Difference Maker

People making a difference: Anna and Phina Mojapelo

Building an orphanage is a powerful mission of love.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Anna (right) and Phina Mojapelo (second from right) dance at the New Jerusalem orphanage preschool opening in Midrand, South Africa.
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Preschoolers scamper around in the courtyard of the Orange Babies Pre-School, vaguely aware that their teacher is mouthing the words of a song they should be singing, and certainly aware that there is an audience of adults and older children watching them with broad smiles on their faces.

That these children – residents of the New Jerusalem orphanage north of Johannesburg, and some of them HIV positive – can attend a preschool is in itself a minor miracle. Few South African children, let alone orphans, have the means to attend school before first grade.

But Anna Mojapelo, cofounder of this orphanage, says all children deserve to have a good start in life. "The issue of abandoned, abused, and HIV-positive babies is overflowing in South African society, and it needs to be addressed," says Ms. Mojapelo. "It is a big task, but the most important thing is that the light that shines is greater than all the obstacles and challenges. Like the Bible says, 'I can of my own self do nothing, but the Father that lives in each of us can do all.' "

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Anna and her sister, Phina, know they can't find beds for all of South Africa's millions of orphans. South Africa has the world's highest number of AIDS orphans, 1.4 million. But that thought hasn't stopped Anna and Phina from making this orphanage their life's work, creating a home for those who have nowhere else to go. Their sense of urgency, faith, and dedication is powerful, attracting a small group of like-minded supporters, all of whom are determined to make a difference.

"If you look at the size of the problem, you can feel hopeless, but we don't feel hopeless at all," says Adrienne Feldner-Busztin, an industrial psychologist and volunteer at New Jerusalem. "When you are impacting 96 little lives, you can't feel hopeless."

Founded nine years ago, New Jerusalem is set in a rural stretch of land between Johannesburg and the city of Tshwane (formerly known as Pretoria), amid horse farms and quiet middle-class homes. Seventeen of its children were born HIV positive. The vast majority were born to teenaged mothers, many of them with HIV, and abandoned at hospitals. Some were taken from abusive homes. Others lived in rough foster homes where the rod was never spared.

Ask Anna, a lawyer, and Phina, a social worker, why they decided to start an orphanage and they seem befuddled by the question.

From her work, Phina could see that there was a need for a safe place for orphans to stay. She consulted Anna, who had some land to donate. Together the two set about turning a house into a home for a dozen, then more, children, some with profound health problems, including HIV – the virus linked to AIDS.

The early days were difficult for Anna, who, like many other South Africans, viewed people with HIV "like lepers."

"The first child was a girl, a beautiful child named Aurora," Anna recalls. During a doctor's appointment, Aurora was diagnosed as HIV-positive. Anna says she simply couldn't bring herself to sleep with Aurora in the same bed, because of her fear and ignorance of HIV. "I put her in a crib, next to the bed. But when a child is crying, and it reaches out for you, what can you do?... [A]s I became close to this beautiful child, I realized she needs maternal love."

New Jerusalem was a fairly shabby affair in the beginning, with dozens of children being fed from a hot plate and using the same rest room. On a stopover from London, Rita Iannuzzi, a Rome-based British Airways flight attendant, visited New Jerusalem out of a desire to do what she could to help AIDS orphans. She met with Phina and Anna.

But it was when she met the children that Rita knew she had found her "big cause."

"I remember a girl named Rifilwe," Ms. Iannuzzi says. "I asked her if there was anything she wanted, and she said, 'I want to go to school, I want to be a doctor.' Here was this underprivileged child wanting to be a doctor. I said, 'OK, how can I do this?' "

On her flights, Iannuzzi couldn't help talking about New Jerusalem to passengers. Soon, she was visiting British soccer clubs such as Manchester United and Glasgow Celtic, and bringing back checks for tens of thousands of euros for New Jerusalem.

While Iannuzzi helped with money, Ms. Feldner found builders and donations for building materials. She helped the Mojapelo sisters turn a small house into a proper home, with an industrial kitchen and dormitories for boys and girls.

This year, with sizable donations from a Dutch charity called Orange Babies, New Jerusalem has opened a Montessori-style preschool for its younger residents. A full primary school for the remaining children is on the drawing boards.

"We get calls all the time from people asking what can they do," Feldner-Busztin says. "We tell them, a hug is as valuable as [all of the money] that we need to make this place run. Everyone has something to give. Even the children who are residents here, we tell them that they have something to give the world. They can contribute."

(For more information on the New Jerusalem orphanage, see orangebabies.com and newjerusalem.co.za.) r

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