McLean parish helps Zambian orphans

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The sound of pickaxes and shovels chipping a red grave into the dry earth is broken by the happy yells of children playing. In the distance a spinning funnel of dust marks their location.

"Whirlwind," said one gravedigger as he turns back to the brittle, sunbaked pit.

For as far as the eye can see, the hillside cemetery is studded with mounds of dirt marking small graves topped with tiny teddy bears, plastic flowers or other offerings. Many of the children interred here were, like this one, residents of St. Anthony's Children' s Village in Ndola, Zambia.

The St. Peter Claver Society of St. John the Beloved Church in McLean, is a longtime supporter of St. Anthony, and recently has focused its fundraising efforts on expanding the special needs capabilities there. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the parish group's work.

Taking care of children is what the caretakers of St. Anthony's Village have been doing since May 2003, when it opened at the height of the AIDS crisis in southern Africa.

"Back then, we had four or five deaths a week, the majority from AIDS," said Dominican Sister Philomena Schwegmann, who was instrumental in St. Anthony's establishment. "The pandemic shattered the traditional extended family structure in Zambia," she said.

"We didn't know where the children were coming from, only where they were going - to the cemetery," Sister Lucia Mucherenje, administrator. "But by 2009, things started to change."

By then, free anti-retroviral treatment became available, and while not a cure, it has extended the lives of HIV-infected people. Effective new drugs virtually ended mother-to-child HIV transmission.

Now, only two orphans at St. Anthony are HIV-positive, and more and more are being reunited with their extended families as traditional society recovers its footing.

Yet the orphan problem in Zambia remains monumental. Out of a total population of 14 million, more than a million children have lost one or both parents.

Most of the children at St. Anthony now are mentally or physically challenged, with more than 30 with cerebral palsy.

Burials at this hillside cemetery are now relatively rare for the St. Anthony caretakers; only seven children died last year.

But recently, the wails of a young mother pierce through the hymn of an elderly African priest singing bareheaded in the fierce midday sun as the tiny coffin was lowered into the earth.

Bukata was a two-and-a-half-year-old baby girl afflicted with Down syndrome. When her mother, a student, could no longer care for her, Bukata was brought to live at St. Anthony's special needs care unit where she died of complications.

The sisters plan to open another special needs care unit for the growing numbers of handicapped children and may open a community school on the grounds.

Lusaka Archbishop Telesphore George Mpundu said that addressing the orphan problem in Zambia all "boils down to resources," both human and financial.

"Universal education in Zambia is a pipe dream," Archbishop Mpundu said. Families must pay for public schools. So for orphans with no families, education is unattainable, save for schools and training centers funded by religious organizations and aid agencies.

One example is Mulele Mwana ("Take Care of the Child") Youth Skills Training Center at the St. Charles Lwanga Catholic School in Lusaka that provides training in a range of vocational skills from auto repair to carpentry. The St. Peter Claver Society has supported the tailoring initiative at Mulele Mwane. Young people are trained to sew, and assistance is given to help set them up in business. Now several graduates run their own shops and employ others in the program.

St. Peter Claver Society recently became involved with another program in the Lusaka Archdiocese. It contributed a new piggery at a rural farm in the Rufunsa district where 40 orphans live and learn agricultural skills. The farm is the brainchild of the late Cardinal Medardo Joseph Mazombwe, the first Zambian cardinal and bears his name.

Archbishop Mpundu says the challenges presented by disabled children are especially difficult in Zambia, where 80 percent of the population lives in poverty.

"It requires a number of teachers who are properly trained to look after these children. And then financial resources, you have to have institutions where these children are given special care which they need," said Archbishop Mpundu.

"I know there is an idea of not discriminating against these children but unfortunately in most of the schools, there are not facilities that cater toward these young people."

Jay LaMonica and Gabe LaMonica are broadcast journalists and members of the St. Peter Claver Society. They have just returned from Zambia.

How to help

Celebrate the 10th anniversary of the St. Peter Claver Society's support of African orphans, Oct. 18, beginning at 6:30 p.m., at St. John the Beloved Church in McLean

Special invited guest: Archbishop Telesphore Mpunda of Lusaka.

Honored guests: Frs. Edward C. Hathaway and Paul D. Scalia

Catered dinner, including African cuisine, wine, beer, sodas and juice.

African music and dancing, silent and live auctions.

Advance tickets are on sale through eventbrite.com (enter "St. Peter Claver Society" in the search box).

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2014