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Out of Africa

Posted: January 24, 2009 10:34 p.m.
Updated: January 25, 2009 4:59 a.m.

Alicia Dukov spent time with Eboneza, 11, one of the street kids she connected with the most. One Heart Source was able to reunite him with his family and move them onto the site.

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The dark night began its exit as the sun prepared its daily opening act over the Acacia trees scattered sporadically in the tiny village of Mateves, Tanzania.

It was Sept. 24 and Alicia Dukov, 26, of Newhall, slowly crept to consciousness as she lay in her warm sleeping bag surrounded by the white sheath of her mosquito net. The intrusive and relentless alpha cock never missed his daily cue to infiltrate the hard-earned slumbers of those catching their sleep, prompting them to get up and reminding them of the new day about to begin.

Dukov wiggled out of her sleeping bag in her mud hut and prepared herself for her first day. This hut would be her home for the next three months, built to withstand harsh winds and the penetrating cold air at night. It consisted of a mixture of dirt, water and cow dung. Luckily for Dukov and her five hut-mates, their noses weren't able to detect any of the ingredients.

Dukov walked out of her hut to join the rest of the volunteers in the main community area, an open-air structure with a thatched roof. Here, they sat around the firepit and ate fresh pastries made from scratch and drank organic chai tea produced by the group's Tanzanian "mamas," local women hired to cook for the volunteers. After breakfast, all 18 volunteers between the ages of 20 and 27 were split up into groups and assigned a job.

Today, Dukov was put into the group to plant her own banana tree on the small hill that sits protectively behind the group's circle of ten huts.

Some groups hammered nails into wooden boards, slowly building the foundation of what will be the group's orphanage. Others helped construct the cow pen before the milk producers themselves arrived the following week.

By late afternoon, the sun began its descent behind Mount Meru, the second largest mountain in Tanzania, located just behind the group of huts Dukov called "home."

After her first day, she sat at the foot of her mud-hut and watched the sun spread its golden light over the rolling hills as it graced the peak of Mount Meru. The sun looked so close, Dukov felt as if she could reach out and touch it.

In this quiet moment, she reflected on the work she and her group did for the day.

Each job, although tiring, was filled with a purpose. Every contribution was a piece of the puzzle in laying down a strong foundation for years to come.

One Heart Source
Tanzania is home to 2.4 million orphans. More than a million of them are orphaned by AIDS.

A family friend of the Dukovs, Hori Moriaca, started a nonprofit organization called One Heart Source while studying as an undergraduate at the University of California, Los Angeles. On a visit to Tanzania, he met a little girl who changed his life.

Bahati, 2, has HIV. The conditions in Tanzania restrict her from receiving life-extending drugs. With no treatment, Bahati's condition will likely progress into AIDS, and she can expect to live only a few years.
Moriaca wasn't going to let her die. With his affiliations in Tanzania, he was able to arrange treatment for
Bahati, and thus his journey to establish himself in Africa began.

Bahati inspired him to build an orphanage in Mateves and create a program to educate the Tanzanian youth about HIV and AIDS.

Dukov received a call asking if she wanted to participate.

"Hands down yes," she said. "I didn't even have to think about it."

She put on a fundraiser before she left and raised $8,000 in donations from family, friends and Santa Clarita Valley residents.

According to its Web site, One Heart Source is "committed to promoting the well-being, growth and development of abandoned children and orphaned children in underdeveloped and developing countries through high-quality care and education programs. The purpose of empowering education is to promote academic enrichment, life skills, and character development of the children to build effective lives and become potential community leaders, so that they may continue the cycle of positive social change."

The nonprofit organization took its first baby steps in the summer of 2008, when 60 volunteers, all students from UCLA, University of Southern California and Loyola Marymount, signed up and attended a 12-week training program to prepare them for life in Africa.

The course was conducted in a classroom on the UCLA campus once a week for three hours. Six previous volunteers who spent time in Africa taught the newbies everything they needed to know about HIV and AIDS and then taught them how to teach the information to the youth of Africa.

One Heart Source believes education is the only vaccine to HIV/AIDS, until a cure is found.

"It's about spreading the word, the light," Dukov said. "It's also about love. And being helpful. It's about wanting to inspire."

Even with more than 300 nonprofit organizations in Arusha, One Heart Source stands out.

"What's unique about this orphanage is that it doesn't want to be a typical one," Dukov said. "It's geared for a family, community feeling."

The orphanage's official title is "Children's Education, Home and Care center."

What makes One Heart Source's effort even more unique is that the site is self-contained.

"We grow our own crops, we supply our own filtered water, and we provide our own electricity by use of solar panels," Dukov said. "Children are brought up to learn how to feed themselves, as opposed to begging, stealing, or worse, starving."

Dukov said they base their work on the following: "Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish and you have fed him for a lifetime."

"It's all about teaching for life," she said.

The program
The main elements to the One Heart Source volunteer program consisted of AIDS/HIV education to primary and secondary school students, building an orphanage and volunteering at other local orphanages to be with abandoned children.

The volunteers were split into two groups where each group, once a week, taught Tanzanian youth about the AIDS epidemic sweeping their continent. These children ranged in age from 7 to 18.
When she wasn't teaching, Dukov volunteered twice a week at a local orphanage called Samaritan Village, the same orphanage Moriaca met Bahati. The institution housed 30 children ranging from 6 months to age 10.

"Most of these children, if not all, were abandoned, or had parents who died from the HIV virus," Dukov said. "Some were abandoned at such a young age they had to be named by the orphanage. We would go over there and play with them, hold them, love them."

One particular girl, Scola, 3, wore a bright flamenco skirt every day. She touched Dukov's heart.

"I have never known such a bright light in a child," she said. "Never had anybody affect me the way this child had. If I could adopt her she would be here with me right now."

Street kids
As Dukov spent more time in Africa, she noticed many children living on the streets. Each child had his or her own story. Some ran away from home to escape abuse, molestation and pain. Others ran away from home to try and find ways to make money to bring back to their families. Almost all of them were getting high on glue.

"They sniff glue to get their head in a place where it helps them cope with their harsh conditions," Dukov said.

Each day is a battle for these children, said Dukov. They scrounge for food and money.

One Heart Source decided to add a program for street children - "Nafasi Nyingine," which means "A Second Chance" in Swahili - to the organization's increasingly busy schedule.

"It's an innovative, unique addition to our program. This wasn't a part of the initial plan," Dukov said. "We just saw so many kids on the street, we wanted to figure out a way to help them, too."

Street kids who were interested in meeting the volunteers were invited to come to a dirt field where they would receive English lessons, food and warm hugs.

On the first day, 30 street kids showed up.

"We wanted to broaden their opportunities by teaching them English," Dukov said. "They have a better chance at life based off of the education we were providing for them. It was a challenge to organize this group because they were all on so many different levels (of English)."

Dukov said the children were divided into groups based on how much English they knew. Some didn't know any. Some just remembered the alphabet. Others were fairly advanced and knew how to read.

The street kids were fed the same thing the volunteers ate on a day to day basis - beans and rice. For some, it was their first meal in days. They would stand in line for seconds and thirds. "It was heartbreaking," she said.

Those who have been on the street the longest had seniority, and therefore lined up in the front. Dukov said she was always surprised to see some of the smallest and youngest children first in line.

She connected with one of the street kids in particular.

"He became my little soul mate," she said.

Eboneza, 11, ran away from home because he felt as if he was a burden to his mother who was left to raise three kids on her own.

"Since he is the oldest, he felt as if it was his duty to leave and make it easier on his mom," Dukov explained.

One goal of the organization is to have the street youth reunite with their families. They perform better and have a greater chance of living with the support of a family unit, said Dukov.

She made it her mission to reunite Eboneza with his family. Not only did she accomplish her goal, but with the help of One Heart Source, Dukov helped Eboneza, his mother and two brothers move into a hut on the
One Heart Source site. In addition, the program offered the boys an education and gave his mother a job, becoming one of the "mommas."

"He wasn't even one of the kids that I was in charge of, but across the way we saw each other and there was this connection," Dukov said. "The organization helped him and his family so fundamentally. I like to think that (Eboneza's mother) is getting the best sleep she's had in years."

Home sweet home?
Dukov returned to her own family in December a changed woman. What she witnessed in her three months in Africa altered her outlook on life.

"We live a blessed life," she said. "We are so fortunate. Not just the rights, but even the luxury of running water is taken for granted."

One of the biggest lessons Dukov brought home was that it doesn't take a lot to change a person's life.

"It's funny," Dukov said. "I can spend money on a pack of gum here and for the same amount, I can feed a kid for a whole day."

Dukov, despite her already significant contribution in Africa, felt as if it wasn't enough. While in Mateves, she also significantly helped the family of a another boy, Muhammed, with whom she had a special connection.

"They lived in a hut smaller than mine. They rotated to sleep in the one bed they had," she said. "It's so strange to me to see that this exists in the world. This is when life becomes really, really raw. This is real."

Rather than giving them a lump of cash, she walked over to the nearest grocery vendor and bought a month's worth of food for the family of four. She bought eggs, milk, beans, rice. She only spent $40.

Dukov continues to send money every other month to One Heart Source to make sure Muhammed and his family are supported.

"It doesn't take much, and it's easy to do."

One Heart Source, because of it's rather small size, has no overhead. It's a predominately student run organization, and every dollar donated goes straight to the orphanage.

"You will know where your money is going," Dukov said.

Dukov can't wait to go back, despite the living conditions.

"It's hard work, but it's so worth it," she said. "It really opens your eyes. And your heart. It gives you the opportunity to love on such different levels. Levels you didn't know existed inside you. This experience can only breed future ones. A taste of this depth in life, it is hard to go back to a life that doesn't include that.

It's like you get bit by a love bug and you just wanna love, love love. I will be doing this kind of work for the rest of my life."

The orphanage constructed during Dukov's stay was finished a week before she left. The home accepted its first guests - a pair of orphan twins.

For more information about One Heart Source, how to volunteer or how to donate, visit www.oneheartsource.org. For specific questions regarding her experience, contact Alicia Dukov at alicykisy@ca.rr.com.
agajewski@the-signal.com


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