Originally Published April 14, 2015

I stepped off the plane, collected my backpack and meandered out into the public waiting area. Joseph was there to greet me with a smile and a firm handshake. As we walked to the car he informed that it was “about a two drive to Magliesburg,” where I could buy groceries for the week, and then another 10 minutes to Botshabelo.

Apparently there was some serious miscommunication as I was told that the organization was “near Johannesburg” and had booked a hostel for the week assuming that I was commuting each day, as nothing had been said otherwise. At this point, I am unfazed.

I purchased a SIM card at the grocery store to straighten things out with the hostel as best I could, hanging up just as we pull off the paved highway and onto a long, bumpy dirt road. The group of young boys playing soccer freezes as we pass the lumpy field, instead smiling and waving at our car. The game prompted me to ask Joseph about the World Cup, and its impact on the country.

Disappointingly, he confessed that “…it was here, it was great, and now it’s gone.” While most of the money stayed in the big cities, the World Cup did touch Botshabelo for one afternoon. “Danny, one of the players on Portugal’s team came to play soccer with the kids one day ’cause they were training nearby. He stayed the whole day. He had a blast. And it meant a lot to the kids,” Joseph explained. Not a single news outlet picked up the story; most of the world will never know of this superstar’s generosity, but Botshabelo will never forget it.

I was shown to my room on the bottom floor of a nice, tidy wooden farmhouse, adjoined by a deck to a smaller, neighboring house. After I unpacked my groceries I stepped out onto the porch to soak up the sun and peer out of the now deserted soccer pitch, as a friendly woman emerges from the other house.

Volunteer guest house | Photo by Wilson Carletti (All Rights Reserved)
Volunteer guest houses | Botshabelo

Jane is getting her masters degree in social work—her semester-long internship at Botshabelo is her final project. I was supposed to have my induction meeting, but was quick to learn that hardly anything here is ever on time. Jane was kind enough to show me the ropes and took me on a quick tour of the grounds.

The Cloete family purchased this giant farm in 1990, to trade their affluent suburban neighborhood for a plot of land that knows no form of discrimination and open their new home to strangers in need of one.

Early on, the family faced plenty of obstacles, everything from startup costs to being raided by local rifle-wielding farmers who threatened the family’s lives if they continued to help “non-whites”. Today, 25 years later, Botshabelo is home to 200+ children (roughly two thirds of which have no family left and live here permanently) and another 800+ people in the village, which sits behind the school and main child-care facilities. Anyone in need of a home is welcome at Botshabelo, regardless of race, religion, gender, background, age, sexual orientation, anything. The community offers children education through 9th grade, as well as recreational sports, three meals a day, a bed, clean clothes, and a daily bath.

Botshabelo School | Photo by Wilson Carletti (All Rights Reserved)
The Botshabelo School | South Africa

Marion and her daughter Leigh were planning on coming over for tea that night, but news arrived that one of the grandmothers in the village was sick. We grabbed flashlights and made our way down the path to the village, accompanied by a group of the oldest, biggest young men, and Bothsabelo’s pack of dogs (even if you have four legs and a tail you are welcome here), several of which seem to take a real liking to visitors.

On our way there we saw a massive tarantula on the path, which Marion carefully moved into the grass (she really does love everything and everyone). As it turned out the sick elderly woman was non-compliant with her ARVs (antiretroviral drugs, which fight HIV/AIDS)—while I was to have a proper induction tomorrow, my eyes had been propped open to reality.

The following day marked six months exactly since I left home. Jane, Leigh, Marion, and I sat down in the living room of my house for my induction, only to be interrupted a few minutes in by a man from an NGO offering free circumcisions. The NGO is backed by John Hopkins University and can bring a mobile clinic to Botshabelo to perform the surgery for free.

Marion was ecstatic. Circumcision drastically reduces the risk of disease, though the only good, safe, reliable clinics are expensive. If my eyes had been propped opened last night, they were thrust wide open this morning. Sexual abuse runs rampant in the area, and while Marion and the staff are able to protect those living within the orphanage housing as best they can, children as young as seven years old are sexually active in the surrounding community.

We resumed our conversation for another 15 minutes or so before a young man appeared on the porch—minutes later he was given a home in the village. Some time after that a little boy limped into the room after scraping his knee. Marion went into “mom mode”—she dropped everything, gave him a hug, and told him to run up to the clinic to get cleaned up. I realized why my meeting never happened yesterday—the Cloetes are ambassadors, managers, facilitators, guardians, and parents. They truly love these kids.

Most of the children come from heartbreaking backgrounds—they may have been starved, raped, abused. Some have birth defects due to drugs/alcohol. Some even have HIV/AIDS. Yet each is special in his/her own way. Each is part of the family at Botshabelo.

I played soccer that afternoon. The field is littered with holes, rocks, and a few trees, but that all is just part of the game—more than anything, the young boys find pure joy in soccer. Wisdom, one of the math teachers at the school, joined in as we ran around for an hour and a half in the boiling South African sun.

5am hit me like a sack of bricks the following morning, but I dragged myself through the dim, early morning light to the massive, stale bunkroom. All of the boys were already up and hustling about, getting ready for school. Many, especially the ones I played soccer with, already knew my name and greeted me with a smile.

No matter the time of day, whenever Maza (one of the most adorable little guys I‘ve ever met) saw me, he would come running with a giant smile on his face. I broke up a dozen fights (the amount of energy that kids possess that early in the morning is astounding) and made sure that each boy did his share of chores.

Some of the older boys sat hunched over tiny, bright screens, charging their tablets, phones, etc. At first I was confused—the community barely scrapes by, how do these kids afford this kind of technology? Jane informed me that some of the kids have relatives who buy them presents.

After a conversation with Jane, I took a step back—why am I any more deserving of mindless escapism than these kids? If anything, they are the ones who deserve a break from reality.

Gift, the head teacher/principal of the school dropped by my house around noon to inform me that I would be talking to the 9th grade class about travel—the “Botshabelo Travel Channel” as Marion had coined it, aimed at showing these kids what else is out there.

I had never properly lectured or taught anything before, but I strolled into the class confidently with a rough plan in my head. I introduced myself and asked if the class wanted to see some photos. “Yes!” they replied eagerly. I sat down and roughly 30 kids piled on top of the desks peering over my shoulder as a photo of the Eiffel Tower stared back.

“Where do you want to go?” I asked.

“China!”—The Great Wall appeared on my screen. “New York!”—I found a photo of the Statue of Liberty.

We cruised through photos of Seattle, Barcelona, etc. Any photo that had to do with soccer was a hit, so I showed them more from Argentina. I stood up, closed the computer, their eyes shifting from the colorful images to me, and told them I wanted to do a writing exercise.

“Where do you want to go, and what would you do there?”

“It doesn’t even have to be a real place,” I ensured them, “use your imagination.”


Everyone was staring at me, so I drew a rough map of the world.

Nothing. I kept encouraging them to speak up.

Finally a young boy named Benjamin spoke up, “Barcelona, to watch FC Barcelona play against Real Madrid.”

Five more minutes of silence and then another girl in the front row chimed in, “I want to go to America so Rihanna can teach me how to dance.”

“Brazil to play soccer.”

“Botswana to play soccer.”

“China to see pandas.”

While the ideas started flowing, I noticed that most were very similar to each other, either borrowing what a classmate or I said. These kids are smart and independent, but they didn’t grow up being taught to be creative.

“America to work.”

I had assumed one of the kids would say something along these lines, but it hurts so much more to actually hear it. It hurts that our reality, the same reality that so many of us complain about each and everyday, is a dream for these children.

As I walked around, attempting a more individualized check-in I noticed that most either had nothing written down or had just tried to copy my drawing of the world map.

Slightly defeated I thanked them and sat down as their math teacher came in, only to learn that half of the class didn’t turn in their mid-term math exams. There is no family history of education, so there is no one to teach these children the value of education—it’s mind-blowing.

After 20 minutes or so I silently exited the classroom, whereupon I ran into Gift.

“Is it always so hard? Teaching?” I asked him.

He chuckled, “Yes, but keep in mind that Easter break starts in one week…It’s a hot afternoon…You had no chance.”

I sat down in my living room to digest what had just happened. That was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I wasn’t expecting a 30-minute life-changing classroom sequence, but Hilary Swank did make this kind of thing look way easier.

When Jane returned from town she and I took some of the kids (and a handful of dogs) on a walk up to the cemetery. We passed the tin shacks, the piles of broken glass, and continued up into the hills. As we got farther away from the village, it got quieter. The silence was refreshing. We passed through a rock formation/medicine wheel that Con (Marion’s husband) built, and through tall, straw colored grass, to the local cemetery.

Path to the local cemetery | Photo by Wilson Carletti (All Rights Reserved)
Path to the local cemetery | Botshabelo

One of the boys (who is about 9 years old) took us to his father’s grave, which he and his brother look after. The dirt was swept flat, surrounded by a small, tidy rock wall, and had bright yellow flowers in a glass bottle in the middle.

It was beautiful and raw. I have stopped counting how often I feel like crying here.

We reached the edge of the village just as a thunderstorm began rolling in. I listened to the rain pelting the roof as I drifted to sleep that night.

As usual, the next morning came too quickly, but fortunately there were less fights today. I’m exhausted—kids are tiring. I am so impressed by everyone here. I think love helps keep this place running and the desire to do the right thing. I was supposed to have a meeting later, but it never happened, so I took a nap and wrote in my journal. I noticed that the heavy metal pole that serves as the crossbar on the soccer goal had come loose and was falling off every time a ball hit it, so I enlisted Harold’s help.

Harold came to Botshabelo two years ago. He was living in Botswana when he was diagnosed with two types of cancer and AIDS. The doctors said he wasn’t going to make it, as he laid in the hospital, withering away. He successfully completed his chemo treatments so one of his best friends took him out of the hospital and down to Botshabelo. It was nine months before Harold could get out of bed on his own—Marion checked on him everyday, fed him, and gave him ARVs to keep the disease at bay.

Over a year since he took his first step out of that bed under his own power and onto the road of recovery, Harold’s T-Cells have stabilized at a healthy level and he takes care of all the maintenance here. He would like to go back to Botswana, but as he put it, “It’s hard to leave the place that literally saved your life.”

By the time we got down to the field the kids had already managed to nail the metal pole into one of the wooden side posts and were attempting to apply a metal bracket to add stability, only using rocks and their hands. We thanked them for their start as we took over with power tools; the construction leader of the group took a seat in the shade, pulled out a phone, and started playing “I’m Different” by 2Chainz.

Playing soccer | Photo by Wilson Carletti (All Rights Reserved)
Playing soccer after fixing the goals | Botshabelo

The following morning at inspection, Gift came into the bunk room to tell me that I would be teaching English at 7am, as one of the teachers had to go to a meeting in town, so I ran back to my house to throw on my only button-down shirt and a pair of khakis.

When I walked into the 2nd-grade classroom, the teacher handed me two, one-sided worksheets. “I am going to need to get creative to fill the entire hour of class,” I thought silently.

I spent 15 minutes teaching and the other 45+ attempting to restore some type of order to the state of chaos. I broke up a dozen fights. Kids were walking around, both on the floor, and on desks. Some would just get up and leave class. No one listened to me unless I yelled, and even that wasn’t a guarantee. It was the most I’ve screamed in a long time, maybe ever.

The 3rd graders were better behaved—we actually got a few things accomplished, which was really rewarding (I taught them how to read a compass on a map!). That said, there was still no shortage of fights and no shortage of shouting.

My respect for teachers grew infinitely that day. To any of my former teachers/professors that may be reading this: my hat is off to you and your profession.

I returned to my house, sweaty and tired, only to find out that while I was teaching someone had somehow broken into my house and stolen my shampoo out of the bathroom. Later that night, just as I was about to make dinner, I would learn that they also took my dry pasta.

Shampoo is cheap, but it was an eerie feeling knowing that someone had entered my house. I am not sure how they got in, as my doors/windows were locked, but fortunately they didn’t get into my room. As I mentioned before, this is the reality in which I am currently living—these kids are in survival mode. Take one particular child, for example: his dad is in jail for murder and his 12-year-old brother is a criminal/drug lord/gang member. I would say the deck is stacked against these kids, but that is a severe understatement and injustice to the situation.

The following day could not have come at a better time, as Jane and I were set to spend the day volunteering at the Rhino & Lion Nature Reserve. We entered a ‘staff only’ area, set our bags down and then set out with our new friend Dennis to feed some types of birds and antelope. We hung out with Dennis for a while—he was so excited to show us around!

At one point, he had us duck under a preliminary fence and then opened up the owl exhibit so we could see inside better. He also offered to let us hold the python, but couldn’t find the keys. As the day wore on, things got even wilder.

We helped Tajtana, a woman who lives in San Francisco, but volunteers here as much as possible, clean and spruce up a concrete compound area that is currently housing two polar foxes that managed to break the fence of their old enclosure. We scrubbed, swept and laid down fresh hay, while the foxes were in the enclosure. The foxes were fairly timid, until we left, at which point they began frolicking through the hay.

Most people come to the continent of Africa for the animals and nature, thus most tourists never experience the other side, the people. Dennis is as friendly as anyone I’ve ever met—many Americans assume that we are disliked around the world, but I can tell you the opposite is true here. Everyone seems to love the U.S. and is fascinated by our people, our culture, and our history.

The next thing I know, we entered an enclosure that is home to “Oslo,” an adolescent lion, who seemed rather sleepy on this cloudy afternoon. His belly rose up and down, rapidly with each breath. I approached slowly, and then reached out to stroke his soft fur. He felt like a teddy bear. I was petting a lion. A real, live, lion.

Lion selfie | Photo by Wilson Carletti (All Rights Reserved)
Lion selfie with Oslo | South Africa

Growing up, cheetahs were my favorite land animal, so when I kneeled down next to “Eddie,” I was in awe. He purred like a house cat as I stroked from the back of his head to his shoulders.

Eddie the cheetah | Photo by Wilson Carletti (All Rights Reserved)
Eddie the cheetah | South Africa

I wasn’t kidding when I told you the day was going to get stranger.

We then helped Tatjana clean an enclosure that belongs to two lynx cubs, something (we later learned) that visitors are usually never allowed to do. The lynx were a bit feistier than the other cats, but one even crawled onto my lap. Keep in mind that the reserve is open; there were guests walking around, taking pictures of the animals, and I was casually inside the enclosures, with the animals. It was crazy.

Lynx cub | Photo by Wilson Carletti (All Rights Reserved)
Lynx cub | South Africa

Behind the animal crèche is a large grassy area, fit for picnics...and cheetahs. In order to display the animal’s strength and speed, they brought a large winch sort of thing, with a water bottle attached to the end of the coiled rope. With the press of a button, the winch wound up the rope (like many vacuums used to do with their cords) and the cheetah sprinted after the bottle. It was amazing to watch her run; cheetahs are gorgeous animals.

We got to go into the black leopard cub’s enclosure as well, just before the sky opened up and poured rain. The guests vanished, running for the cover of their cars. Just like that we had the place to ourselves, so Dennis took us into one last enclosure to meet “Milo,” an adolescent white tiger. He was beautiful.

Milo the white tiger | Photo by Wilson Carletti (All Rights Reserved)
Milo the white tiger | South Africa

As we were going to leave, we could hear Oslo calling for Milo being that the two are good buddies and sleep together when it’s stormy, so Dennis opened the door and let Milo out.

We walked a white tiger, off-lease, to another enclosure so that he could hang out with his best friend, who is a lion. I can’t make this stuff up.

We stopped by the breeding center on the way out to see the big boys (and ladies). Those cats were massive, and still had that ‘wild’ look in their eyes as they walked up and down the fence, stalking passersby. It was a little frightening, but all the more intriguing. And to think, the only thing I paid for all day was gas and food.

It rained all night, so the walk to church Sunday morning was a bit mucky, but I wanted to experience it. The small tin room, regardless of the dirt/partially-carpeted floors, regardless of the fact that the pastor could only afford to buy two candles, regardless of the mud, was alive with energy and lots of singing, dancing, and drumming. While I didn’t necessarily agree with the style in which the message was delivered, the pastor did make an interesting point, “You can be angry for a minute…even an hour…but do not be angry all day. Forgive.”

After all that I saw, experienced and lived here at Botshabelo, I am grateful. I am humbled. I am blessed. I already miss playing soccer in the hot afternoon sun. I miss coloring with kids. I miss their smiles, their jokes, and their laughter. As I said goodbye to Marion and the rest of the family, she gave me a hug and I told her I would come back someday. She said I better, as I now have a “home” in Africa.

Thank you for reading!

If you want to learn more about Botshabelo feel free to visit the website or watch the documentary