By Jeremy Shepherd, North Shore News
Lynn Valley mother Debbie Pearmain was preparing for her trip to an orphanage in Zambia when she reflected that it might be nice to bring something for the children. Maybe soccer gear. The neighbourhood answered.
“Within three days my carport was flooded,” she says, recalling the cleats and jerseys piled up near her door.
Of course, she would need some way to transport all that gear, she reflected again.
The neighbourhood answered. A few days later, Pearmain found a couple gargantuan hockey bags that would be perfect for the trip. But bringing that much stuff, she realized, wouldn’t be cheap. And for a third time, the neighbourhood responded, this time chipping in $500 in shipping costs. Pearmain and family were ready for their flight.
It’s been more than 20 years since the AIDS crisis left Zambia with the highest proportion of orphaned children in the world, according to the United Nations. More recently, Zambia’s health minister reported a dip in the national HIV rates but suggested there remained pockets of the region where the HIV rate remained at about 16 per cent.
Pearmain says she could see the devastation – almost from the moment she and her family left the airport.
“You’re immediately confronted by just the desperation of the child homelessness crisis,” she recalls.
At the first red light she saw children surround the vehicle. Children as young as six were banging on the windows.
“They weren’t looking for money,” Pearmain clarifies. “They were looking for food.”
The trip from the airport to the Project Samuel orphanage was about three hours, Pearmain says, recalling the open plains and the dirt road they followed.
The orphanage, she says, was “an oasis.”
And for the next two weeks, Pearmain and her family met the children, toured the classrooms, and spent time with Kim Close.
Zambian orphans Harriet Kanyaku and Judy Maluba sport their first soccer jerseys and cleats.
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It was more than two years ago now that Close took her first trip out to Zambia. Her future husband, Brenden Vowell, was planning to devote himself to the country and the orphanage.
“I knew I liked him,” Close says. “But to be in the middle of Zambia, I needed to see this place first.”
Seeing the orphanage was life changing, she reports. She’d had reservations about an orphanage, an institution she invariably associated with Little Orphan Annie and sad-eyed children packed into dormitories. But what she saw and felt in Zambia was completely alien to her expectations.
“I came and I experienced a family,” she says.
Close talks about a young girl who arrived in “a rough place.” The girl screamed. She cut her clothes. But at 16, she’s excelling in school, Close says, calling her: “the kindest, nicest, most respectful teenage girl around.”
There are 24 children divided between three buildings – each supervised by a house mother – at Project Samuel.
There’s no fridge, Close says. Like the surrounding villages: they wash clothes by hand and cook over open fires.
The mornings and afternoons are largely occupied with school while the evenings are reserved for soccer games and late-night songs.
“When I first got here I said: ‘OK, I’ll take a month and build a relationship and then I’ll make a schedule,” Close recalls.
Two years later she’s no closer to crafting a schedule.
“I don’t think I ever will,” she laughs. “Time is so relative here.”
Day to day, the focus is on making sure there’s enough food and clothing and that the vehicles are running. But in the longer term, the orphanage is about raising children.
“The project is really about raising up young Zambians to be leaders in their own country,” Close says.
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It’s an idea North Vancouver school district superintendent Mark Pearmain tried to underline.
“It’s possible that I’m standing here in front of the future president of Zambia,” he remembers telling the students.
Along with Debbie and the couple’s two children, Pearmain toured classrooms and talked with students and teachers. Sometimes the conversation was about curriculums and the finer points of teaching geography. But largely it was about the value of learning.
“Education is the great equalizer. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, it doesn’t matter if you’re male or female,” Pearmain says.
Argyle student Hope Pearmain shares a moment with the children of Project Samuel.
The schools were cement buildings largely without desks, books, pens or pencils, Debbie reports. The children sit on the floor, eyes trained on the blackboard, memorizing all they can.
“If you could see the state of the schools, it’s really depressing,” she says.
With the help of businesses like SmithWerks Carpet and Upholstery Care and Venue Kings, the Pearmains contributed $6,000 to the orphanage, Debbie reports.
Pearmain says he was struck by the similarities of the Zambian teachers and North Vancouver teachers.
“They just want to see what they can do for their kids. They want to see their kids succeed,” he says.
There’s also a desire among the teachers to improve in their craft and become better educators, he says.
“It took me back,” Pearmain says of those days spent talking to students.
He hadn’t been teaching in a classroom for a while, he says. But in front of blackboards and sometimes in the shade of trees he talked to kids about setting goals and being leaders. That’s not to say they’ll all be future presidents, he notes. But there’s also no reason that couldn’t happen. The Pearmains are currently planning their next trip to Zambia.
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Discussing the sight of the children playing soccer under a slowly darkening sky, Close is sure she made the right decision. She misses the luxuries of home and the easy conversations she used to have with native English speakers.
“I miss mountains and oceans absolutely desperately,” she says.
“But I love that I’m living for more than myself out here.”