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A Different kind of Christmas

A Different kind of Christmas

My family and friends are nestled in their beds, hours before they will wake for Christmas morning. I think of them and hope they are happy, resting, and at peace. I am in Tanzania working at an AIDS hospice, spending Christmas and the winter break away from Westminster, away from my loved ones. And while I miss the people with whom I would ordinarily share this holiday, I am happy to be thousands of miles away, providing Christmas for a home full of adults and orphans with HIV/AIDS.

The idea to travel to Africa to do humanitarian work came to me many years ago. While attending high school at Sacred Heart Academy in Buffalo, New York, the nuns, who were my teachers, told many wonderful stories about their mission work in Africa. I recall being fascinated and intrigued by their tales, hoping someday to have similar adventures, to do the same kind of work. Subsequently, while attending Canisius College, the Jesuit priests and lay professors instilled in me the values of social justice, service to others, and active participation in the community. Each class period (regardless of course content) was infused with lessons in values and ethics and pleas for each student to find a way to reflect on, and take action with regard to social injustice. Needless to say, my formative years filled me with a passion to be of service to others and to work to ease the burdens of those suffering from injustice. I now carry this passion into my work as a professor at Westminster and find that these social values fit well with the mission of the college. I feel passionately about Westminster’s dedication to diversity and social responsibility and continually search for ways to foster this personally, on campus, and in the larger world.
Somewhat serendipitously, last summer while reading the New York Times, I came across an article about volunteer vacations and my curiosity was immediately piqued. After several weeks of saying things to myself like “You can’t do that” and “That’s a crazy idea,” I reflected on my early experiences and dedication to social values and realized that not only could I go, I must go. So I signed up to spend a month in Tanzania with an organization called Cross Cultural Solutions. With a few key strokes on the computer, it was easy to sign up for the trip, but little did I know just how much those few key strokes would change my life.

I arrived in Africa with bags full of mosquito repellant and hand sanitizer, knowing only that I would be working in an AIDS hospice. My three-week placement would be at a facility called St. Lucia’s. It was founded by a nurse, Mama Winifrida, in 2004. Due to the social stigma of HIV, Mama Winifrida opened St Lucia’s to give people living with the disease a place to be cared for and to die with dignity. It originated as an adult hospice, but soon children who were not welcome in their families, shunned because of their HIV status, were brought there to live. St. Lucia’s is the only orphanage that takes children who are infected with the AIDS virus. During my stay, we cared for 5 adult patients and 18 children, ranging from the ages of 15 months to 14 years old. Some days, the work was physically very difficult. Since only three nurses ran the facility, I, along with 5 other volunteers, pitched in and helped with the chores each day. We would usually arrive at St Lucia’s in the mornings and help bathe the children, feed them, do laundry, and clean up their bedrooms. I also helped shovel and move a compost pile one day and even plucked a chicken. And while it was physically demanding, the experience was also tremendously rewarding. The children looked for us each day, climbing all over us when we arrived. I will never forget spending Christmas at St. Lucia’s dancing to Bob Marley and Madonna and playing all day with the children. Walking through the gates of St. Lucia’s each morning and seeing the faces of the children light up made every day away from home during the holidays worthwhile.

Since I’ve been back, many people have asked me questions like, “What kind of food did you eat?” and “Were the people beautiful?” While those questions are easy to answer, they don’t begin to capture the magic and the heartbreak of this experience. The people I encountered in Africa were simply wonderful. I was treated graciously and welcomed at every turn. Both the nurses and Mama Winifrida were tremendously grateful for everything our presence offered, saying that, without us, the work could not be accomplished. But it was also devastating to see the magnitude of loss and sadness these children suffer from due to the disease that has claimed so many of their family members. Most of the children at St. Lucia’s had lost at least one family member, often their mother, to AIDS. One day, I asked Mama Winifreda how one of the young girls had come to live there, and she answered that her entire family had died of AIDS—mother, father, and brother—and that she had nowhere else to go. St Lucia’s was now her home. While I was glad she had a place to be, I sadly reflected on how much suffering (she was only 12 years old) she had already endured.

Other questions I am posed are much more difficult to answer. Questions like “How has this experience changed you?” and “How do you see the world differently?” make me pause and look back on the days I spent in Tanzania. I think I am still coming to understand how this experience is changing me, but I can say that I see the world differently. In many ways, it has solidified what I see as important in the college learning experience. There is a tremendous imbalance in economic and social resources on a global level, and now I can speak to my students about this with first-hand knowledge. Teaching about the poverty and oppression that exist in third-world countries fits with the college’s mission of helping students learn about diversity and the economic disparity oppression can foster.

I am often asked if I will go back, and the answer is always yes. Hopefully, when I do, I can take my students with me, fostering in them the value of serving others and promoting justice and fairness in the world, those values that were instilled in me when I was a student.

Colleen Sandor is an Associate Professor at Westminster College. She was raised in Buffalo, New York, and attended Canisius College and the University of Utah. While she planned to stay in Utah for just a few short years, the beauty of the state and her love of the outdoors keep her here. Colleen worked as a substance abuse therapist for 10 years prior to coming to Westminster College and still maintains a small clinical practice. She served on the board of the Utah Chapter of the ACLU and currently serves on the board of the Rape Recovery Center. When she is not working, Colleen enjoys cooking, traveling, scuba diving, and spending time with friends and her two cats, Pablo and Marco.