SEP–DEC 2009

10/16 10/19

Toronto, Canada


.....Padilla, who has four adult children, is going home this week to her other house: a three-bedroom one in Lusaka that she shares with 16 children, two house mothers and, during the daytime, a teacher. The house, in a middle-class neighborhood, is an orphanage that Padilla started after she read a newspaper article in July 1999 about hundreds of children who were going hungry because their parents had died of AIDS and a local social service agency couldn’t feed them.

The story stirred the maternal instinct in Padilla, who figured at the least she could feed a hundred or so children. At that time, Padilla was a receptionist at a law firm, and in the past has been a paralegal, a bookstore owner and director of the environmental organization Women for Sustainable Technology.

History of activism

“I have  always been an activist. I helped set up a branch of the Food Bank and was always working with hunger and the homeless, so when I read about homeless children starving in the streets, I thought ‘I could do something to make an impact on 100 children’s lives’ and it grew from there,” Padilla said.

Padilla obtained the name of a YWCA leader in Lusaka, asked all her friends for donations, and charged the rest of her travel costs. She soon had supporters on both sides of the Atlantic, formed the non-profit Zambian Children’s Fund, rented a home, won government approval to take in orphans, and by last May, began feeding and clothing children who had been abandoned or left with neighbors or grandmothers coping with dozens of orphaned grandchildren. In September, she hired a teacher. “The children just love it. They are ecstatically happy to be in a place with three meals a day and where they can take a bath every day,” Padilla said.

Adult Zambians are generally supportive but a bit embarrassed that an outsider is helping with what they feel is their responsibility. However, Padilla notes, practically every family in the country of 9 million has taken in numerous orphans and many are overwhelmed. The country’s economy has been hit hard by falling copper prices and its middle class has been ravaged by AIDS, malaria and cholera. The nation’s revered founding president, Kenneth Kaunda, recently acknowledged that he has AIDS.

Baby now thriving

Soon after Padilla opened the Chishawasha Children’s home, police brought her a listless, silent two-year-old boy, Daniel. At first he was terrified to see a white woman and cried when she tried to hold him, but now is thriving and speaks in three languages.

Padilla typically spends many hours at government offices or interviewing teachers and potential residents and witnesses heartbreaking poverty throughout the city, but says the children at home always restore her energy. “These kids are such a bright, happy kids. It is a joy to live with them. I could not survive in Zambia, seeing poverty and disease, except that when you go home to 16 children, they will have none of your despair.  They will only be happy to see you and will be living children’s lives. Children are always happy and hopeful when you put them into a happy space,” Padilla said.

Singing culture

“It is a singing culture. They teach me to sing (in Bemba and Nyanga). These kids sing in harmony. When they are washing the dinner dishes, they start singing spontaneously. They immediately pick up the harmony. It’s just amazing,” Padilla said.

The children all learn English, Zambia’s official language, and Bemba and Nyanga, the two most common languages in Lusaka. Some also speak Tonga and Xosha, which features clicking sounds.

Among the surprises for Padilla: how dispirited and passive many adults have become in a country where the average income is $300 a year. She has found herself acting as a role model for adults in problem-solving and goal-setting.

One of her joys is the enthusiasm of children who comply unhesitatingly with the ”do housework to eat” rule, including the boys, who learn to cook.

Padilla struggles to learn the local languages and says “these children absolutely cannot understand how stupid I am. I have learned not to ask the older kids how to say anything. They insist on teaching me in three languages. They can’t understand how I can’t understand three languages. So I learn from the 2-year-old, who repeats himself, though I don’t know what language he’s speaking. When I ask them a question in a Zambian language, they laugh uproariously at the concept of a white woman speaking an indigenous language. Very few whites have ever done that. I said to one girl, ‘Do you understand what I am saying’ and she burst out laughing for five minutes,” Padilla said.

Padilla spends much of her time in the United States speaking to church and service groups, like the Rotarians and Soroptimists, doing fundraising.

In order to help care for her staff and children, Padilla spent a recent weekend studying BioMagnetic Touch Healing, an easy-to-learn form of body work offered by the International Foundation of BioMagnetics in Tucson. I enjoyed learning [BioMagnetc] Touch Healing and hope to use it when possible with the children and maybe teach some of the older girls. Although we do have a volunteer doctor, he is not always available, and frequently medicines/drugs are not available at all,” Padilla said.

Budget from donations

Nearly all of her $1,500-a-month budget comes from small individual donors. So far, three Green Valley couples have donated to her efforts. Padilla takes pains to point out that she is not wealthy or extraordinary, just determined. “Occasionally people try to turn me into a saint. I’m just a mom who loves children. My children are grown and this is something I could do. I decided to do something and did it. I am not an extraordinary person.” Padilla said.

Padilla’s goals during this stay in Zambia include hiring two more top-quality teachers so the school, which started in September, can educate, feed and clothe 60 day students who have shelter elsewhere, but desperately need clothes, meals and school supplies.

Many children have missed school for years and need remedial help to reenter public schools. Padilla wants to make the school competitive with American schools, so her orphans will be able to apply to colleges worldwide. Longer-term goals are to build 60 homes and to farm a 100 acre plot the ZCF has bought near Lusaka. For these expanded goals, the fund needs about $20,000 to $25,000 a year. It also needs clothes, quality household and gardening and farming implements, and anything else that would help in operating a farm, school and orphanage.

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