In keeping with WAM Theatre’s double philanthropic mission, twenty-five percent of the profits from In Darfur will go directly to the Housemothers of Mother of Peace Orphanage in Illovo, South Africa. What is the connection between a Berkshire theatre company and a South African orphanage? Susie Weekes! Read the story of how she became involved with this remarkable institution.
Meet the “Moms” of MoP, Illovo
Susie Weekes was a city girl, growing up in Washington, DC, and Boston, but her decision to go for her Masters in Media and Philanthropy from Suffolk University, coupled with her son’s enrollment in school in nearby Litchfield County, CT, brought her to the Berkshires. Over the course of her seventeen years here she has lived in almost every town in South County. “I loved the cities of my youth, but I have adjusted and now I love living in the country,” she told WAM Theatre in a recent interview.
But her studies at Suffolk took her even farther afield when she decided to travel to South Africa in 2001 to write a paper about child-headed households. The AIDS epidemic, ongoing civil unrest, and grinding poverty had torn families apart and many children were left raising their siblings and cousins alone, without adult support. There she met Liz Towell, who started the idea of keeping kids in their communities to be raised by neighbors and friends.
“Liz saved thousands of kids, but too many were still being taken advantage of,” Susie recalled. “There was a lot of abuse because of the poverty. Lots of parents were selling kids off or adopting them out. So Liz came up with the idea of starting an orphanage.”
Towell was diagnosed with cancer, and Susie’s life moved on, taking her back to the States. The two lost touch around 2005.
Then at Susie’s 60th birthday party in 2010 she announced that she planned to return to South Africa. In Susie’s absence, Towell had finagled the purchase of an old sugar plantation in Illovo and established Mother of Peace, Illovo, Orphanage. “I went to follow up with some of the kids I had interviewed in 2001, and I reconnected with Liz, who was was very sick by then and living at her orphanage,” Susie recalled. “She said, ‘I always knew you’d come back.’”
As Susie was leaving, she heard Liz screaming and rushed back to her side. “She was in horrible pain. This was in March and I had to leave the country, but I promised her I would come back in the fall and take care of her. And she said, ‘No, you’ll come back for the children.”
In August of that year Susie was in a bad accident, and as she lay injured in her car, waiting for the ambulance to arrive, she had a vision of herself flying out over the hood of her car. “ People say when you have an out of body experience like that it means you are chosing whether to live or die,” Susie said. “Liz died at that same moment I had that vision. So I went back to Mother of Peace, Illovo, three months later and started my fundraising work with them.”
Susie does fundraising and has developed the orphanage’s Web site, but she is not involved in the day-to-day work of the place. “The children don’t need another person flitting in and out of their lives,” she explained. “These children need love and stability.”
“The thing that is so amazing about MoP is that you see real opportunity for these kids. The people who run MoP are all educators and they have built a school there that goes up through the 5th grade. They have also developed great vocational programs in bread baking, farming and agriculture, and animal husbandry.”
Mother of Peace, Illovo, is not isolated. They own a total of 30 hectares of surrounding land and there are some middle class communities and a township nearby, residents of which are invited to use the MoP school library. Right now the community buys the chickens and eggs raised at MoP hen house, and soon the garden will become a community garden.
“Every child at MoP has what they need, and that is love. They have a Mom. And these women are the foundation for these kids” Susie explained. “Some of the kids have real struggles and disabilities, more than half of them have been abused, many are HIV positive, so there is a social worker and medical care available for them and the Moms too.”
The Moms raise the children in the native Zulu lifestyle. “Zulu is a very spiritual culture encompassing many religions,” Susie said. “MoP is affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church and worship is very calming and comforting to kids who have been sexually abused. Zulu is all about being practical, the emotional side of things is kept very private. Their philosphy is that we do what we can do today, what is necessary. We don’t worry about the past and the future, we deal with the present.”
The Moms are generally not educated, but since the school and homework rooms are there they can move forward with their education too. The money raised by the WAM production of “In Darfur” will go straight to the Moms. “In a society still based primarily on barter, to get rands is just amazing,” Susie explained. “Money tends to go straight to their families, to buy supplies to make the jewelry that they sell, or back into their home, if they own one.”
When asked what she would do with the money, almost every Mom replied that she would invest in education for her children or herself.
“People ask me ‘Why help kids in South Africa when there are lots of kids who need help right here?’ And I tell them: Kids are kids. When we help young people in anywhere the global community benefits. In South Africa they don’t have the infrastructure to raise leaders, and they need adults who can go back into the community and raise the bar for everyone. We have kids coming up through the ranks at MoP who will become those leaders. If just one of these kids can make a difference in ten or twenty years time, that’s huge. Look at any one of the Moms and see how she’s influencing the 6-10 kids in her care so that they can go back into their communities and make a difference.
There are millions of vulnerable kids in Africa affected by AIDS and other issues, and there are many orphanages, and most of them are just awful, just warehouses for the children. MoP is not like that. Offering these kids a good education and a loving, stable family base is eventually going to affect the whole country.”