Monday, December 19, 2016

A Grassroots Rural Sister Cities

By Robin Goff

 Robin Goff is the founder of The Light Center, a small retreat center on 35 acres in the woods just west of Baldwin City, KS. Her background includes a degree in nursing from Duke University and a Master of Arts in Values from San Francisco Theoligical Seminary. She served as a Hospice Chaplain for ten years prior to creating The Light Center, which falls under the umbrella of Unity Worldwide Ministries.

Jaimone and Rayline Philander from RSE
enjoying the Baldwin City fountain.
Photographer Ginger Juelfs
It didn't start out to be a Sister City originally. It simply grew to become one by putting down very deep roots over a period of years, Kansas style. For over ten years I have been traveling back and forth to Riviersonderend, (nicknamed RSE) South Africa, a beautiful river valler in a rural area 2 hours from Cape Town. I was drawn to South Africa by the AIDS orphan crisis there which had reached mind-boggling levels. Very quickly, I discovered that I had NO IDEA how to respond to millions of orphaned and vulnerable children. The areas of greatest need were the informal settlements all around Cape Town, but those areas can be hostile to white American visitors. The lead agency we connected with in Cape Town steered us to a project in Riviersonderend and I was hooked. I loved the small town venue surrounded by farmland. It felt so much safer and was really a great deal like Baldwin City. I fell in love with the peaceful mountain range surrounding the town and the people as well. It felt much safer for myself and the young people who would travel there with me. The contrast was like volunteering in inner city America versus a small rural town, quieter, less violence and crime. Over time, the similarities between Baldwin and RSE became more obvious to me and the idea of twinning the two made sense. It took two years of back and forth conversations until both mayors had signed an official Memorandum of Understanding, but we got it done. Our ways of connecting have been simple and focus on cross-cultural exchanges. I go to classrooms in Baldwin City schools and speak with the students who then embark on making items that I can carryover to the same age group in RSE. Then I visit in the classrooms there and deliver the items from our students. The teachers there work with their students to return cards, letters and simple items for the Baldwin City students. There are also active quilting groups in both cities and the women have exchanged ideas and quilting items. Quilter's Paradise in Baldwin City has done machine quilting for quilts made in RSE that we can then raffle. The funds raised go to an Youth Education Fund that assists youth to go on to universities. While the students can get government scholarships, their families do not have the funds for registration fees, books, transportation to the school, etc. At present we are assisting 13 students to be able to successfully attend major universities, a first for this small town.
Harold Frye from Baker University donating
instruments for the Sister City
Photographer Ginger Juelfs
Each year my organization brings two American older teens to team with South African youth to lead camps that we provide for teens. This month there are two youth from RSE visiting here in Baldwin City, and they will step into leadership of the next camp in January 2017. It has been such fun to show them Baker University and Baldwin City. This experience will make lasting changes in their lives and that will spread out to touch countless people in RSE. As that town recovers from the apartheid system, which ended only 22 years ago, any experience that assists young people to grow in self confidence can make a huge impact. While the children were shy when we began this venture, they now hold their heads high and have big dreams for the future. There they are called the “born frees” the first post-apartheid generation and who knows what they can do? They show great talents when given the opportunity to explore music and art, things that do not exist in their curriculum at school. A Baker professor is donating used instruments and we have dreams of a band forming. These may be simple steps but the impact ripples out. I have great hopes for these emerging leaders and all that they can bring to the world.
A grassroots Sister City may seem small as compared with larger cities but it is a fit for us. We are starting in the realm of cultural and educational exchanges and we'll see where it will lead. Our Sister City Team has wonderful ideas and we are inspired to keep growing the projects. Any steps we take that bring us closer to people in other places help to create a more caring human family. We need that now to fuel hope and trust in an ever-changing world.

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