Shortly after art teacher Sandy Edmonds arrived in Port Elizabeth, South Africa last August, she noticed that one of her students, 12-year-old Vuyo Mkalipi, held his scissors a few inches from his eyes. It was the only way he could see the paper he intended to cut.
“There he was, struggling with the scissors, so I said, ‘We’ve got to get him to an eye doctor,’” Edmonds recalls.
In short order, Edmonds and colleagues from ArtWorks for Youth—a Brooklyn-based art education program that brings volunteers to South Africa to teach two- to four-week immersion courses—took Mkalipi to an ophthalmologist. The diagnosis surprised them. Rather than simple near-sightedness, the child had kerotoconus, a thinning of the cornea that can be repaired only by corneal transplants.
“In South Africa it would have taken about 18 months to get suitable eye tissue,” says ArtWorks founder John Lombardo. “I called my girlfriend, Kathy Barr, in Brooklyn and told her about Vuyo. She went online, found the National Kerotoconus Foundation in California, and called them. She then e-mailed me, saying I should call the Foundation.”
He did and was referred to Dr. Michael Ehrenhaus, an eye surgeon at Long Island College Hospital [LICH]. What happened next is the stuff of fairy tales. Ehrenhaus agreed to operate on Mkalipi for free—the tab is usually $20,000 per eye—and got the attending nurses and anesthesiologists to waive their salaries. He also asked LICH to donate the operating room and got free corneal tissue from the San Diego Eye Bank. South African Airways provided Mkalipi with a round-trip ticket to New York.
But not everything was seamless. “It took us six weeks, and about 200 phone calls to the U.S. Consulate in Cape Town to get Vuyo a medical visa,” Lombardo says. “Senator [Chuck] Schumer’s office eventually did it. His staff contacted the Consulate office and a medical visa was waiting for Vuyo’s mom when she got there.”
The first operation took place several weeks after Mkalipi arrived in New York on October 14; the second eye was operated on in late January. Although transplants are an outpatient procedure, follow-up was extensive, with weekly medical appointments and hourly eye drops administered by host-parents Barr and Lombardo.
Mkalipi will return to Port Elizabeth on March 21; for the five months he’s been in Brooklyn, he has been a guest at Packer Collegiate, a tony private school where Lombardo directs after-school programming. During his stay, Mkalipi has become near-fluent in English—his native language is Lhosa—but he remains illiterate in both languages.
“The education system in South Africa is so flawed,” says Kathy Barr. “Vuyo could not see the blackboard in his classroom so he never learned to read. He didn’t get any special attention or tutoring because the South African education system doesn’t have resources for anything like that.”
Indeed, despite the fact that Port Elizabeth is a major seaport in the Eastern Cape Province, the 2001 Census reports that nearly two-thirds of the population never finished high school. Less than half have running water in their homes and the average life expectancy hovers between 42 and 43. AIDS is rampant, infecting more than 20 percent of residents, and the median annual income for adults aged 15 to 65 is $3282.
Horrifying as these statistics are, ArtWorks for Youth can’t tackle these problems. But the group’s volunteers—most of them white—can bring supplemental education programs to a small group of kids who need them.
ArtWorkers began traveling to South Africa in 2002, two years after Lombardo created the organization. The group’s original mission was to run afternoon art classes in seven New York City schools, including Frederick Douglass Academy II. FDA had a relationship with the Sivuyisieni Intermediate School in Port Elizabeth and Lombardo first traveled to South Africa at the behest of the school’s administration. He was immediately smitten.
“I knew right away that I wanted to offer South African kids the same opportunities that kids at Douglass were getting. I realized that even without art classes, kids in New York have access to art supplies and have social service organizations to work with,” he says. “When I run programs in New York, I feel like I’m keeping kids busy until their parents pick them up. They aren’t really interested and I never feel like they appreciate anything.”
The opposite is true in South Africa. Lombardo says that he is continually shocked by the students’ enthusiasm and says that classes in beadwork, wire art, printmaking, photography, painting, drawing, quilting, and collage attract approximately 150 students when they are offered each March and August. “I’ve worked with 60 kids in a class and discipline is never an issue. They borrow crayons and return them in better shape than when they were lent out. When I bring stuff in, like pencils, paint and paper, the students –6th, 7th, 8th graders—are excited. These are kids who walk at least an hour each way to school because they’re so interested in learning.”
Lombardo sits back, his blue eyes shining as he offers an example. “Thirty kids wanted to be in a beadwork class but I felt that was too many and capped it at 25,” he begins. Of course, several latecomers were disappointed that they could not enroll. “The next morning, when I arrived at the school, three girls who’d been closed out were waiting outside the building. They handed me stuff they’d made from beads they’d found on the ground after the class ended.” Needless to say, Lombardo allowed them to participate. And this, he says, is not anomalous.
Despite the students’ gratitude and interest, Lombardo, Barr, and Edmonds are often frustrated by conditions at the Sivuyiseni School. “No one talks about apartheid anymore and no one asks the students what they think,” Lombardo reports. “It’s ‘Use these materials and draw this person or object.’ We ask, ‘What were you thinking when you took this picture? How do you feel now?’”
While this explains much of ArtWorks’ appeal, the fact that they feed their students also plays a role in their popularity. “Food in South Africa is really cheap by U.S. standards,” Barr says, “so we make thousands of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and they disappear. The kids come back for seconds and thirds. We raise money in the U.S. to pay for this and to take kids to the doctor. We also have a friend who is making uniforms for them. Still, the conditions are bad. The school has almost no windows and those it does have are broken. It was built in 1985 and hasn’t been touched since. We can’t leave the artwork the kids make in the rooms overnight because of wind and constant vandalism.”
It’s enough to make most people despair.
“As many problems as there are,” says Sandy Edmonds, “there is also a lot of hope, and people have a generosity about them that you don’t see in the U.S.”
As for race, Edmonds says that because many important white African National Congress leaders, including the Lithuanian-born Joe Slovo, came from Port Elizabeth, ArtWorks’ volunteers have not been greeted with as much suspicion as one might expect. “It’s 10 years after the end of apartheid and black people feel empowered. Everyone in government is black and women hold 35 percent of the offices, so maybe that’s why my race, John’s race, and the race of other volunteers is not a big issue,” she says.
In fact, social class may be the most perplexing variable. “Vuyo went to a Packer classmate’s house and there were six TVs for four people,” Lombardo says. “He’s shocked by the excess. He’s shocked by the food that’s thrown away at lunch. He loves me and Kathy, and he loves Packer, but he doesn’t love the U.S. He’ll be happy to get home.”
ArtWorks programs cost approximately $100 per child per year. Donations—of money or frequent flyer miles—can be sent to the group at 226 North 5th Street, #5, Brooklyn, NY 11211. They are also looking for an unpaid grant writer. For more information, or to volunteer, go to www.artworksforyouth.org.
ContributorEleanor J. Bader