HIBBING — Conservative estimates put the number of orphaned children in Zambia at around 1.3 million — and that’s in a country with less than 15 million total in population.
The AIDS epidemic has ravaged Zambia and its sub-Saharan neighbors, leaving children without one or both parents vulnerable and without access to food, education and basic health care.
Providing any of the three remains a major undertaking, so to do their part in the continental struggle two Hibbing families connected by their children’s marriage have followed the lead of their son and daughter in supporting an aid organization dedicated to helping orphans in the region.
The connection to the Christian aid organization Hands at Work in Africa started with husband and wife Hibbing natives Jed and Brooke Heubner, who were placed in the organization after joining the Peace Corps in 2007.
Since then their families, including Jed’s mother, Pam Heubner, and Brook’s mother, Gina Rittgers, have each adopted a community in Zambia through the nonprofit to support about 145 children total.
To spread the word about the work being done in Zambia and the other countries Hands at Work operates in, the nonprofit’s founder, George Snyman, will be speaking in Hibbing at 6 p.m. this Saturday, Oct. 11, at the Hibbing Tourist Center.
The event will feature Snyman sharing his story of the program’s beginning and will include an African meal. A $5 donation is requested to cover expenses.
Snyman’s inspiring life story, as well as the impacts of the organization’s efforts so far, will be well worth a listen, Rittgers said.
“I want them to have an opportunity to see him and see why we’re so on fire with this organization,” she said.
Hands at Work in Africa was started by Snyman in his home country of South Africa while Apartheid was in full swing. As Snyman found and became more serious about his religion, he began to notice more and more the discrepancies between South Africa’s white, affluent suburbs and the marginalized townships filled with black South Africans.
Setting out to help out the poor, Snyman and his wife, Carolyn, sold their possessions and traveled the continent, eventually developing Hands at Work in Africa to support the millions of children orphaned by AIDS and other causes.
Along with hearing more of Snyman’s story, those attending the event can find out how they can get involved, Pam Heubner said.
Jed and Brooke will also be at the event. The two finished their three-year commitment to the Peace Corps in 2010 but remain heavily involved with Hands at Work in Africa, including yearly trips to the continent.
Following the examples of their children, Gina and Pam’s work goes beyond writing a check every month as well. The organization encourages people to see the communities receiving aid, which led to each visiting their respective towns a couple years back.
Visiting the communities validated everything they thought they knew about the program, especially about how far their $20 per month per child could go, Pam said.
“They’re so grateful for anything that you do for them,” she said. “They’re just so thankful. There’s just a joy in them.”
In total, Pam and her family support about 90 children in Chisamba, Zambia, while the Rittgers and Grillo families contribute to help 52 children in Mwaiseni.
Both Gina and Pam plan to go back to the communities within the next year, and hope even more children will have food by then.
Thinking of her trip to Chisamba, Pam said it felt great to see so many children able to have a meal, but there were still too many others left hungry due to a lack of funds.
“That was one of the hardest things to see was to realize that we were feeding 50, which was wonderful, but there were so many more,” she said.
Hands at Work in Africa specifically seeks to help communities without any other aid organizations in place, and especially tries to involve local caretakers who’ve started efforts of their own to help.
Rittgers recalled one Zambian woman who was doing all she could to teach 100 local children out of her small home. The organization came in to support the teacher, making her home into a Mwaiseni Care Point where children are welcome.
Providing a boost for those who had already been doing all they could is a big part of the organization, Rittgers said.
“They identify someone in the community that’s doing something already,” she said. “They look for a community leader and they try to shore up what they’re doing.”
Hands and Work then brings in volunteers from all different backgrounds — which is how anyone interested could come contribute — all working toward the same goals of providing food and services for the children.
If signing up to go to the towns proves too much of a burden, people can contribute whatever money they can afford to provide food for another child, Rittgers said.
For the families that followed the lead of their children, the hope is that the event spurs more in the community to support those most in need in a country devastated by disease.
Doing so felt like the right thing to do for their families, Pam said, as they all wanted to leave a lasting impact in others’ lives.
“We decided we wanted to leave a legacy for our family that was more than just ‘we lived,’” she said. “This way, in Africa there’s a town that’s able to save kids because we did something important.”