June 1, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 62°F


Symbols of hope

After selling hand-beaded jewelry to benefit the Bishop Mansuet Biyase Preschool and Creche in South Africa for just a few months, senior Sarah Brenner and her mother, Amy, knew they were doing a good thing. But it wasn’t until she saw a video from the school that Brenner knew she had to see it for herself.
In the video, teachers clapped to music as children sat in a circle. The children got up one at a time and danced in front of one another. Brenner said the scene looked like any happy classroom, but she could see the dirty and tattered clothing. These were the children orphaned from an AIDS pandemic in a country with one of the highest mortality rates in Africa.
“We were showing people pictures of these children with no idea who they are,” Brenner said. “They seem fine, but you can really tell when you look in their big eyes, you wonder what they go home to.”
The video inspired Brenner, a sociology major, to travel to South Africa during the summer with her mother to see both the school and meet the women who sell the jewelry. Brenner is selling their work this week in Textor Hall to recognize World AIDS Day, which will be observed tomorrow.
From this week alone, Brenner has already collected nearly $200 in sales and donations, with many students promising to come back later in the week. Since the beginning of the semester, she has sold more than $1,000 worth of jewelry.
The jewelry is made by a group of women in Durban, South Africa, called the Hannah Beadwork Project. Each piece sells for $15 to $75 — more than double what it costs to make the pieces. The women are paid fair wages at standards much higher than their other jobs.
Each piece of jewelry is distinctive and colorful — a mixture of traditional Zulu technique and modern bohemian fashion — and comes with a card detailing where the money goes. The profits are split between the women and Thembanathi, a nonprofit organization created in 2005 by two students at Wesleyan University to fund the preschool and various summer camps, programs and education projects.
The Holy Cross Hospice runs the preschool, which is located in a rural area of the province of Kwa-Zulu Natal named Gingindlovu. It was built specifically for children orphaned by AIDS ages 3 to 7. Brenner and her mother initially became involved in selling the jewelry through her brother’s connection to Thembanathi and through his own work in Darfur.
Sister Priscilla Dlamini, who runs the hospice, told Brenner that many of the people she encounters in her education mission don’t understand the disease or how it is spread. Between providing health care and hot meals to children and building homes for families torn apart by AIDS, the cost of the Holy Cross Hospice runs high.
According to Thembanathi — “hope with us” in Zulu — the adult prevalence rate for testing HIV positive in South Africa is 21.5 percent. This has left 1.1 million children with only one or no parents, and if the rate continues, every third child in the country could be orphaned by 2010.
“It tears into you. You can’t ignore it,” Brenner said. “I look at their pictures every day. It’s hard to be home and see how fortunate we are in this country.”
She said nearly all of the school’s students are orphans who live in households headed by their older siblings. In addition to teaching basic skills, the school provides a safe environment for the orphans while older children attend their own classes.
“I had done a lot of reading and research,” Amy Brenner said. “I was not shocked by what we saw, but there’s no way to know what is going on without seeing it — to see the children, to see where they live, to see the poverty. It was quite the life-altering experience.”
Sarah Brenner said she was initially worried the African children would see her as a “rich, white American.” But when she opened a book, the children clamored to sit next to her, pointing at pictures and eager to show her what they learn in school.
Brenner’s mother and family friends Nancy and Emily Fox traveled with her to South Africa and organized small sales groups. In the past eight months, the group of four has collected $21,176. Brenner said this work has given her a chance to help people — something she’d always wanted to do, but never had the outlet for.
“It sounds kind of cheesy, but I had always been trying to search for something to make meaning of my life at college and I had been searching for some sort of passion,” she said.
Friends have become familiar with her trip, have bought the jewelry and said they can tell how the trip affected her. Senior Helen Halpern, Brenner’s roommate who studied in Ghana, has seen how the trip has affected Brenner.
“I think it’s an important thing she’s doing,” Halpern said. “She starts talking about what she’s doing and you become engaged in the project. It’s great to have a connection to the cause.”
Brenner said her experience will ultimately affect her future. Since the experience, she changed her major’s concentration to focus on health and education. She hopes to find work with a nonprofit organization or even go back to South Africa help more people affected by the AIDS epidemic.
“This is where my passion lies, helping to give these children have a chance, with at least an education as a start,” she said.