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Libby Weir turned her 'passion' for Africa into a life of service

Over the past decade Libby Weir has adopted a struggling family in South Africa and built them a new home, established vegetable gardens, created a school library, run school vacation activities, and sponsored educational programs for adults.

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    Libby Weir (l.) poses with Ntokozo Zulu, who is enrolled in a welding course that Ms. Weir is sponsoring.
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Why would a vegetarian work on the grounds of an abattoir? That was the question Libby Weir asked herself when she was approached to establish a preschool for disadvantaged children next to a huge slaughterhouse in South Africa.

The smell outside was so unbearable that Ms. Weir, a volunteer worker from Australia, had to hold a handkerchief to her nose. “My first thoughts were, ‘Oh, no, I could never do that,’ ” she recalls.

However, the beautiful children who clambered onto her knee as Weir sat thinking and praying for guidance in an abandoned farmhouse on the property changed her mind.

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“I just could not turn my back on their need,” she explains in an interview.

Ten years later, the preschool she started at Cato Ridge in the KwaZulu-Natal area continues to operate there, although she is no longer directly involved with it. It serves 78 pupils in four classrooms.

Weir, who trained as a special needs teacher, visits this hilly area of KwaZulu-Natal (one of South Africa’s nine provinces) for about three months every year. Over the past decade she has, among other things, adopted a local family and built them a new home, established vegetable gardens, created a school library, run school vacation activities, and sponsored educational programs for adults.

Weir has always had a “real passion” for Africa, she says, though she has no family links here. Her fascination started when, as a child, her parents told her “animal stories,” she says. Then, in 2004, she wrote e-mails from her home in New South Wales (where she still works as a teacher) to volunteer her services to a variety of African charities.

She accepted a short-term assignment to teach at an orphanage near Cato Ridge.

“People often fail to understand the depth of the poverty and need out here,” she says. “These lovely children are often malnourished. They have no toys, and just the bare necessities of clothing. Shoes are a luxury. I decided to sponsor a little 4-year-old Zulu boy, Thabiso, who had touched my heart.”

The sponsorship required Weir first to visit Thabiso’s family (his parents and six sisters) in a heavily populated valley.

“The tiny mud-and-brick building had gaping holes,” she says. “A family of 11 lived in this tiny space, with only one bed.”

Thabiso’s ailing mother died just a few weeks after the visit, but not before Weir had solemnly promised she would do her best to take care of him. “So, in 2007, I came back to build them a house, having raised some money in the US and Australia.”

She was required to appear in person before the local induna (chief), who readily gave her permission to build the house. With $17,000 (Australian; US$15,000), she managed to have a new five-room block house built and basically furnished.

Being on the building site every day led to Weir really getting to know the community. “I noticed apathy was rampant,” she says. “People had no sense of hope – they had given up believing in their future.” With unemployment at 75 percent, the people in the community really wanted to acquire valuable skills such as learning how to sew or plant a garden, she says.

“[Outsiders] do not realize the obstacles to planting gardens in poor areas,” Weir says. People in these areas “need money for fencing, as cows and goats wander freely. They also need water tanks and money for compost, tools, and seedlings three or four times a year,” she says.

In 2008, Weir established the first garden. A large water tank was donated for the project, and other obstacles overcome. It thrived, soon producing cabbage, carrots, onions, potatoes, tomatoes, and more. “People also predicted that everything – tools, seeds, etc. – would be stolen, but not one thing was removed,” she says.

Since then, about 20 more gardens have been established in the community, with Weir helping with many of them.

Olivia Myeza, chief executive officer of the Hillcrest AIDS Centre Trust, a charity that has partnered with Weir on this and other projects, describes Weir as something of a “hero” to those whom she has helped.

“Libby was taken by the ‘one community’ concept [focusing attention on one specific community] and has done much. She is a very brave woman,” she says. “Not many white ‘grannies’ would go there alone. Libby has had successes and disappointments, but she has stuck to it over many years.”

Weir has also taken care of Thabiso’s school needs. In 2010, together with an American volunteer, she helped to establish a library in his school and sponsor an administrative assistant there for three years. Sharon Ntokozo Mchunu, head of the Camperdown Combined School, says Weir has made a “very positive impact.”

Weir also has donated educational equipment such as a laptop, printer, television, and DVD player, Ms. Mchunu says. The children now are able to borrow books to take home and read.

School holidays can be a problem, Weir says, because students may be idle for weeks: Few have access to any organized activities. So five years ago she started a school vacation program in a local building. Before long it became an arena of raucous activity, she says. Sturdy toddlers would weave their way among boys building LEGO spaceships, girls beading, groups of children intent on jigsaw puzzles, young sculptors building with Play-Doh, girls with hoops, card players, and eager drawers.

An excursion to buy cricket gear brought “endless joy” to a young cricket team, she says. “The soccer team established last year is now leading the local competition, and the enthusiastic cricketers hope to emulate them.”

During school vacation, Weir also tries to encourage each child to go on an outing to experience something new. The owners of a private swimming pool, about a 20-minute drive away, opened it for their use.

“On the drive home [the children] carefully select an ice cream,” she says. “I love watching their beaming faces and marvel at their quiet appreciation of even small things. They deserve better, but I never hear them complaining, and they never ask for things,” she says.

Sewing courses have been a big hit with women. On completion they each receive a certificate, fabric, a starter kit, and a sewing machine. Some of them have set up their own small businesses: One has a contract to make uniforms for a local church. They all now have a valuable skill, enabling them to clothe their families.

Weir also started carpentry and welding courses. “Not only have they acquired useful skills in a country where skilled labor is in short supply, but they have been taught the values of punctuality, order, discipline, and honesty,” she says. The carpentry and welding classes are taught by the aptly named Talent Nxele. Those trained either find full-time jobs (several are now working in a door-and-window manufacturing plant in Pinetown, about 20 miles away) or at least find contract jobs, Mr. Nxele says.

Recently five men (out of 170 applicants) completed a welding course on equipment that Weir had purchased: They are all now employed in good jobs.

Weir is grateful for help she has received from overseas donors. And the people in the area are grateful to her: Each year, before she returns to Australia, the community organizes a thank-you lunch in her honor.

“It takes very little to give a person hope. I am not talking about a handout,” she says, but rather giving someone the means to help themselves – such as training or a sewing machine. “If everyone could do that for one person only, the world would be such a better place.”

How to take action

Universal Giving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are groups selected by Universal Giving that help people in need in South Africa:

WorldTeach works in developing countries to provide volunteer teachers to meet local needs and promote responsible global citizenship. Take action: Spend a summer teaching in South Africa.

The South African Education and Environment Project – USA serves youths in South Africa’s disadvantaged townships by supporting education. Take action: Provide tutors and mentoring in impoverished schools.

Give A Day Global connects international travelers with day-long volunteer opportunities. Take action: Volunteer in a South African library or school.

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