Jessica Martin, For the Independent
Hanika Shantz dashes around the living room with her arms outstretched, chasing her squealing younger sister, Dominique, throughout the Shantz family household in Kitchener. She slowly wiggles her fingers back and forth, ready to tickle the younger version of herself, which only sends the 10-year-old into yet another set of high-pitched giggles as she tries to run away.
Ready for a break, Shantz crashes onto the couch and sits back to catch her breath. The smile that never leaves her face, stretches even further as she reminisces back to the time spent with her “chocolate babies” in Africa.
Shantz, 20, has always had a desire to work with kids, and since returning from working at St. Bartholomew’s orphanage in Kajo-Keji, Southern Sudan, has realized she has an even stronger passion to work with those who have been traumatized and left abandoned.
The orphanage was founded in 2004 and is overflowing with 91 children who are the result of the recent 21-year civil war in Sudan.
“None of those kids actually know what being a kid feels like,” said Shantz. “Each precious face has the appearance of a regular child, but beneath each one is some form of abuse, crisis, and pain.
“But reading stories with them, dancing, singing and laughing with them gave me such a sense of hope for their broken hearts.”
Shantz first travelled to the orphanage in March 2009 for a two-week mission trip. After coming home, she realized she couldn’t escape the memories of the children overseas, so she saved up her money and went back to Sudan in March 2011 for four months, and then again in December for three weeks.
Shantz said it took three days of travelling to reach the orphanage, with the last stretch of the journey being a bumpy ride on a small missionary plane, which lands in Kajo-Keji.
When she arrived at the orphanage, she wasn’t shocked by all of the heartache, but it still hit her with a blunt force.
“Being surrounded by such pain and brokenness was completely overwhelming at times,” said Shantz. “I got a small taste of the emptiness felt by the children who had lost their families completely and would never know the blessing of having a close, loving family like the one I have been blessed with.”
Although the orphanage is a better place for the children than where they came from, it’s still not free of disease and poverty. The water from the community well is contaminated but is used for cooking, drinking and bathing and the variety of food is also limited. The meals consist of beans and portia – a mixture of maize flour and boiled water, stirred until it becomes a solid – with “rice eaten as treat once in awhile.”
Shantz said it didn’t matter that she was there for over four months.
“You don’t get used to it. It’s like eating play-dough, except play-dough has the advantage of being salty.”
Malaria is also very common at the orphanage.
“It’s just as common in Sudan as a cold in North America,” she said. “Just last week I found out a baby I took care of while I was there passed away from it. His name is Jonathan and he was only three years old.”
Getting up from the couch, she walks over to where she has an abundance of pictures of “her children” hanging across the wall. Touching the glass, she looks into the faces that innocently stare back at her from behind the frames.
One day she hopes to go back and counsel at the orphanage, but before she can do that she will be completing a three-year program at Mohawk College in Brantford to become a child and youth worker.
For now, she does what she can from this side of the ocean.
Since coming home, Shantz has gotten multiple family members and also seven of her friends to sponsor children from the orphanage.
“Sponsorship is so much more than just financially supporting a child,” she said. “It gives the children hope and it lets them see that people genuinely care about their lives.”
Through the organization Christian Horizons, sponsorship costs $36 per month for one child, and provides him/her with basic and special needs, education (school fees and supplies), nutritious meals, healthcare, shelter and clothing and spiritual development.
“I have a real desire to see the rest of the kids connected with sponsors, since I know it’s vital to running the orphanage and they are always taking on new kids,” she said. “I also know how much it means to the kids to have contact with their sponsor and I totally have a heart to connect as many children with committed sponsors as possible.”
Shantz said as clichéd as it sounds, her lifestyle has also changed since coming home. She is more aware of how she spends her money and is careful when deciphering between what she needs and what she wants. She is also continually grateful for the luxuries of running water, a variety in foods and her relationships with her friends and family.
Shantz also said just because she’s living in Canada does not mean she will forget her time in Sudan.
“Africa is no longer a far off, unknown place. I know a group of African orphans by name. I know their stories and I know their hurts. I know that they love to play soccer and I know that they don’t like washing dishes. I’ve heard the girls giggle while talking about boys and I’ve seen the boys wrestle while playing around,” she said. “These are real kids and their lives are real, and you can still have an impact on them from this side of the ocean.”