Compassion led Heather Reynolds to perhaps the most needful people in the world-the AIDS orphans of Africa. From the book by Dale le Vack, Jannene Howse tells her story.
Africa is fighting a losing battle against HIV/AIDS. Among the casualties are innocent children, whose parents have died of the disease or who have been infected by predatory adults. South Africans Heather Reynolds and her husband Patrick live in the Zulu country of South Africa on a property they’ve christened “God’s Golden Acre.” There, through perseverance, faith and miracles, she brings life, healing and hope to AIDS orphans.
In his book God’s Golden Acre,* British journalist Dale le Vack tells the incredible story of Heather Reynolds and establishment of the God’s Golden Acre rescue centre for African orphans, a story that began with a chance encounter in Uganda.
Already something of a social philanthropist, Heather had gone there on business. On her last day, she had some spare time, so asked her driver–bodyguard what he would like to do. He said he would like to see his family, who lived in a remote village. Upon arriving in his home village, they were met by the usual cohort of children. But there was something different about them that worried Heather. “They weren’t laughing. They were absolutely quiet."
“Normally, if children see a strange woman, they will at least talk among themselves. But there was this eerie silence. The children stared—but without expression. Eventually, I couldn’t stand it, so I asked the Ugandan driver, ‘What’s wrong with these kids?’ ‘These are the AIDS orphans,’ he said ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Well, the parents have died.’”
Heather was horrified. “And so who’s going to look after them?” she asked. “Nobody,” he said.
Heather was stunned. She looked inside one of the huts, where two children were lying on the floor. One was motionless and Heather assumed she was dead. The other, a boy about three years old, was so sick she estimated he probably had less than a day to live. His eyes were glazed.
“I came close and stared long and hard into his mournful eyes,” says Heather. “I thought to myself, These children are starving to death.”
That was the point, says Heather, at which she realised God had guided her there—to show her the way forward.
She says she thought of the sentiments of Jesus [Matthew 25:40]: Anything you do for one of my brothers here, however humble, you do for me.
“God,” she prayed aloud, “I will help every child in need, every child that needs a home, every child that needs food, that crosses my path.”
It was a cathartic moment for Heather. She was struck by how unnecessary the deaths were—starving to death because there was no-one to care. Shocked and outraged, feeling sick and ashamed, she walked away, weeping with grief and anger. Back in her Nairobi hotel, she continued to cry for the helpless, dying children.
As a result, Heather resolved to do something practical and permanent to help. Right then a thought drifted into her head ... God’s Golden Acre.
Later, at home in South Africa, she watched a television program on AIDS in Africa. She learned that two million South African children would be orphaned by AIDS within a decade, so she phoned the doctor who’d featured in the documentary. He told her that if she wanted to help she should look at the local Zulu community. “Go and find out what’s happening,” he said. “You’ll find children who’ve been orphaned by AIDS within a few miles of where you live.”
Her investigation revealed this to be true, so she set about building both interest in and infrastructure for what was to become God’s Golden Acres, a place of healing and safety for Zulu AIDS orphans.
A short time later a group of youth came to her, asking if she would be their choirmaster. Their former leader had died in the violence that wracked South Africa at the time.
“Yes, I’d be delighted,” she said. Then, “Let me hear how you sound.”
“The moment I heard them, I experienced an almost indescribable feeling,” she said. “My spirits were soaring, yet I was choking back tears. I thought to myself, They’re not just good; they’re wonderfully good!”
Then, one night, as Heather was dropping off a choir member at their village, a woman ran up to her car and asked her to help a family with a sick baby. Heather drove along a treacherous track until she came to a dilapidated hut. From the hut, a little girl about 10 years old emerged. She didn’t falter, but walked straight into Heather’s arms and held on. “It was as if she’d been expecting me,” said Heather.
The headlights of her car shone inside the hut revealing a girl about six, a four-year-old boy, and a two-year-old girl who was covered by a mass of gaping sores. She loaded all four children into the car and took them home, where she treated the ringworm, scabies, sores and dehydration that was afflicting them.
One by one, Heather’s “family” grew as she took in AIDS-infected babies and children, abused youth in need of protection, and others in need of parenting and love. By 1997, she had 30.
Sidyanda was found abandoned in a hut as a tiny baby, severely malnourished, his body swollen with fluid. Nindeka was a nine-year-old who’d been shot in the spine by her stepfather. She arrived in enormous pain. Happiness, six, was born with AIDS, and suffered terrible mouth sores. She was so weak, she couldn’t hold herself upright to use the toilet. She was one of very few who died. Pume, nine, had been a prostitute with her mother. Pume wasn’t an orphan, but so great was her need that Heather made an exception and took her in. She was so scared of men, she would become hysterical if touched by a male.
Local opposition, racism and financial troubles continued, so another property had to be found. A rundown, rusted former resort with derelict water features, waterslides, fountains, swimming pools and paddling pools—the sort of things kids love—presented itself, but she had no hope of paying for it. A Christian couple who somehow heard about the opportunity, mortgaged their house as surety for the purchase.
Heather’s faith in the enterprise as her God-given mission didn’t go unrewarded. The property was rundown and needed many expensive repairs. A group of volunteers put on roofing. When sand was needed, Heather phoned a supplier asking for a donation but was refused. One volunteer, an atheist, challenged Heather to pray about it, which she did. Half-an-hour later, one of the company’s trucks broke down in front of the Golden Acre driveway. To be towed away, the driver asked if he could dump his load of sand there! Likewise, when they ran out of milk, with no money to buy more, she presented the problem to God. A short time later, another truck broke down nearby. It was carrying powdered milk! Three month’s supply of milk had to be off-loaded before it, too, could be towed away.
God’s Golden Acre was by then caring for more than 90 children. One, a 12-year-old mentally challenged girl, Millie, had been found wandering by the road. Her mother was a prostitute and when she couldn’t work, she would send Millie to “fetch water,” which to Millie meant sexual abuse. With special care, she did learn to trust again, take care of herself and went to school.
There is a sickening myth believed among the Zulu—if an AIDS-infected man has sex with a virgin, he can be cured. Often the nearest accessible such female is a young relative. One of the sickest and weakest of babies to come to God’s Golden Acre was a blind, HIV-positive baby of a 13-year-old who’d been raped by her deluded, AIDS-ridden father.
A small picture of life in the Valley of a Thousand Hills, where every person is a potential AIDS victim, is revealed by Heather: “When we arrived at the little hovel, it was in total darkness, with only a small portion still with any roof covering at all... . There on the small bed lay a young woman, approximately 26 years old. As we entered, rats took off across the bed; they had been eating her feet. There were three little children aged 18 months to seven years. The dying woman was clinging to her babies and by her sunken face and shrivelled body was obviously HIV-positive, which was now full-blown AIDS. There was not a single crumb of food or medication. The children were in tatters and so cold and hungry. I spent a few hours sorting things out ... but this has really shaken me. I should be used to it, but I still find myself so emotionally involved. It is so awful—how many other people are lying helplessly in the same way? It is 3 am and I find sleep impossible.”
Often the children have different fathers, who are dead or simply absent. Those born out of wedlock, in the Zulu culture, aren’t recognised by their extended family. They have no-one to protect them, so are open to exploitation.
Heather had a profoundly hopeful vision for these helpless children, a vision that needed many miracles to come to life. She’s worked tirelessly, channelling the energy and talent of the children into positive avenues.
God’s Golden Acre already had its choir when Dancelink was established. The children were invited to the Durban World AIDS Conference in 2000, where they sang and danced and met Nelson Mandela. Afterwards Rotary raised some £30,000 for a 30-performance tour of Britain to highlight both the African AIDS crisis and the work of Golden Acre. "It was difficult to reconcile the two pircures: chidlren, formely abused, broken and abandoned, now confident and happy, assuming their rightful place in society with seeminl effortless ability," Heather admits. "I knew the truth. I could tell you each and every tragic story behind the smiling faces I now gazed upon. Heartbreak, fear, drespeation and helplessness had coloured the features of faces too young to have to deal with such trials."
In 2002 Oprah Winfrey visited, making a donation and giving Golden Acre a profile. Oprah is now a close friend supporter of Heather and a mother figure to some of the orphans.
Says High Evans, Young Australian of the Year for 2005, "I think the are the most amazing children in the whole world. They know how to sing, they know how to dance, and hey know how to express themselves well. Nowhere do you go in the world and get such a huge hug. Every time I come back to Golden Acre, I get this nervous feeling in my heart, and I get so excited - like I'm coming home. The feeling of joy is indescribable. They have an extraordinary level of humility, politeness and grace - qualities that any parent would be delighted to find in their child. Yet they've all been through appalling times."
Heather's vision isn't finished. Now her conviction is that oragnised sport, especially football, would provide an outlet and direction for the children of the Valley of a Thousand Hills. Sport would provide discipline as well as encouraging them into education.
The Manchester United Fooball Club in England is the world's most prestigious and richest football club, so who better to ask for help. She talked to its manager Martin Edwards, as well as Dave Richards, chairman of England's Premier League, who were overwhelmed by possibilities. With funding from the English FA, Heather is busy buidlin a local football league for the emerging Zulu culture.
"The delivery of Heather's vision for youth football in a demoralisd society is evidence of the power of prayer in action," said Richards. "She sees it as a miracle - and indeed it is."
Why does Heather do it?
"It's always easier to find a reason, or excuse, for not doing something, not to help someone. It's easier not to take responsibility for, or not to get involved with the problems and difficulties of our brothers and sisters," she says.
"The choice is ours," she chalenges. "If we don't respond to the desperate plight of a generation of chidlren in Africa and in the other AIDS hot spots in our world we will be sowing the seeds ultimately of the destruction of those societies that have abandoned them."
There is certainly a lot of work to be done. Almost five million people in Africa are HIV- positive; in Zambia, the statistics are on-in-five, and by 2010 there could be five million maternal orphans. Living without hope, they will turn to crime, drugs and prostitution as a means to survive.
The question is, Do we, like Heather Reynolds, care enough to make a difference?