Out of Africa: Robins Airmen travel across the world to make a difference

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Paul Ross
  • 116th ACW/PA
Toes poking out of worn-down shoes, parentless children with barely enough food to line the bottom of their grumbling stomachs, a lack of indoor plumbing, inadequate healthcare and little clothing to hide from the cold night wind are all part of life in the village of Leratong, located in Qwa Qwa, South Africa.

It is hard for most of us to imagine these types of living conditions but four Airmen from the 116th Air Control Wing witnessed this type of lifestyle first-hand while volunteering at a mission in the deprived village who's name means "place of love."

Senior Airman Genifer Van Pelt, Senior Airman Jessica Koury and Leah Kossakoski and Amanda Mellos, who have both since separated from the Air Force, wanted to take a trip to Europe and upon a serendipitous happening, stumbled upon the Web site of Breakthrough Ministries and its founder Wim Van Rensberg.

"I was using an Internet search engine and Breakthrough's site was on the very first page," said Airman Van Pelt, 128th Airborne Command and Control Squadron Airborne Operations Technician. "Van, the founder, said that he hadn't updated the site for two years, so it was pretty lucky that we came across the site because normally the search engine gives you the most visited pages first."

First Impressions
With a little financial help from other squadron members and their own personal savings and vacation days, the four departed for South Africa Sept. 1 and were introduced to a new and less glamorous world for two weeks.

"I was shocked," Airman Van Pelt said. "I thought I had prepared myself for the things I would see and experience. I knew it would break my heart, but I had no idea how much. There was no way to anticipate how much the initial shock of the housing conditions and how different everything was."

In addition to the surprise of the conditions the women were shocked to see how affectionate the children of the poor South African village were.

"When the truck was driving though the village toward the care center, all of the children began running out of their houses and waving and chasing the truck," Airmen Van Pelt said. "We were met by at least 20 kids the minute we arrived. They were so loving and so happy to meet us -- it was completely amazing."

Daily Life
A typical day volunteering for the ministry was far from the women's normal routine at Robins Air Force Base.

"We woke up in the morning at 7 a.m. and ate breakfast which was usually bread with peanut butter, an apple and some tea," said Senior Airman Jessica Koury, 128th ACCS airborne mission systems specialist. "Soon after, the daycare children would arrive. We helped the children with the letters of the alphabet and numbers. They were learning the different parts of the human body and other simple English words. They would eat a breakfast of 'pop,' which is ground corn cooked in water to create something that looked like a large pot of clumpy grits. It really had no flavor at all, and the consistency was very gritty, but that was all the children had to eat and it was gobbled up. Then they would brush their teeth, and for most of them this was the only time they ever did. In the afternoon, the school-age children would come around. They would swarm us, wanting to show us how to play a different game each day."

The children of the village, most of who are orphaned, soon 'adopted' the troops almost as members of their own families.

"We each had our own child which 'adopted' us," Senior Airman Koury said. "I had a little girl named Kake, who was about 8 years old. She had short hair and wore a soft orange pullover with a hood almost everyday. When we were playing these games, she always grabbed my hand so we would stand together. When we sprawled out on the grass in the warm sun, she'd lay right next to me. Resting her head on my arm, closing her eyes, I knew she felt safe there. It made me wonder what kind of comfort she got from her older sister and parents. I still wonder how she is doing, and where her life will lead. I want so desperately for her to be able to get an education and make a difference and not have to worry about where her next meal will come from."

Although the trip wasn't all work, and the women got to experience the beauty of the Dark Continent, it was an experience that allowed the Airmen to reflect on all they have and all they have taken for granted.

"You see things like this on television and we all know that people are poor and starving, but it's just not so easy to put it in the back of your mind and go about your day when you're looking at these children in the face," Airmen Van Pelt said. "This is their life. They don't have adequate shoes or clothing or food in their stomachs. Most of them don't have the love and care of a mother and father. They live as orphans in homes made of mud bricks with no indoor plumbing or electricity. We have so much here. We have opportunities that most of these children will never see. I took everything for granted before I held these kids in my arms and looked into their eyes."

Memories and Goodbyes
Like many life-changing experiences, the women were left with many great memories.

"There are so many good memories," said Airmen Van Pelt. "Everyday we played with the children and even though we didn't speak the same languages, they taught us their games. It was amazing to see everyone full of love and joy even though they had nothing."

Saying goodbye to the little ministry and the African life that had first shocked them was a very hard thing to do.

"I never knew how much I would love these children at the end of two small weeks," said Airmen Van Pelt. "It was one of the hardest things I've ever done, saying goodbye to them. In two weeks, I had fallen in love with this place and with each child and I wanted to be able to tell myself that they would be okay -- that they would have a better life than those before them. It's hard to let them go and just trust that they will rise above their circumstances and change the world somehow. I pray for them and they are always in my heart. I will never forget how amazing Leratong was and I truly hope to go back someday."

Upon leaving the village the troops were left with feelings of frustration - wanting everyone to learn about this meager village and its inhabitants.

"When we left, saying goodbye to the children that we befriended was hard," Senior Airman Koury said. "Several of them cried, which of course, made us cry. I wanted more people to know about this place. To know what was out there instead of being sheltered in their happy world. It's frustrating to think about all the people who know what's out there, but still don't do anything about it. Everyone has their own skills and resources to contribute, and every little bit can make a difference. These children are the future of the country and if anything is going to change, they are going to be the ones to do it."