentioned that other families have asked her if I can raise their children. It warmed my heart as much as it pained me – I wish I was richer, I wish I could do more, I wish Little Angels had more resources and a safe house, I wish… I am also deeply touched people feel that way about me. I know that kids at crèche sometimes want to pretend I am their mother, kids who come from broken homes filled with abuse and substance misuse, but I didn’t know these two sets of grandparents had asked Liezl if I could raise their grandchildren.

When we asked the twins to come inside after the meeting (we were at Little Angels having the meeting – i.e. we were inside one of the sheds that make up our make-do facilities) and asked them if they wanted to live with me the looks on their faces were indescribable – rarely have I seen such radiant joy.

Afterwards Little Miss T was showing her happiness by hugging me, holding onto me and generally wanting to climb all over me. She came with me to my car as I was getting some first aid tools to deal with a wound on Little Mr T’s foot. As we crossed the street a teenage girl started waving at us and then ran across to talk to us. She’s one of the youth in the Youth Program I lead at Little Angels. She was so excited – the day before we had done Poetry & Storytelling Class and it was her first class of the kind. We talked about Maya Angelou’s life – about her being raped and going mute, only to emerge as one of the world’s most famous poets. We discussed why stories are important – how they can help us see beyond out own life, connect us with others, inspire us and learn new paths to follow. We also read Still I Rise, Phenomenal Woman, Invictus and a speech by Marianne Williamson. We learnt to be ridiculous. To have fun. To laugh at ourselves. To make a fool out of ourselves. To go beyond our own fears. So the girl ran up to tell me she had written a poem about a video she had seen where Rihanna had written a poem.

To see kids, whose childhoods are filled with tales you wouldn’t believe if I told them to you, light up like that…to see them shine. To see them learn that’s it’s OK to be themselves. To express themselves. To be their own judge of what they think of themselves..it fills me with so much joy. I’m living my dream teaching youth and every smile they give me, every lesson they tell me they have learned about acting, poetry or life (we do many different classes, but we only kicked off recently) is the most beautiful thing. It makes my heart sing and it makes me stop and see life like an explosion of colors, feelings, emotions… It takes my breath away.

Myself and Little Miss T then reached the car, only to hear someone call us. A woman was coming down some steps, a woman Little Miss T knew. She said something along the lines of: “You are Maria, are you not? The Maria? And I know you love the kids here. You are so good with them. And I want to ask your help. Please help me. My husband was supposed to hand back my kids on Sunday, but he didn’t. He’s stolen my kids. I’m seeing the clerk tomorrow. What shall I do? Can you tell me what to do?”

It’s happened many times kids and youth I don’t know come up to me to say hello, or hug me – they know me by way of reputation. This was different though. This was desperation, plain and simple. This woman looked nice. She was not one who was worn down by drugs and alcohol. She seemed kind. She was sincere. And my heart broke in that moment and filled with humility and pride all at the same time. People here believe in me. They think I’m someone God sent to help them. I can’t always do anything to help though. I told her I don’t know laws here. I don’t know what to do, apart from go to the police. Then, of course, I did what any sane woman would do – I marched back to Little Angels, asked Liezl if the woman was a good mom and set her and her husband, Jacobus, on the case to help her.

The events yesterday reminded me of an evening in early fall here this year (that’s like March, which I still don’t understand because I’m an LA kind of girl as far as weather and seasons are concerned) when I drove down to pick up Liezl to have a meeting about the Youth Program. As I pulled up where she lived in the township this little five year old girl, one of the ones I kinda mentor/buy food for/take to the doctors from time to time, was dancing in the street. Queen Muzzaine as I call her, because she has the most demanding, yet hilarious, and sweet personality. She didn’t see me at first, just kept dancing in the headlights of my car. It’s one of the most beautiful moments of my life. This little girl in a township dancing wildly in the headlights of my car. At that moment she represented my dream come to life; my work in the township with children; my joy of dancing; my dance film in the making. She was my life come to life; the moment being an expression of who I really am; what my heart is.

Yesterday was another such day. It was a day when I learnt I truly matter. I hope everyone will get to learn that and see life through the eyes of someone who feels they matter, who feels they live, with every heartbeat of their life.

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By Maria MontgomeryMaria is a freelance writer, director and social entrepreneur. She’s also the spokesperson for The Little Angels Community Center. You can find her somewhere between Cape Town, London and L.A., where you will most likely find her in the hills, looking out over the city she loves. @OhMyMontgomery

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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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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?