July 23, 2012
A two-week service trip to South Africa became a life-changing
experience for 14 students accompanied by
Charisse Willis ’89SVC, ’91MS, ’95P.D., Associate Dean for
Undergraduate Studies in The
School of Education at St. John’s University.
The students were aware that many elementary schools in South
Africa were in desperate need of help. “A group of us had been
talking about making the trip there for a long time,” Dean Willis
said. “Finally, we said, ‘let’s just do it.’ You know, God works in
Dean Willis and the students were joined by
Alexandra Foukalas ’11Ed, Assistant Director of the
University’s America Reads * America Serves program, and two
faculty members —
James Bethea, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Human Services and
Aliya Holmes, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Curriculum and
Excited by this opportunity to live the Vincentian
mission, the group landed in Johannesburg, South Africa, on May 15.
The students were ready to make a positive difference in the world
beyond the walls of St. John’s University.
A Focus on Basic Needs
Reaching out to schools in Johannesburg and Cape Town, the St.
John’s contingent was determined to provide what teachers and
students there needed most. “Clothes, for one thing,” said Ms.
Foukalas. “Money, food — they needed very basic things that we take
Students and faculty in The School of Education already had
raised more than $4,000 to purchase much-needed supplies for the
schoolchildren they would encounter. They — and other members of
the University community — donated their own money as well.
The poverty in the region stunned the St. John’s group. Soweto
Township — a hotbed of resistance to the government during
apartheid — was one of their stops. Today, the district is a
cultural melting pot and home to more than 3.5 million people, many
living in tin-roofed shanties.
The students began their service work by visiting the Lambano Sanctuary, an
orphanage dedicated to caring for children affected by the AIDS
virus and HIV. Another destination was Nkosi’s Haven, which assists
destitute HIV/AIDS-infected mothers, their children and orphans.
“You want to help them understand that there is someone out there
who cares,” said Ms. Foukalas.
Smiling Faces, Despite Hardship
Inspiration came to St. John’s students and faculty through the
unwavering high spirits of the people they met. Everywhere the
group went, they were immediately greeted with the waves and smiles
of the children.
The lack of qualified teachers and an absence of structure
testified to the dismal education system in the region’s
impoverished neighborhoods. In addition to mentoring students in
the 10 schools they visited, the St. John’s group helped educators
to strengthen their teaching techniques.
They also delivered food, clothing and supplies to the schools.
“The principals were beyond amazed,” said Kerry Andreozzi ’14Ed.
“I’m so happy I was a part of something that truly helped entire
“To know that you can change someone’s life is so gratifying,”
said Dean Willis. “I compare it to what St. Vincent de Paul did in
spreading faith and hope.”
The Work Continues
Above all, the group was impressed by how well the children did
in their studies, despite poor learning conditions. “If you gave
them something to learn, they would do whatever it took to learn it
and perfect it,” Dean Willis said. “They don’t have a lot of
options, and they don’t have many distractions either, so when
given an opportunity, they make the most of it.”
Though pleased with the trip, Dean Willis plans to return with a
new team in 2014. Their mission will be to replace dilapidated
tents used as houses of worship with a permanent church. “Despite
conditions,” said Dean Willis, “the people are happy just to be
praying together.” Ms. Foukalas added, “When they pray, they don’t
ask God for material things. They thank Him for what they’ve been
The 2014 South Africa team will focus their efforts on a single
school, with the expectation that students and faculty there will
share the knowledge they gain with their peers.
Above all, the St. John’s students and faculty want children and
teachers to know they will never be forgotten. “We want to bring
hope to these communities,” said Dean Willis, “and to show them
this [trip] is not the end.”