The nation of Botswana, Africa is endangered by a health crisis of catastrophic proportions. One in every four people living in Botswana is infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. In 1965, the life expectancy in Botswana was 65 years; by 2005, AIDS had cut that life span to a mere 40.
Children are not immune to the ravages of the disease. Botswana is home to more children orphaned by AIDS than any other nation on earth. Some 93,000 children have lost at least one parent; many of the children are infected from birth themselves.
For Allison Hunter and Kasey Ambrose, these statistics are more than just numbers. They are the haunted eyes, the pain-filled faces, and the tiny, outstretched hands of the children of Botswana. Taking Christ's call to care for orphans and widows to heart, Hunter and Ambrose left all they knew in America behind to relocate 8,541 miles away to the small city of Lobatse, Botswana, where they are sharing a message of hope with children living in the Valley of the Shadow.
Hunter and Ambrose, both 23, are the founders of the Orphan Care Center, a program that provides 10 orphaned and vulnerable children in Lobatse, Botswana, with a daily meal, a safe place to play games or sing songs, and a loving touch they might not experience at any other time or place in their lives. Most importantly, the Orphan Care Center offers children hope in the love of Christ and training in the Word of God. In a country marked by death and despair, the Orphan Care Center is equipping the smallest and weakest to become a new generation of strong spiritual leaders.
"There is such a loss of hope that comes from contracting AIDS. Everyone here in Botswana either has AIDS or has watched a friend or relative die from it," Hunter says. "But there is a reason to live, even if you are HIV positive, or your parents are dead, or you don't know who will take care of you tomorrow. There is always hope in Christ, and that hope is what Kasey and I are here to share."
While HIV treatment is made free to every citizen of Botswana by the government, the stigma attached to the disease means some people do not seek treatment for themselves or for the children in their care. For many of those suffering from AIDS, death — even the death of a child — is preferable to bearing the stigma that comes with the disease. The suicide rate is high; many people who find they are HIV positive kill themselves rather than face the shame of living and the agony of dying of AIDS.
Children here have little opportunity for a childhood. It is not unusual to find young children caring for their sick parents, and after their parents die, caring for their younger siblings. The streets of Lobatse are filled with small children carrying even smaller children on their backs, sometimes pushing them in wheelbarrows to clinics for HIV drugs.
In this daunting place, at a time in life when most of their friends are taking their first steps up the career ladder or sending out wedding invitations, Hunter and Ambrose are fulfilling a calling that brought them together and led them to Botswana.
"This is my purpose," Ambrose says. "I have joy, peace, and a sense of comfort in my heart knowing this is exactly where I am supposed to be."
One in every four adults in Botswana — some 300,000 people — has AIDS or is positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
The life expectancy in Botswana in 1965 was 65. The life expectancy in Botswana in 2005 was 40.
Botswana is home to more children orphaned by AIDS than any other nation on earth. An estimated 93,000 children have lost at least one parent to AIDS.
The cost of medical care, loss of income due to illness or death, and funeral expenses have pushed families and entire communities into poverty.
The economic output of the country as a whole has been reduced by the loss of workers and their skills.
In 2009, Allison Hunter spent five months in Botswana working with Hands-On, a program of the International Mission Board (IMB) that connects college students with missions worldwide.
"Our focus was on church planting, but the house where I stayed was across the street from this rundown orphan care center," Hunter recalls. "In the afternoons, I would go there and play with the kids. The truest relationships I formed in Botswana were with those children. Of everything I did during those five months, when I returned home, that's what I kept thinking about — those children."
Kasey Ambrose heard the call to Africa when she was just 15 years old. Ambrose sponsored a child in Tanzania through a missions program. The little girl was an AIDS orphan and was infected with the disease herself, prompting Ambrose to research the issue of AIDS and orphans in Africa.
"The Lord put the children of Africa on my heart," Ambrose says. "I didn't have any idea how I would get there, but I began saving money to go to Africa."
Five years later, during her sophomore year at Mississippi College, Ambrose received the opportunity she'd been praying for in the form of a college student mission to Botswana organized through First Baptist Church Jackson.
"From the minute I got on the plane, I felt peace," Ambrose recalls. "I was finally going to the place I knew I had been called to be."
Ambrose spent much of that two-week mission trip ministering to children in an AIDS orphan center.
"When I got back home, I kept seeing those children's eyes," Ambrose says. "I would think about specific children that I had held and how I'd told them everything would be okay..." Ambrose's voice breaks as her own blue eyes fill with tears. "Their eyes, their faces wouldn't leave my mind. I had this uneasiness in my heart. All I could think was, 'Lord, I have to go back.'"
When Ambrose had the opportunity to participate in another mission trip to Botswana in 2009, she jumped at the opportunity, this time staying for three months. During that time, Ambrose met Hunter, who was there with Hands-On. The two became friends, returning for more mission work in Botswana together the following year.
"This time when I came home, it wasn't a sad feeling, it was more of a battle, an adrenaline rush," Ambrose recalls. "The problem there with the orphans was so big. I kept asking God how He could use me to help solve it. I prayed that He would equip me to go back and make a difference."
Allison Hunter was also struggling with the sense of an unfulfilled calling.
"Kasey and I both felt there was an unfinished chapter waiting for us in Africa."
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
While still working to complete their elementary education degrees at MC, Hunter and Ambrose began researching what they could do to make an impact for Christ in Botswana. One of their favorite meeting sites was Barnes & Noble, where they had access to both coffee and an entire shelf full of books on how to build a ministry from the ground up.
There, in the bookstore, on a Subway napkin, they wrote out the description of their vision – a self-sustaining orphan care center in Lobatse, supported by the local church and run by local women. That scribbled dream became the outline for a proposal the women submitted to the International Mission Board. Less than two months later, they received a response. The IMB wanted them to return to Lobatse.
"Right then, we got down on our knees and prayed that the Lord would give us strength beyond our own," Hunter recalls. "We knew that just the two of us right out of college didn't have much to offer beyond what God would equip us with. Then went out and got garlic bread sticks to celebrate."
What emerged was a partnership between Hunter and Ambrose, the IMB, and the Lobatse Baptist Church in Botswana. Hunter and Ambrose committed to spend a minimum of two years in Lobatse to establish an orphan care program. While they would receive no financial support from IMB, Hunter and Ambrose would live in a comfortable house on a mission compound in Lobatse for a modest monthly rental fee, and have the security of knowing they were considered part of the IMB team in Botswana.
The pastor and congregation of Lobatse Baptist Church agreed to allow the women to operate the Orphan Care Center out of the small church and to pay three local women a modest stipend — approximately $225 in U.S. dollars per month for all three — to work with Hunter and Ambrose to establish and operate the program. Hunter and Ambrose would serve as volunteer leaders, raising their own support and receiving no compensation from the church.
In January of 2012, after graduating from MC and raising two years worth of living expenses, Hunter and Ambrose returned to Botswana.
"We knew this was the beginning of the biggest adventure of our lives," Hunter says. "We didn't know exactly where the next two years would take us or what would happen after that, but we knew that trying to do something was better than doing nothing."
Hunter and Ambrose realized the key to building a lasting ministry would be rooting that ministry in the local church.
"People from outside Botswana come with the best of intentions," Hunter says. "They build brand new facilities and start new programs, but the local people think of it as that person's program, not as their own. When that person or group leaves, the building falls into disrepair and the ministry ends. And if too much help comes from outside, the people here say, 'Oh, we have to have help, we don't really have anything to offer ourselves.'
"Mine and Kasey's goal wasn't to start the Allison and Kasey Orphan Care Center. It was to empower the women in Lobatse to start an orphan care center with their own knowledge and resources and the love they have in their hearts," Hunter continues. "They are capable of doing it — more so than we are. They know this country, its culture, its language, and its children, and they've grown up in its problems. All they needed was someone to tell them they could do it."
Hunter and Ambrose's faith was tested when Hunter hung a sign-up sheet in the Lobatse Baptist Church inviting local women interested in working on the project to sign up for interviews. She left 10 spaces on the sheet.
Not a single woman signed up.
"We'd go back every day to check and see nothing," Hunter recalls. "One day, I just stood staring at that blank sheet of paper. All I could think about was all of the people who had invested in us, and I thought, 'What are we doing? This is never going to happen. We're not going to find one person, let alone three, who is willing to do this.' I went home and wrote in my journal that night, 'Maybe I should have just stayed home.'
"Three days later, five women had signed up," Hunter continues. "One woman had already quit her job in hopes of joining our team. She was willing to risk it, she told me, because the Lord had told her to work with us. I realized He had been working in their hearts before their names were ever on my list."
Three local women, Josephine Chiparra, Boipelo Segadika, and Neo Eteetsang, were chosen for the program. Key to training the women was instilling in them a sense of their own worth. Born into lives of struggle with little education and very limited resources, the women initially felt they had little to offer. Their work with the Orphan Care Center has changed that.
Boipelo Segadika is a single mother with three children who left a steady job in a printing shop to be a part of the Orphan Care Center. Before finding work at the print shop, Boipelo had known extreme poverty; at times, she confesses, she thought of killing her children and then herself rather than watch them die of sickness or starvation. Boipelo's faith in God saw her through those dark times, and it is that faith she now shares with the children of Lobatse.
"I am not so very educated, but I am educated enough to share the Word of God. I am not ashamed to say that God is good," Boipelo says. "When I left my job to work with Allison and Kasey, people laughed at me. They asked me who would provide for my children. I said, 'God will provide.'"
Tall and slim with high cheekbones and warm brown eyes, Josephine Chiparra is strikingly beautiful. But Josephine grew up with a father who beat and belittled her, telling her that she was ugly, stupid, and worthless. Josephine recalls fleeing to the bush to cry.
"I needed love, but there was no love," Josephine says, her eyes filling with tears. "Then I came to know Christ, and I knew the things my father said to me were not true. I knew that Christ loved me. Now I am so happy to tell these children they are loved and can do anything through Christ. Even when there is suffering, if you know Christ, you have hope."
With no money for the bus, Josephine walks the five miles from her home to the church and back every day to share that hope with the orphaned children.
"These orphans feel alone or rejected because their parents have been killed by HIV," Josephine says. "They have no clothes, they go to sleep with nothing to eat. We will make sure they have food and something to put on, but the most important thing is to tell them that God is their loving Father. I don't have a lot of money to offer, but what I have to give is love."
At 23, Neo Eteetsang is the youngest of the three women. Her dream is to be a part of a ministry that will change the future of her country. "I would like to see this ministry change the lives of children in Lobatse, to help them become children who know God. God chose us to do this work, to let these children know that He loves them."
"One of the most exciting things has been to see the women come to believe in this project," Hunter says. "One day Kasey and I overheard them talking. One of them said, 'I think this ministry could change Lobatse.' Then another said, 'No, this ministry could change Botswana.' Then the third said, 'No. Our ministry is going to change Africa.'"
Hunter and Ambrose turned a knack for sewing into a fund-raising opportunity for the Orphan Care Center. The women asked a tailor in Lobatse if they could purchase small pieces of the costly, traditional African tribal fabric left over from his dressmaking, explaining that they planned to turn the scraps into hand- sewn headbands they could sell. When the tailor learned they planned to use the funds raised to support the Orphan Care Center, he donated bags full of the colorful fabric to their cause. Allison, Kasey, Josephine, Boipelo, and Neo spent hours stitching each unique headband, then sold the headbands locally to buyers who not only appreciated their craftsmanship, but also their mission.
With their team in place, Hunter and Ambrose were ready to welcome the children.
Immediately upon arriving in Lobatse, the women had written a letter to the City Council asking for official approval of their program and help in choosing 10 children to register as its participants. The women deliberately limited the number of children to 10, realizing that keeping the number manageable would be critical to providing food and meeting other physical needs, and also to building a personal relationship not only with each child, but also with that child's siblings and caregivers.
While they waited for approval, Hunter, Ambrose, and their team of local women filled the long weeks ministering to the children in the neighborhood surrounding the church and to groups of "street kids" who roamed Lobatse, engaging them in games of soccer, serving them peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and introducing them to the Word of God.
Then in late May, after five months of waiting, the children of the Orphan Care Center arrived.
"Finding out that we would finally be getting our children was one of the best moments of my life," Hunter says. "The first little boy I met was Thabang. I was speaking to his caretaker — both his parents died of AIDS — when he came around the corner. I don't know what it feels like to be a new mother, but that was the greatest joy I've ever experienced.
"The first day was incredible," Hunter continues. "The children were all very shy and quiet. They have a lot of pain in their lives, and you can see that in the way they carry themselves, but they are also normal kids. They love to play soccer and they love to hold your hand."
"I feel so much love for these children. I see them walking down the street and my heart is just filled with love for them," Ambrose says. "The children here in Botswana don't get touched. They don't get held. When I see these children who are hurting or suffering, my first response is to say, 'Come here, let me hold you.' I want them to know that I'm right here. I'm close. I'm not leaving you, and if you need me, I'll be here."
The children, who range in ages from six to 10 years old, walk to the Lobatse Baptist Church every afternoon after school, where Hunter, Ambrose, Josephine, Boipelo, and Neo serve them a meal, then spend three to four hours singing songs, playing games, sharing Bible stories, and praying with them. At the end of the day Hunter and Ambrose walk them home, a ritual Hunter describes as "my favorite part of the day," where they might have an opportunity to minister to the children's caregivers or siblings. The plan is for the children to participate in the program until they are 12 years old — enough time to build lasting relationships and a strong spiritual foundation.
Despite all they had seen and experienced on previous missions to Botswana, Hunter says she "had no idea how bad the children's situations would be." The children are desperately poor; when served their first meal, Hunter says, "They were so hungry. We piled their plates so high, I felt certain none of them would finish the meal. Two of our tiniest little girls went back for another huge plate." Two of the little boys sleep on the floor of a "tuck shop," a tiny shed-like building used for selling food, in a relative's front yard. Another child's entire wardrobe consists of two pairs of panties and a single, hand-me-down dress. One little boy will barely speak or make eye contact; his grandmother explains that he stopped communicating after his parents died.
Hunter and Ambrose believe that at least five of their 10 children have AIDS. One little girl has already suffered a heart attack triggered by taking HIV medicine without food. She is nine years old. A little boy has trouble walking; he is covered in sores that the women suspect were caused by a sexually transmitted disease.
"He is so tiny and innocent, and he has no idea," Hunter says. "Mixed with all of the excitement, there are deep pangs of sadness. Some of our children may not have very long."
Just outside the walls of the mission compound where Hunter and Ambrose live is a cemetery, a constant reminder of the epidemic that threatens the children they have come to love. Every week in Lobatse sees yet another funeral, yet another child left parentless. The harsh reality is that some of the 10 children with whom Hunter and Ambrose sing cheerful songs, play silly games, and share cookies will not live to adulthood.
"I have thought about what it will be like if one of them dies," Ambrose says. "It ignites a fire in me to want to share the love of Christ with them even more. I want to know that if they are going to die, they know Christ. I want to know that I will see them again one day in Heaven. That gives me hope."
Allison Hunter and Kasey Ambrose are working in Botswana strictly as volunteers, and must raise their own support. A fund for the Orphan Care Center has been established at First Baptist Church Jackson. Please send tax-deductible donations to:
Lobatse Orphan Care Center
c/o First Baptist Church
431 North State Street
Jackson, MS 39201
Please make checks payable to First Baptist Jackson and include "Lobatse Orphan Care Center" in the memo line.
While gifts of any size are welcomed, the women stress that what they need the most is prayer. "If you offered us a check for $10,000 or your prayers, honestly, we'd rather have your prayers," Hunter says. "We know we can accomplish more through prayer here in two years than we could in a thousand years through our own efforts."