This past summer, I had the privilege of visiting South Africa with my partner Joan, my daughter, son-in-law and my precious grandson Sam. We had an extraordinary adventure being close up to some magnificent African animals in their natural neighborhoods.
But the highlight of the trip was when we visited the Khulani Special School in Hluhluwe. This is a school that houses approximately 150 children with a variety of disabilities from spinal cord injury to cerebral palsy , autism and many others. This school is in an area that suffers with grinding poverty, the likes of which I have never seen. Just around the corner people were selling scraps of hay they had gathered from the street or leftovers from a recently plowed field.
When we arrived at the school, we saw a campus that looked to be about 1 acre. All sand with one paved walkway connecting buildings. When we arrived on campus, were greeted by a very warm and welcoming “teacher” (really a volunteer who might have been a mother of one of the children). There looked to be about five or six adults on campus and all of them seemed to be genuinely happy. The children get to the Khulani school because either schools couldn’t or wouldn’t educate them. But then we were told that many of these children were dropped off by parents who were overwhelmed by the stress of poverty and having a child who was “different”. Many of these parents dropped their children off never to be seen again.
When I looked over the campus, I saw four small square shacks where the children slept on mats. When they wake up they have a meager breakfast, clean out the huts and the teaching begins in those very same huts. Several kids were in dilapidated manual wheelchairs and many others were in walkers. Many children didn’t have shoes and it certainly appeared that the meager food allocation wasn’t very nutritious.
But very soon, I watched as children with autism or intellectual disabilities push other children in wheelchairs through soft sand as both of them were laughing. That’s when I first sensed that there was something magical going on here. The children assembled outside for us as they were told that the reason they had visitors was because they were important children. First they danced for us. And then the principal asked me to say a few words which were translated to Zulu. Here’s what I said :
“I have been in a wheelchair for 30 years. And yes, I have problems every day. But I want you to know that I am a happy man. And why? I’m happy because I am able to help people. And I’m happy because I love so many people, and many of those people also love me. So that makes me a wealthy man, wealthy with love. And that’s why I’m a happy man.”
And as I told this story, I felt held by this group of children as I watched their faces show compassion for my experiences, positive and negative. At the end of my talk these children spontaneously surrounded me. All they wanted to do was touch me and kiss me. And that’s all I wanted to do with them. I think at that moment, Joan and I adopted 150 very special children.
My commitment is to enable these children, at the very least, to eat more nutritious food. Beyond that, I’d love them to have computer resources and the toys and games that other children in South Africa play with.
That’s why I’ve established the “Khulani Special School Fund” under the umbrella of the Philadelphia Foundation. Won’t you please help me take care of my children?