Visitor Von Shade-Zeldow Shares Her Experience at Cabrini Ministries Swaziland

Hi Everyone,
We wanted to share with you a piece written by Von Shade-Zeldow, from our Chicago-area Cabrini community, who just returned to the US after spending six weeks with us here in Swaziland, sharing her skills as a clinical psychologist to help children and staff. We deeply thank you Von for your visit and your great work here.

Von writes:

“I have just completed an amazing and powerful journey to Cabrini Ministries in Swaziland. Sisters Barbara and Diane were my supportive guides and directors of my experience as I dove into the world of orphaned and vulnerable children, hostel workers responsible for their care, and a healthcare team who protect and nurture hundreds of families in the lowveldt.

“As a clinical psychologist volunteering my skills and time (and supported generously by my employers in Chicago, Illinois- CINN Foundation and CINN Medical Group), I arrived in St. Philip’s with an open heart and great enthusiasm. I left six weeks later enriched by relationships with adults and children who helped me more fully appreciate the gifts in my life and the power of the human spirit to struggle for survival, health and a most rudimentary existence. My contributions were small (but hopefully sustainable) during such a short stay, but I relish the idea of returning to take up where I left off, in building a world just a bit better than before.

“On days when the “bigger picture” loomed (What will become of this country? Can people continue to rally in a landscape so desolate? Will deaths from AIDS and TB ever slow?), I reminded myself of the incredible efforts right before my eyes: 155 children who sleep safely and comfortably in beds each night and who have nourishment to face the next day, education and homeland documents provided to ensure each child is documented as a full Swazi citizen and landowner, hundreds of families served in the bush with healthcare, support, food and medication to survive the threats of illness and death, and a staff of 45 employed from the local area to help build this environment of caring and concern. In just a meager five years, Sisters Barbara and Diane have confronted the ills and consequences of a twenty-year drought and the ravaging effects of HIV/AIDS, while always remaining respectful of Swazi traditions and their importance to those they serve.

“During my stay at the mission, I worked with staff on two fronts. My time with the hostel workers who oversee the childrens’ lives each day was focused on teaching new skills, with the goal of creating for them a greater understanding of child development and the meaning and expression of loss in this vulnerable population. Staff are dedicated but have had significant ongoing challenges in their own lives prior to coming to work at Cabrini. Hence, they often have minimal skills and experiences to draw on in handling childrens’ misbehavior, sadness and need for comfort and praise. Our language barrier at times created humorous situations we will all remember. Swazi culture as a whole does not encourage open expression of positive feelings, but we worked hard to share together enough for all to see that there is always more to give should one choose to do so.

“Secondly, I was involved with the healthcare team whose responsibilities bring them to constantly confront chronic illness and death in Swazis of all ages. They are a compassionate and dedicated group of professionals who rarely if ever acknowledge the intense stress inherent in their work each day. Encouraging them to feel it was okay to share their emotions and fears, helping them to see that each and every one of them felt very similarly about their work and their patients, and giving them an outlet to grieve together and separately was a challenging task. Most importantly, these efforts will hopefully continue with the assistance of a state facilitator now available to programs providing healthcare. While everyone knew ‘stress’ as a concept when I arrived, staff as a group were unable to imagine they could have an impact in reducing the effects of stress in their lives. It was humbling to be a part of the process to empower them individually to care for themselves as well as families in the lowveldt.

“Quite by accident I fell in love with a three-year-old little boy named Menzi who was literally rescued one year ago from a homestead where he was found malnourished, developmentally delayed and near death. Today he is engaging, happy and playful. Nonetheless, when I met him, he was echolalic, repeating whatever phrases or words said to him in siSwati or English. Daily Menzi and I took walks where we spoke only English and improved his vocabulary one word at a time. I struggled to find ways to make words into responsive conversation, assuming I was getting nowhere (and having no professionals to guide by instincts). Several days before I left Swaziland, I said ‘How are you?’ to Menzi (to which he had always echoed ‘how are you?’). He looked at me and said ‘I’m fine’! I literally threw him up into the air – scaring both of us, I’m sure – and we fell into laughter the power of which cannot possibly be re-created. Each day afterward, we continued to make progress slowly. I dream that he has made progress in leaps and bounds and will someday have lots of conversations with me again. I miss him immensely.

“As a part of my experience in working with the women who are the daily caregivers for the children, I sat in on the yearly case conferences, meetings conducted to provide feedback to guardians from the homesteads and to update mission staff with any new circumstances which might affect the children in their care. As the conferences were conducted in siSwati, the staff would provide me with written summaries in English from the prior year’s meetings. Family members (often only distantly-related to the children if related at all) would arrive from many kilometers away to participate in this experience. At first, the histories struck me as so tragic as to be unlikely to have actually happened. Then it became painfully obvious that there was not one history to be told which was not marked by early loss, hunger and sadness. Early trauma and abuse were common threads of experience and not unusual events as I had once thought. It stirs my heart to know these children have found a safe haven. The dedication, caring and determination of Sisters Barbara and Diane and all their staff who join together to provide a better world for these beautiful lives in the bush of Swaziland are an inspiration to all who are touched by them.”

Blessings & love,
Srs. Barbara and Diane