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Fresno Bee Article :: Hope Rises (SE)

April.21.2009

564-swaziland

Southeast Fresno High teenagers prepared for a year to give a helping hand to the youth of Swaziland.
Friday, Apr. 17, 2009

Seven Sunnyside High School students returned this week from a spring break trip they made to southeast Africa’s Swaziland.

There, they helped start construction on two homes, build a retaining wall at a food center, dedicate a water well, provide shoes and school uniforms for children, distribute medicines and eyeglasses, and a whole lot more.

“We’re so proud of what they accomplished,” says Jason Saelzler, a local general contractor and one of 13 adults who also made the trip.

The trip was inspired by Sunnyside English teacher Matt Roper, who went on a mission trip to Swaziland in October 2007. He was so passionate about people in Swaziland that he began telling students about his trip and sharing his photos.

The students, in turn, felt a sense of compassion for people in Swaziland when it became clear that their everyday problems paled in comparison to those of the Swazis. According to the World Health Organization, about 39% of Swaziland’s population has been affected by HIV/AIDS — the highest rate in the world.

The country also faces a food crisis. It has poor water resources to cultivate gardens or to improve sanitary conditions. Decaying houses, particularly for the elderly and orphans, have been swept away by flooding.

“Everybody always knows about Africa’s problems — famine, genocide and AIDS,” says a Sunnyside student, Carlee Gomez. “With the Swaziland photos, it became personal.”

So the students told Roper they wanted to do something to help.

He advised them to launch a campus club to raise awareness. In May, the students launched the Hope Rises Campus Outreach Club and developed a campaign, “Sunnyside Gives Back.” A video about Swaziland was made and shown in nearly every classroom; students and teachers contributed $2,500 — and the money was sent to install a water well in Herefords, Swaziland.

Student leaders also set strict club guidelines, requiring members to show that they cared also about southeast Fresno. To stay active in the club, students had to perform a minimum of six hours’ community service per semester.

The club partnered with Life and Light Ministries to clean up graffiti in neighborhoods near Sunnyside. It also worked with the Every Neighborhood Partnership to play sports and games with students at Easterby Elementary School.

Students did so well racking up the hours that they decided they might as well go all the way — to Swaziland.

Roper determined the trip would cost students about $2,900 each. Although the club is nonreligious, some faith-based organizations and businesses viewed the students’ goal as a humanitarian effort and offered financial support.

To raise funds for the trip, the students also held car washes and sold $2 bracelets made by Swazi grandmothers, called “go-gos.” Money raised from the bracelets is the go-gos’ only source of income.

Seven club leaders reached their fundraising goals. Then, on April 1, they boarded a flight with the 13 adults to Swaziland for a 10-day trip.

“God completely brought this trip together,” Roper says. “Our main focus was to take care of widows and orphans, and to take care of kids.”

Ashley Hinojosa, 18, a senior, says she was emotionally touched by the Swazi children — some healthy, some not.

The health of a boy, Zetau Dhlamini, who had a head sore and burnt feet, caused her to weep. “And I don’t like to cry,” she says. “But I totally fell in love with him.”

The Fresno group paid school fees for 75 elementary school children and provided uniforms and shoes for kids in several schools. The students also distributed clothing to 600 other students. Saelzler says he saw a lot of bonding.

“It was apparent how a person’s touch — a hug, a high-five — has instant value in their lives,” he remembers.

Alexandria Desiga, 18, a senior, and others had written pen-pal letters to Swazi kids before the trip. And, in Swaziland, Alexandria got to meet her pen pal, a student in the sixth grade.

“She was so nervous,” Alexandria remembers. “She learned some English. I was just so happy to meet her.”

Anaica Rodriguez, 16, a junior, says she treasures an opportunity to talk with Swazi youth also in high school. The Swazi youth had difficulty understanding the Sunnyside students’ year-long preparation for the trip, particularly the community service.

“They couldn’t believe the work we did was for free,” remembers Anaica, adding the youth agreed that they may work in their community also for free.

Sayra Espinosa, 17, a senior, says: “They saw how far we traveled to come to them, and they decided to get others more involved in their community.”

Students also gathered at a special dedication, when a Swazi pastor, Absalom, prayed for the water well paid for by Sunnyside students and teachers and the children at Northwest Church’s vacation Bible school. The well will provide fresh water for 600 people in two sub-communities as well as for crops.

Roper says he is just happy that Sunnyside students now can share first-hand accounts of Swaziland to others.

“This team couldn’t have done it without the last 10 months’ preparation,” he says. “All the time we spent together made the trip successful. It’ll blossom and spread. I’m excited, in southeast Fresno, what we can do next.”

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