Written by: Thislife Online magazine
Article source: www.thislifeonline.co.za

On a Cape Town mountainside, in a challenged township, dynamic American Susan Hill says she’s found true freedom. Why did she and her husband sell everything they owned to come to South Africa 22 years ago, why is ‘every cell’ of her being now alive, and why does she believe Africa’s brimming with potential? Kat Farquharson explored her journey in life

Susan (64) is the director of iKhaya le Themba (‘Home of Hope’), an aftercare and community support NPO in Hout Bay’s Imizamo Yethu township. Hailing from a small island off Georgia in the USA, she’s married to Nelson, a retired businessman who worked in healthcare information systems. They have two adult children and live in the Cape Town suburb of Newlands

When i was six, I hardly knew what the word ‘cancer’ meant but my mother, who was pregnant, became very ill with it. She fell into a coma and my siblings and I were cared for by the nuns at my school while she was in hospital. Every day, the whole school would pause to pray for my mom and baby brother. Later, changes in the fishing industry caused my dad’s shrimping business to collapse. We lost our home but were fortunate enough to be housed by the church our family attended.

The way I saw the community of God carrying my family during the toughest times of our lives had a profound effect on me. At five, I read the bible story of Saul becoming Paul and making a 180-degree turn from persecuting Christians to following Jesus. From then on, I wanted to be a missionary. This desire never stopped growing.

Susan as a baby with her father, as an older sister, and as a bride alongside her mother. Her family went through some tough times but she started finding direction early on. ‘I’m so grateful that Mom instilled in me early on that this life is a gift and we’re all here for a purpose,’ she says  

I studied dance but knew I needed a more stable career, found an admin job at Harvard University, and later worked for a cardiologist. One day, a good-looking medical technologist called Nelson came in for some tests. Before long, he’d arranged a date with me via a mutual friend. Dating wasn’t on my agenda but I felt a nudge and, to cut a long story short, we were very happily married in 1980.

In 1983, I dreamt I was standing in what looked like a city in ruins, a dream that kept recurring. Nelson and I began to believe it was a call from God to help people rebuild somewhere, but we weren’t sure where.

Deep Connect
One year, we took a trip on a sailing boat crewed by South Africans who left quite an impression on our young family. ‘Maybe we’ll go to South Africa one day,’ we said to each other. Later, we met two veteran lady missionaries who told us about their work in South Africa. We believed it couldn’t be a coincidence, and started to feel the urge to head here.

In 1999, we visited Cape Town to discover if this was indeed a city God was calling us to help rebuild. Despite South Africa’s vast wealth divide, I was attracted by the hope here, the deep connect that there could be, the many possibilities for transformation. Years later while walking in the township of Imizamo Yethu where I now work, I remembered the dream of the city that looked ruined.

Cape Town Township

While still living in her native US, Susan had a recurring dream of a city that looked as if it was in ruins. Years later, a visit to Imizamo Yethu informal settlement perched on the mountainside above Cape Town’s iconic Hout Bay, brought the dream vividly back. She has now worked here for eight years  | Photo: Ronelle de Villiers

We went home and sold everything we had to relocate to SA. I prayed a lot for the city, ran monthly prayer meetings for people from all over Cape Town and a weekly French bible study with some refugees working in Green Market Square that lasted 10 years.

iKhaya le Themba

Susan Hill in Cape Town’s Greenmarket Square, where she ran a bible study with some refugees for 10 years | Photo: Ronelle de Villiers

To pay our rent, I did the admin for a media NPO until I began to question if I was serving the poor sufficiently. Around the very same time, a friend phoned, asking me to consider applying as director of an aftercare for vulnerable children. I felt a nudge again, and with some trepidation for the financial implications, I handed in my notice.

The application process involved quite an intense panel interview by the staff. One question I remember is, ‘Can you break up a fight?’  Fortunately, having volunteered in America on a project helping homeless men come off drugs and alcohol, I knew I could!

And that is how I became director of iKhaya le Themba, which means ‘Home of Hope’ and is an afterschool centre providing educational and holistic support for vulnerable children and their families.

Incredible
Though at first glance Imizamo Yethu, the township in which iKhaya is situated, may look ruined, I see an incredible community with huge potential. Despite being a densely populated place where people mainly live in shacks, the different African nationalities that live here respect and appreciate each other.

However, it has major challenges such as HIV and TB, drugs and alcohol, unemployment, poverty, gender-based violence and gangsterism. Navigating these can often lead to learning problems for kids, and our aim is to help change lives by mitigating the effect on their learning potential.

Cape Town Township
Cape Town Township

Despite being a densely populated place where people mainly live in shacks, Susan sees Imizamo Yethu as ‘an incredible community with huge potential’. However, it also has to navigate the challenges of HIV and TB, drugs, unemployment and gangsterism that can create learning problems for children |  Photo: Ronelle de Villiers

At iKhaya le Themba, we have space for 100 children a year aged between six and 12, and there are always too many applicants. We have a very thorough application process and always take the most vulnerable children. Every child coming through our door lives in precarious circumstances, and may well be experiencing some kind of trauma at home which makes it that much harder to learn.

iKhaya le Themba children
iKhaya le Themba
iKhaya le Themba

At iKhaya le Themba aftercare, the aim is to help change lives by mitigating the effect of trauma on a child’s potential to learn. Teachers reinforce what pupils have learnt at school using child-friendly methods that enable them both to learn and to heal | Photo: Ronelle de Villiers

By creating a safe place and environment for the children to learn in a kid-friendly way using painting, singing, skipping and games, we help them to learn and heal. And to believe in their future.

We provide a hot meal and a snack every day and support the kids educationally via our homework lab and reinforced learning approach, working alongside the schools to empower the children with a lifelong love for learning.

A daily hot meal and snack optimise learning potential | Photo: Ronelle de Villiers

We have 10 paid staff and are helped by a number of volunteers from around the globe and some from right here in Imizamo Yethu. A local grandma does stretching exercises with the children, and a group of our children’s mothers volunteer in the garden, which is a huge help.

Unless we’re helping the families too, we can’t be effective. So, when parents apply for their children, our community worker visits them and, together, we do our best to try to help the families if we can.

iKhaya le Themba

Ikhaya le Themba has 10 staff members and is further supported by local and international volunteers who unite efforts to keep the show on the road | Photo: Ronelle de Villiers

iKhaya le Themba

A local grandmother volunteers to do stretching exercises with the children from iKhaya | Photo: Ronelle de Villiers

iKhaya le Themba

A volunteer from Brazil reinforces learning in the homework lab  | Photo: Ronelle de Villiers

iKhaya le Themba

A group of mothers from the community volunteer in the garden (here, about to be replanted by them), and every week Susan takes Nomana [in red top] for skills training which she’ll pass on to her community | Photo: Ronelle de Villiers

Local volunteer and board member Arja, who supports Susan with her many admin needs, connects with the children during one of their breaks | Photo: Ronelle de Villiers

Years ago, Nelly, the aunt of a student volunteered at iKhaya. During the nine years she was with us, she discovered her purpose, and went from volunteer to facilitator to programme manager to a degree in social work! Today, she’s employed by a primary school that serves the community. Currently, I’m taking Nomana, one of the gardening volunteers, to a project where she’s learning sewing, computing and English. She’s going to bring the skills back here and start teaching other moms.

Bigger Goal
The bigger goal of this aftercare is to help the children fulfil their hopes and dreams, to help them discover their destiny and purpose. The world says they can’t do it. We say: well, why can’t they? What if it wasn’t only Harvard that got them to these places?

This week we had a dozen volunteers from Brazil who spent time with the kids explaining how they’d become engineers, bankers, etc. Such stories inspire them. So, we don’t take them only on outings to the aquarium or the beach, but also to places like Cape Town’s convention centre. Here, they get to talk to people from the CEO to the chef, the maintenance guy and the sustainability manager.

Painful
My biggest challenge here is funding. It’s painful and hard. I talk to corporates and develop relationships with individuals to help them see that for the price of a cup of coffee they can buy someone a meal or help a kid get through school. Many nights I’m up late thinking how to raise funds.

But God sends us people, I really believe He does. We receive funding from churches, corporates and organisations in SA and abroad. With German funding, we were able to build classrooms and a new kitchen, and we hope to build a new library this year. Some of the children’s parents also help us raise funds. One dad rode in the Argus cycle race and raised R12 000. I’ve promised to ride with him next year!

iKhaya le Themba

A volunteer helps out at the homework lab | Photo: Ronelle de Villiers

The aftercare encourages its children, many of whom are navigating great social challenges, to express their emotions in a healthy way and believe that they have a future

We love this list of qualities to admire in a person! The spelling might just need a bit of polishing but the children who wrote them are young, and few are writing in their first language

Conditions in this township are far from pretty, but what is pretty is the change we see in our children as they start to connect and learn. There are so many great stories at iKhaya le Themba! Such as Ongeziwe, who overcame many challenges, eventually became head girl of her high school and is now studying law. And Thembisile, an amazing character of whom we’re so proud, who’s become a pastor.

iKhaya le Themba

Former iKhaya pupil Ongeziwe (left) is now studying law at university. Here, she hugs Nelly, who after volunteering at the aftercare has qualified to be a social worker  |  Photo: Ronelle de Villiers

I’ve worked at iKhaya for eight years and it’s been one of the most challenging jobs ever, but almost every day I’m excited to come here. Every cell in my being comes alive when I see a child smile, or a staff member reports progress, or something gets funded.

People here reinvent themselves
It’s certainly not awesome here every day but I’m so grateful for the call that led us here. I love South Africa and the whole continent of Africa for its diversity, its promise, its mentality, its entrepreneurial spirit. There’s so much you can do here, the sky’s the limit! People continue to reinvent themselves, discover their purpose and go after it.

There are so many possibilities here, there’s no clamp on your destiny, there’s fresh hope and faith that you can breathe in if you choose to do so.

I didn’t grow up with this hope in America; there seemed too many of us vying for the same opportunities. Today my husband and I pray for our son who’s chosen to go back and live in America, that he will discover his purpose and a clear way forward.

What’s in store for the children of ikhaya le themba?  ‘i believe the sky’s the limit in africa’, says director susan hill 

I haven’t always known my own purpose but I now feel in my gut that what I’m doing is it! I believe the stories in the Bible aren’t fairytales but true stories about people who’ve lived their lives, or part of their lives, according to God’s plan. Like them, I now have true freedom and believe I’m now who God made me to be. I try to work out what He’s asking me to do through prayer, relationship, and relying on experience. I think about Jesus and the way he lived his life, and try only to do what I see him doing.

I love that I come from a larger tapestry of a story that started long before I did, and will last long after I go. That I’m part of lives that will go on long after I’m gone, and will bring about change in future generations. It’s a privilege to be part of these young lives and to see them flourish. I’m honoured to get to partner with great organisations and the many volunteers, game-changers and donors who continue to support our work. Many people have helped and believed in us, and I’ve learnt that we’re all blessed to be a blessing.

Make my life count
I was really ill with Covid recently, which made me realise that now I’m older, I need to make my life count, not just with this work but with the people I love. To slow down and spend time with them. So, I’m trying to do that intentionally, and when we went away for my birthday recently I didn’t take my computer!

Ultimately, I’d like someone to take over the day-to-day management from me so I can work strategically on replicating this aftercare model in different communities. It’s really needed, and we truly believe it can be a great gift to other communities.

Some days at iKhaya are a steep climb, especially when it comes to sourcing funding, but Susan says she has learnt that ‘we’re all blessed to be a blessing’

iKhaya le Themba

iKhaya le Themba

More scenes at Ikhaya le Themba. Ultimately, Susan would like to give the day-to-day management of iKhaya to someone else in order to spend more time with the people she loves, plus to work strategically on replicating the iKhaya model as a gift to other communities | Photos: Ronelle de Villiers

My mom instilled in me early on that this life is a gift and we’re all here for a purpose. I’m so grateful she taught me this (and for the fact that despite the coma and the cancer all those years ago, she’s still alive and well!)

I would love everyone else to discover their purpose in life. I believe that if people can find a way to follow God, they’ll find their purpose too.’

iKhaya le Themba

Susan with her husband Nelson, son Evan, daughter Caitlin and daughter-in-law-to-be, Connie (middle). ‘I haven’t always known my purpose but I now feel in my gut that what I’m doing is it!’ she says. ‘I’d love everyone else to discover their purpose, too.’

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Date published: 16/06/2022
Images: Ronelle de Villiers
Thislife Online magazine publishes stories of hope from Cape Town and beyond.

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