Long-distance devotion: Milton couple puts their heart and soul into South African orphans with HIV

Suzette Martinez Standring

Editor's note: For Saturday publication

A.J. and Patti Hoff of Milton returned recently to Bethany Children’s Home, their “adopted” orphanage in South Africa. They brought money, toys and supplies. One suitcase contained 55 pounds of plastic underpants, a proud effort packed by their four daughters.

 Seven-year-old Jasmine Hoff and her triplet sisters – Bailey, Kamali and Laila, ages 4 – went had gone door to door asking their Milton neighbors to donate plastic underpants. In South Africa, babies with HIV/AIDS suffer from frequent diarrhea, which creates a desperate need for this item. For the little girls, it was a hands-on lesson in caring for others.

 “I want my children to grow up to be grateful for what they have. To get them involved in the plastic underpants drive was a small way to grow in them a compassion for the poor,” said Patti Hoff, who is a women’s ministry leader in Milton.

 Her husband, A.J. Hoff, is the lead evangelist for the South Central Region for the Boston Church of Christ, which meets at Milton High School for Sunday services. Its 230- plus members are Disciples of Christ, a Bible-based Christian sect.

 From 1995 to 2003 the Hoffs had served as were Christian missionaries in Umtata, South Africa. While there, they fell in love with wee ones children at Bethany Children’s Home, where the couple and 15 other volunteers worked on Saturdays, assisting helping the four staff members to care for 80 children kids.

 “Emotionally, this is where the local volunteers and church members came in. We played with the kids, fed them and provided relief for the staff because they were so overloaded,” she said.

 Upon their return to the states U.S. in 2003, the Hoffs founded It Takes a Village Foundation, a non-profit to help Bethany Children’s Home.

 This past summer the Hoffs couple took the 20-hour journey by plane and car to spend three days in Umtata with the orphans. In addition to supplies and toys, they brought $4,200 in donations, raised through their foundation and Hope Worldwide, and a special church collection.

 About $1,700 came from a July “Zumbathon” held at Fitness Unlimited in East Milton. where Patti teaches Zumba, a Latin/Caribbean dance class.

 Recently, the Hoffs shared a video of their ministerial visit with their congregation at Milton High School.

 Umtata, South Africa, is the hometown of Nelson Mandela and its landscape and people possess an indomitable beauty. At Bethany, neatly dressed tots sing and dance for the Hoffs and other visitors while Sister Mary Paule, age 83, keeps time with her patient nodding by nodding her head. Children’s smiles are as bright as airport landing lights on a runway. The kids eagerly cram into the camera frame and their natural joy is not dampened by the fact that many of them suffer from HIV and AIDS.

 “I cried every day I was there. It’s so easy to stay comfortable here where even second-graders have iPods, so this is my small way of keeping my kids in touch with the suffering, but also the beauty, the creativity and joy that comes out of despair,” Patti Hoff said.

 A.J. Hoff said the Umtata orphans at Bethany were the lucky ones.

 “They have a place to live, they eat three meals a day and they’re getting medical attention,” he said.

 He was encouraged that many of the children look healthier. When the couple left South Africa in 2003, most of the children did not live past the age of 5. Hoff credited the South African government for providing anti- retroviral medicine to the children over the past two years, which slows the disease and brings relief to painful symptoms such as diarrhea and vomiting.

 On a personal level, Hoff sensed the children’s hunger for personal attention and affection.

 “If I were a kid, I’d want to be touched, so I’d rub their faces or hold them. I’d make serious efforts to stroke their arms because I know most people don’t want to touch HIV- infected people,” said A.J. Hoff, 35.

 Baby abandonment is all too common. During the Hoffs’ visit, three infants were brought in on one day.

 “Babies are found at the doorstep, under bridges, by the roadside and the community people know that if they have a baby they can’t afford they can bring them in, no questions asked,” Patti Hoff said.

 Originally built in 1991 by Ursuline nuns, Bethany taught young mothers home skills and proper child care. Then the scourge of AIDS left thousands of children without parents. Bethany’s new focus was to provide a safe place for orphans who often suffer from HIV/AIDS.

 Sometimes the obstacles seem overwhelming. One out of eight African children are infected with HIV/AIDS. It is estimated that by 2020, 80 percent of Africa’s population will be orphans. Strong superstitions, poverty, abuse and polygamy pose obstacles to fighting the disease, according to the Hoffs, who worked in South Africa for eight and a half years.

 Yet the couple said they gain strength from James 1:12: “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.”

 Despite many trials, the 80-plus children find safety at Bethany and Thembilihle Home School. Bethany cares for infants and children up to ages 6 and receives less than $1,000 per month from the South African government to care for 67 small children. A caretaker, working eight hours a day, seven days a week receives $200 (U.S.) a month.

 “One woman has to take care of 20 babies. It’s really hard for her at changing time,” Patti Hoff said. Due to Because of the risk of infection, volunteers are not allowed to change diapers.

 The nearby Thembilihle Home School cares for about 23 children, ages 7 to 16, and receives $700 monthly from local government. Due to Because of budget limitations, teenagers are schooled in the same small room as 7-year-olds.

 “The government money is also supposed to pay for electricity, utilities, infrastructure, food and water for more than 80 kids,” said A.J. Hoff. Donations are crucial to continued operation.

 “Both places are sponsored and partially funded by It Takes a Village. We supply everything the government doesn’t,” said his wife.

 When children leave the orphanage at age 17, they face the prevalent risks of sexual violence, poverty and abuse.

 “Seventeen is a vulnerable age because emotionally, they are like 12,” said Patti Hoff.

 Their foundation also helps older children to get vocational skills. Each year it awards an annual scholarship of $2,500 to one student for a complete two-and-a-half year program in one of the trades, such as construction, plumbing or electricity. There have been five recipients in total so far.

 Wall murals at Bethany are brightly painted with lions, tigers, dolphins and clowns. A chorus of older children sings a heart-soaring song. In this place of disease and poverty, there is only joy.

 Patti Hoff recalled one of the last walks she took at the orphanage.

 “I was holding two little girls’ hands and we were walking together and they were singing. You can just feel the gratitude inside of them,” she said.

How you can help:

Donate through the Web site of It Takes a Village Foundation: http://www.itavf.org

Or mail donations to: It Takes a Village Foundationll,ll c/o A.J. and Patti Hoff, 190 Highland St., Milton, MA 02186