In South Africa, even remote rural areas – places where buses and cars cannot go – are being ravaged by HIV/AIDS. One organization – Shepard’s Keep – is reaching out to those areas with what it calls “Hands of Mercy.”
Far from the city of Durban, in Kwa-Zulu Natal Province, lies the Valley of a Thousand Hills. The beauty of the name belies what is happening there. Huts dot the valley – often separated from each other by several hundred meters. Yet the distance from each other, or from the city, has offered no protection from a disease that has infected about five million people in South Africa.
Shepherd’s Keep co-founder Cheryl Pratley,"One in every three people are affected. They are affected or infected. Affected would obviously mean that they are caring for an infected member of the family or they have been orphaned. You often find that a family of six children would be living all on their own, trying to fend for each other, as their parents are already dead. You’d find then a baby being abandoned as the youngest one. And the eldest one comes out of school to try and work and find food for the others. So, it’s crucial and critical and very, very sad. And, of course, spreading rapidly, spreading rapidly."
Shepherd’s Keep was founded in 1998 to care for abandoned babies. Last year it started a program called “Hands of Mercy” to care for those in remote areas. Mrs. Pratley says it was just something that had to be done.
She says, "That is our first love, for the little ones. But we know that we had to reach out to the mothers and fathers as well to the sisters and brothers. Because quite a few of our nurses have already contracted AIDS and have passed away. So it affected our very home, you know, because their children were left without a parent."
To reach the Valley of a Thousand Hills, caregivers ride motorcycles. They bring boxes filled with such things as antiseptic mouthwash and ointment, bandages, medication for diarrhea, pain reliever and plastic gloves.
She says, "Latex gloves, which are very, very important, because you can be infected yourself through blood. And there’s always a lot of blood or sweat or body fluids. You know that is how you’re infected when you’re caring for a patient."
Each box also contains some soup. For those in the valley it may be their first taste of food in two or three days.
She says, "The thing is, it’s not a matter of life and death any more. These patients are actually dying. But we feel that every human being has the right to dignity, you know, while they are dying. So the caregivers are taught to go out and give them tender loving care. They pray with them, they sing with them, they wash them, they feed them and of course they dress their sores. And it’s really the most horrific thing to see. And all we’re trying to do is love them."
Cheryl Pratley and her husband, Colin, are currently raising funds to build a new, bigger home for Shepard’s Keep. Sixty babies – ranging in age from newborn to six months – will be cared for there. Since 1998, they have found homes for more than 160 babies. They say those infants who die from HIV/AIDS do so in loving arms.
Mrs. Pratley says the manner in which babies come to Shepard’s Keep tell her that their mothers are desperate and perhaps dying.
"We have had babies who have been delivered by their mothers upside-down in public toilets and left there. Obviously aborted," she says. "And someone would walk into the public toilet and see something moving. They pick it up and rush it to us. Others are tied up in plastic bags and thrown through windows, dumped. We’ve had who were left in a park and the motorized lawnmower was going to run over them when the driver saw these squirming little things and rushed them to us."
Today, she says, the twins have been adopted by a couple in another country and are thriving. And one of the babies found in a toilet is now leading a healthy happy life in the United States.
She says faith in God is the only thing that keeps her and her husband going. She says children are the very heart of God and that He will always provide for them.