Community in South Africa

GVSU student Rebecca Byers shares her experience volunteer experiences in South Africa, which include a safe house for children and a local rehabilitation center for marine birds. 

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While boarding my flight for South Africa in late January of 2015, endless thoughts raced through my mind. Will studying abroad really benefit me in my future endeavors? Why in the world did I choose a country with such an extremely high crime rate? What if all the ignorant Ebola jabs I dodged become reality? Trying to brush off all the negative commentary I received from many of whom surrounded me, I decided to be selfish and not listen to a word they said. With worries aside, I ventured off to the wild land where I would spend my next five months.

Arriving in Port Elizabeth, a cozy beach town with the Indian Ocean as my front yard, my new school was now Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. Located in a quiet nature reserve, NMMU offered plenty including community service learning courses, where you can volunteer for college credit. It was too hard to choose just one organization. Having a weakness for non-profit organizations doesn’t help either. Over the years I have been fortunate enough to work for incredible non-profits such as John Ball Zoo and Make-A-Wish Michigan, so surrounding myself in these environments felt natural to me. With a light load of classes, I decided to dedicate my Monday’s to volunteering. Two organizations stood out to me, and with in a week I was able to start.

First is SAMREC, a local rehabilitation center for marine birds. African Penguins are among their most common resident. You haven’t laughed until you’ve seen a clumsy penguin attempt getting up a staircase. Hands down the cutest thing an animal lover can witness. Once I learned to ropes a typical day consists of feeding the birds, trying to capture them before a swim so we can change their bandages, assisting in the ICU and any other tasks needed. SAMREC is low on funding but big on love. Endless hardworking volunteers shine through at this facility and is a great reminder on how one person can really make a difference. With penguin releases happening ever few months, it’s humbling to see a once struggling bird be released into their natural home. After a long morning chasing around these whimsical creatures, I am lucky enough to end my day at Marantha.

Marantha Street Worker Trust is a safe house for children coming from struggling situations. Many of these children come from traumatic backgrounds, abusive home environments or were taken off of the streets. My typical Monday evening consists of homework help. Although these young minds have been through unthinkable circumstances, they are so incredibly bright. Their passion to learn is phenomenal and can quickly be a reminder on how precious education is. Mostly, I help with their English, yet often times they are so good for their age, I am merely just a guide to their grammar. After some hard work in the classroom, we get to play outside. Here is where energetic boys and brave girls indulge in a game of Soccer. While the little ones stay to the side, telling me their secrets and dangling off my arms in hopes of a piggy back ride. Although Marantha is there to shelter the youth from pain, you would never guess these children have been through such an unspeakable past. Their smiles are with out a doubt contagious, dance moves are fierce and have laughs that can be heard from miles away.

So far, this journey has taught me more than I could ever learn in a classroom. Being a Liberal Studies Major, this seems to be the motto. That through participating rather than witnessing, life will reveal so much more. South Africa has amazed, challenged, shocked, loved and humbled me in more ways than one. Whether I am chasing clumsy penguins, darling children or even my own dreams, I with out a doubt chose the right place to study abroad.

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