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The need to serve

By Vicki Bennington, Alton Telegraph

918 days ago   Article ID# 1520328
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African Vision of Hope

ALTON, PENNSYLVANIA (Alton Telegraph) - Nearly a dozen years ago, Bob and Judi Bertels heard firsthand what life in a Third World country is really like, and along the way, they discovered a passion for helping others that has become their life.

The seed that was planted and ultimately grew into African Vision of Hope began to take root when the Glen Carbon couple met a boy who was part of a Zambian choir that performed at their church in Maryville. As the boy went on his way, the Bertels gave him their telephone number, so he could stay in touch.

As it turned out, the man who brought the choir to the United States did so as part of a business scheme that didn’t deliver the relief help that was promised, and when the choir members found themselves in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services, the young man called the Bertels and ended up coming to live in their home.

“His father died of AIDS, and as we talked with him, got to know him and began to learn about the problems in Zambia, we knew we wanted to do something,” Judi Bertels said. “We began to educate ourselves more and more about the problems in sub-Saharan Africa and looked for ways to help.”

It started small with provisions of AIDS medication, sending a man to the seminary in Zambia and opening the first small school in 2003 in Kabulonga with 24 children in first and second grades in a former tavern with a dirt floor on government-donated swamp land. Each year, another grade and classroom was added as the students advanced. And now, the 2012 class will be the first to graduate.

There now are four AVOH schools in Zambia — the other three in Chongwa, Chingola and Kafue — with a total of 980 children. Other relief efforts include an orphanage, medical clinic, food program and a 40-acre farm where residents are being trained in sustainability, other skills and spiritual growth.

“The area around that school is now thriving, and all aspects of help are so important,” Bertels said. “They’re like the spokes of a wheel that all go together.”

If people don’t have enough food and water, they aren’t healthy, then they can’t walk to school, then they can’t get a job. Everything builds on the other.

“This organization was built on a strong faith in God and prayer. I don’t think I would have survived without both,” Bertels said. “This kind of work requires an extreme amount of faith, and we are humbly serving in our efforts.”

She said her husband, Bob, is extremely passionate about AVOH and the people of Zambia.

“He does so much — and it’s 24/7 for him. He’s always thinking about what we can do and how we can help,” she said.

“AVOH is our life,” Judi Bertels said. “I believe if God puts a passion in your life, it only gets stronger with challenges. It doesn’t waver.”

The Bertels have four daughters and one son, who are very involved in the organization and have all made several trips to Zambia. Bertels herself has made eight mission trips, and this month, she and her daughter, Anna, Peter Cole, Tracey Swineford, and Byron and Marti Heape will make the journey to talk with teachers, provide leadership training and work on the child sponsorship program.

Bertels said AVOH’s goal is to provide an opportunity to break the cycle of poverty. By building schools to educate the children, they can become self-sufficient. The Threads of Hope sewing program and other training helps adults learn real-life skills. AVOH focuses on spiritual and social needs, too, and extends assistance in all areas regardless of religious beliefs, gender, race or ethnic background. Along with building schools for the children, they provide books, school supplies, uniforms made through the sewing program, shoes and other clothing, more than 30,000 meals a month, and educate the community on HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention.

“AVOH is constantly growing; you never ‘arrive,’” she said. “You have to remain teachable yourself, flexible and always remain a servant of the effort. We’ve developed along with the organization.”

The work has been an ever-learning experience for the Bertels and all who have been involved with the relief efforts. They talk to people in Zambia and other relief organizations, and read everything they can about the cultures and customs, but Bertels said there’s nothing that can substitute for actually spending time there, talking with residents and learning and observing their lives firsthand.

“We aren’t trying to make them American. We are trying to provide hope that can empower them,” she said. “We want them to have options and to feel that they are all somebody that matters, too.”

One of the most important things the children learn in school is English, which is the country’s official language. There are 70 different tribal languages, with one that is commonly shared, but learning English in school gives them a chance to find jobs, and to learn to read and write. And while there are government schools in the country, they are not free, and most families can’t afford the tuition and uniform cost.

“The AVOH schools have given children hope for the future,” Bertels said. “Without hope, you don’t have anything. And I’ve seen the change from hopeless to hopeful in their faces.”

In Zambia, 50 percent of the population is under the age of 15. Few men are over the age of 30; 70 percent of the population is illiterate. There are 12 million AIDS orphans in sub-Saharan Africa. Homes are filled with multiple generations raising nieces or nephews or others who have lost their parents to AIDS, and there’s not enough food to go around.

“They have basically lost an entire generation to AIDS,” Bertels said.

AVOH has built relationships with community leaders in Africa, partnering to identify ways to improve the daily living conditions, particularly for the children.

While everyone can’t make the trip to Zambia, AVOH is involved in a number of projects that people can participate in stateside. The most basic needs are nutrition and clean water. AVOH is drilling wells at the school sites to provide clean water, and eliminating the need to walk for hours to find it. Nutritional efforts, along with the skills training and school, take time, manpower and ongoing funds.

To support some of the projects, individuals or groups can make one-time donations, sponsor a child from one of the schools, attend one of the annual, local fund-raising events, participate in a mission trip, volunteer at the local office, or pray for AVOH’s work and the people in Zambia.

“And one person can make a difference,” Bertels said. “You can’t change the world, but you can change the world for one person.

“Sponsoring a child is one of the most rewarding things you can do, because you can follow his or her progress and write letters back and forth,” she said.

Some sponsors later have gone on a mission trip and have been able to meet the children. Sponsorship is $30 per month, which helps provide food and clean water, education and spiritual growth.

The Interact Club of Edwardsville is working with AVOH in a letter-writing campaign at Edwardsville High School to raise money that will help promote literacy in Africa, as well as provide caps and gowns for the first graduating class and further the curriculum of other grade levels. At a recent event, EHS students had the chance to become a pen pal with a student in Zambia.

For those interested in learning more about AVOH, the Bertels will come and explain what it’s all about and how people can help with relief efforts and much-needed sponsorships.

Another mission trip is scheduled for August. Upcoming fund-raising events include the fourth annual golf tournament on June 23, the second annual trivia night on Sept. 29, and the sixth annual gala and auction on Oct. 25.

The organization’s office is located at No. 8 Professional Park Drive in Maryville. For more information about AVOH or upcoming events, or to volunteer, make a donation or join AVOH on a mission trip, visit www.africanvisionofhope.org, call (618) 288-7695 or send an email to info@africanvisionofhope.org.

Copyright 2014 Alton Telegraph   (Copyright Terms)
Updated 918 days ago   Article ID# 1520328

African Vision of Hope    Visit Website

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