In 2007, Leigh Jacobs took his wife, Carrie Coppernoll Jacobs, to visit his native South Africa for the first time. It was a trip that made him look at his country through someone else’s eyes.
“I’m used to poverty,” Jacobs said. “I’m used to seeing shanty towns and people begging on the side of the street and homeless people. It was the first day, we went to a shanty town. It was Carrie’s first experience and she started crying.”
That experience in part started the journey toward forming Vilakazi, a locally based foundation that works with poverty-stricken children of South Africa. The name of the foundation comes from Vilakazi Street, a road in Soweto that has been home to both Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.
“It’s the only street in the world with two Nobel Peace Prize winners,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs, the son of a teacher and a minister, was raised in Capetown, but moved to Oklahoma to attend college. When he and his wife had a daughter, Mia, in 2009, the desire to form the foundation really took hold.
“We’re not wealthy,” he said, “but Mia has electric and a bed to sleep in, and those kids have nothing. I wanted us to help where we can.”
The Jacobs founded Vilakazi in 2009, and they are currently working towards becoming a 501(c)(3) organization. Inspired by the Jacobs’ first trip in 2007, Chad Previch signed on to become vice president of the new board.
“You know certain things about an area,” Previch said, “but before you actually go there, you can’t really connect all the dots, so when Carrie came back and was sharing everything that she saw, it just really kind of hit home. When they started the foundation, I instantly fell in love with the cause.”
And that cause it to help the children of South Africa through three approaches: education, health and athletics.
“With those three things, kids can grow up to be successful,” Jacobs said.
The Jacobs traveled to South Africa again this summer ” except this time they went for the purpose of delivering much-needed supplies to one small area of the country they had visited in 2007, the remote Coffee Bay.
“It was me, my wife and Mia ” she was 8 months old at the time. We left Johannesburg “¦ and drove all through the night. It was a 13-hour drive with an 8-month-old baby with a pickup full of stuff for these kids.”
The trio finally made it to Coffee Bay to visit the Ikhaya Labantwana Montessori school, but faced another challenge: “It turns out, the school is on top of a hill ” a mountain ” so we drove 13 hours then “¦ we had to climb this mountain with bags of soccer balls and boots and a baby.”
But it was worth it. The Jacobs delivered vitamins, books, athletic equipment and rain boots to the 3- and 4-year-olds at the school.
“The reason why we picked boots was just because they can’t go to school if it rains. They can’t go to school if they don’t have shoes,” Jacobs said.
At first, he said the children were shy, and they weren’t used to hugging, but they soon warmed up to the new visitors.
“The kids started hugging us and getting excited,” he said. “It was 80 degrees and sunshine, and there’s these kids running around in rain boots.”
The thing that makes Vilakazi unique is that the supplies are bought in South Africa and delivered personally by the foundation. It guarantees that the money and time people donate is being used fully and wisely.
“I think one of the main reasons people don’t try to get involved in charitable work is that they’re scared that their donation is not going to go to the cause,” Previch said. “This (the way Vilakazi works) lets us supervise the whole process.”
The next trip for Vilakazi is planned for 2012. This time, the foundation has partnered with Midtown Rotary to complete a water project.
“We knew that we wanted to do some international (work), because that’s one of the big things with Rotary,” said Andy Rine, president-elect of Midtown Rotary.
“There’s potential to do some good in places that need a lot of help. One of the big things that Rotary does is water. We knew Carrie and Leigh and knew that “¦ our goals aligned.”
The Rotary club received a grant to buy 100 water straws, a tube on a lanyard that filters water. Rine said each straw filters about 700 gallons of water ” that’s about a year’s worth ” then stops up when the filter is completely used.
“We’re actually trying to change that to 400, but we’ve got 100 of them secured,” Rine said.
Besides the straws, Midtown Rotary is also working with a South African Rotary club to work on building a well.
“They have to give a certain amount of money so they’ve got some incentive to make sure the project goes well, so they have some buy-in,” he said. “They put up some money, we put up some money, and Rotary matches it. It grows almost exponentially.”
The 2012 trip will also include a doctor and a delivery of medical supplies to Coffee Bay, including vaccinations, vitamins and de-wormer.
“We thought that the vitamins and vaccinations was a good way to be able to help their quality of life,” Rine said. “It’s little stuff to us, but it’s huge to them.”
Vilkazi has a physician’s assistant confirmed to accompany them on the trip, but they are still looking for a doctor. Midtown Rotary is also still fundraising for the water projects.
Said Jacobs: “We just want to do good where we can.” “Jenny Coon Peterson
Playground Throw Down
To raise funds for Vilakazi’s 2012 trip to South Africa, the foundation has planned “Rock-Paper-Scissors: The Playground Throw Down.” The event is from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 8, at Brix Restaurant and Sports Lounge, 27 E. Sheridan in Bricktown.
There is a $5-per-heat entry fee. Prizes include Thunder tickets, University of Oklahoma basketball tickets and gift cards to local businesses.
For more information, visit http://www.vilakazi.org.