Whole Foods Market Team Member Volunteer Jennifer Kelly shares her experience volunteering in South Africa in this guest blog. If you are a Whole Foods Market Team Member, the final day to apply for this year’s trips is March 31! (The application link only works on the Whole Foods Market network.)
A little back story…… I started working as an artist for Whole Foods Market in March of 2012 at a store right outside of Philadelphia. I left my orientation; head filled with information but Whole Planet Foundation left me speechless.
The biggest part that motivated me to apply was being able to see the direct effect of all the fundraising and education that I put time into. I spent hours making chalks and talking pieces so that we could educate team members and customers about the Foundation and help raise money. I felt like it would be such a prominent piece of the puzzle to see the end result. It’s easy reading it and seeing photos of it, but I wanted to be in it. I wanted to give something back. I would have been happy going anywhere. My first choice had been Thailand, South Africa and Kenya. I had always wanted to go to Africa. I always felt connected to the roots there so when I got the email that Thailand was full and I was going to go to South Africa I took it as a sign. This was where I was meant to go. So I replied back to the email saying yes, taking a deep breath and starting my journey…….
I kept a loose blog when I was gone. Sometimes we didn’t have internet so I kept notes on my iPod, things to remember, photos to look at. I spent so much time at night looking through the photos I had taken and thinking is this real? This was the first post I wrote, the day before I left for Africa……..
“So one more day before I get on that plane and begin my trek to South Africa. Two flights, 21 hours, so many miles. I feel ready. As ready as I think I could be going on a trip of this magnitude. A friend told me that I will have moment, that moment of release, that moment of letting it all out. I woke up this morning and instantly felt crazed. It subsided once I talked it out but it’s still here. I’m looking to get so many things out of this trip. Gotta soak up everything I get.” I look back at the post and think to myself “if you only knew what the next few weeks were going to be like… “
One of the projects we did was to work with Stellar Foundation to rebuild a crèche in a small town called Koekenaap. It was four hours North of Cape Town and an hour away from where we were staying for the week. There were 40 children enrolled in this crèche, ranging in ages. When we arrived, it made me instantly sad. No photos or stories could have gotten me ready for this place. The crèche was a small trailer for all these kids. It was dirty and dangerous with broken floors and nails protruding out of old furniture but it was all they had. I think this hit us all like a ton of bricks. It was reality right in the face. This crèche was a place for them to feel safe, learn and make friendships. The structure that was before us did not exude any of that. We broke into groups with divided tasks. I was in charge of painting a mural around the entire structure. I was the only artist on the trip so I took pride in it. I wanted them to look at it and smile. To be reminded of us and what we were able to do together in a week. And the kids…how could I even begin to describe them. Like all kids they wanted love and attention. It was hard to put aside how emotional I felt and just give them everything that I had. They were the sweetest, kindest children I had ever come in contact with. The smallest amount of attention would make them smile…a hug or a high five. A lot of them had never or seldom seen photos of themselves, which almost killed me inside. They wanted me to take photos of them and look at them right away. They would study their own faces. I remember leaving that first day at the crèche, getting back to the vineyard and crying in the shower. I felt so empty. These beautiful little creatures, some of them didn’t get to see what they looked like. How could that even be possible? It was a reminder that I was not in the states, in the comforts of where I lived…. I was in their homes and their lives.
After the crèche project, we flew two hours across the county to Mpumalanga. This place was very different than Cape Town. It was more of what I had imagined Africa to be. The smell of fire and blanket of smoke covered this part of the country. This was the second part of our trip. We would safari and meet some of the key people of Small Enterprise Foundation, Whole Planet Foundation’s microlending partner, who disburse microloans in South Africa. They talked to us about the different projects they were working on and how microcredit works. The thing that stands out the most in my mind is when we arrived at the loan repayment meeting and stepped out of the car all the women starting singing to us. They were so happy that we were there. Even though I didn’t speak the language, the emotion that they carried on their faces told it all for me. We sat and watched as they repaid their loans and then they told stories about how microcredit has changed their lives. They spoke with such animation and such emotion that I didn’t have to know exactly what they were saying. There were tears, clapping and singing. These women were able to change their lives with such a small amount of money that was given to them. It really puts you back into your place when you see how much so little can do for someone. We live in such a different society where it has to be bigger and better. These women live on such little and they are so grateful for it. It did so many things for me, brought so many emotions. I left that meeting feeling so different. Changed…
Some of my strongest memories were the friendships that I made, friendships that will now be a lifelong journey forged along a path of challenge and triumph. We all went on this trip for a variety of reasons, but all under the same umbrella. We wanted to help, give back, to grow in some way. And here we all were, strangers flying to Africa together and leaving Africa as a family.
Another part of the trip that stands out for me is really putting things into perspective. We spent a lot of time on a bus, driving from here to there, with an iPod full of music and just my thoughts. Some of us slept, read a book, chatted with each other, but I did a lot of thinking. It’s funny now being back and hearing some of the songs that I listened to and it brings me back to where I was at that moment, or how I felt. After a long day in the sun, sweating, hugging and smiling with the kids until you had nothing left… getting on the bus was the time to decompress. It was a time for me to reflect. I learned a lot about myself on those bus rides, looking out the window and listening to tunes.
After returning from my trip, I stepped off the plane a different person. I had made lasting friendships and been so completely humbled by the experience. It’s hard to not come back “changed”. The hardest part for me was talking about the trip to people. How do you begin to explain a trip of this magnitude to someone with them understanding? I told people that it was the most humbling experience of my life. I spoke a lot with photos from the trip; the kids at the crèche, the photos on safari, the skylines and sunsets. You also start to put things into a real perspective. I had been traveling a super heavy commute for almost three years, spending so much in gas, taking time away from my family and then I got back from Africa, I started seeing things differently. What was I getting out of all of this commuting? What was I giving to my family? Where was I putting my energy and what was I giving back to. So I made some huge changes… and here I am, in a new region and trying to plan some more trips where I can give back.