LeadingAge Magazine · May/June 2013 • Volume 03 • Number 03

The Power of a GoGo

May 10, 2013 | by Steve Proctor

The Power of a GoGo

In more than 40 years of working for Presbyterian Senior Living, I have witnessed the power of connecting seniors and children. Like many other senior care providers we have seen that the combination of seniors and children often produces extraordinary opportunities and benefits for both groups. This has been affirmed in my personal life as a parent observing the bond between my children and their grandparents. In more recent years as a grandparent, I have come to a more complete realization of what an intergenerational relationship can mean. I am not alone in this. Many of my friends and colleagues tell me that the sweetest moments in life are spent with a grandchild.

This is the frame of reference that I take into my role as chairman of the board of Forgotten Voices International, an eight-year-old ministry serving people in Zimbabwe and Zambia. Founded by Ryan Keith, a graduate of Messiah College and Harvard’s Kennedy School, FVI is an organization with a unique model for reaching out to meet the varied and complex needs of children orphaned by AIDS.

The problems in Zimbabwe and Zambia are daunting. With a combined population of approximately 27 million and a life expectancy of 52 years, more than two million adults are estimated to be victims of AIDS. This is a formula that has produced between two million and 2.5 million orphans. The government is at best benign in addressing the severity of the problem. There is no safety net. In some areas government corruption and resistance is more the norm, inhibiting the work of international groups trying to help.

In the middle of all of this tragedy, there are a few shining lights. Local churches are vibrant and growing. They are the backbone of the community with the capacity to mobilize their scant resources to make a huge difference. Forgotten Voices works through these local churches as a partner in the heroic fight to save orphaned children. To illustrate how engaged churches have become, it is not unusual for orphans to come to the church on Sunday morning looking for food or shelter. Services are delayed as immediate needs are met and congregation members volunteer to take responsibility for a child. Sometimes these arrangements are temporary until other family members can be located. Often a child finds their new family at the doors of the church.

Families still do much of the heavy lifting in caring for orphans. But they are not the families that most of us would recognize. It is estimated that 75% of the households in Zambia care for an orphaned child outside of their immediate family. (In the U.S., with adoptions and government-assisted foster care programs, this number is closer to 1%). Often these are households headed by seniors. Southern Africa has a very small “sandwich generation”—people who are caught between the responsibility of raising children and caring for elders. A major portion of the middle generation is gone as a result of the AIDS epidemic, leaving seniors and children in an intergenerational care giving relationship that is critical to their mutual survival.

There are many stories that illustrate the role seniors play in the lives of orphans, but none more vivid than Keith’s story of meeting a grandmother that became one of the reasons Forgotten Voices was created. In order to understand this story, you need to know that the term for grandmother in Zimbabwe and Zambia is GoGo, which is my favorite description of an active grandmother. Keith says:

“When I met the GoGo, it was July of 2004 and I was halfway through my first trip to Africa to learn more about the AIDS crisis in Zimbabwe and local responses underway. We were visiting with 11 others from my church, traveling to 13 different local efforts over the course of 12 days.

“We were visiting a rural, church-run AIDS clinic in south central Zimbabwe to learn about their orphan care programs. Pastor Obert, the orphan care director, took us to visit a 74-year-old grandmother, or GoGo, who had lost all six of her children to AIDS and related illnesses, leaving her to care for 24 grandchildren, 15 of whom were school-aged. We learned that the children had not been in school for six months because they could not afford the fees. When we asked what the fees were, we were told that about $200 would send all 15 back to school for the term, including two to secondary school.

“After saying our goodbyes and getting back in the van, we all felt that we had just seen so much and were doing so little. We reached into our pockets and gave Obert the $200 that he personally took to the schools that week to pay the school fees. He committed to making sure that each of the children would attend school, work hard, and make sure that our money would not be wasted.

“About six months later I returned to Zimbabwe with two other friends from the trip to begin laying out a plan for how we could get involved in these local efforts on an ongoing basis. We stopped by the GoGo’s house to see how she was managing. We were amazed at what had happened in just six months. Our gift through the local church-run AIDS clinic not only enabled the children to go back to school, but it changed the village. With a little money the GoGo was able to save because we had paid the school fees, she was able to pay a man to help her work her field, giving this man a job and allowing him to send his daughter back to school. The crops grown in the field helped feed the family and the excess was sold to help the family meet other living expenses.

“Ryan says “Our dream is to help thousands of GoGos around Africa through the work of FVI and its network of churches. Our mission is being realized as we equip communities, empower orphans, and raise sustainable hope for these children and their families.”

That grandmother, now in her 80s, still cares for nine of her school-age grandchildren. With the help of Forgotten Voices, channeled through her local church, she has been able to keep her family together.

What does this all mean and how is it connected to my work as a not-for-profit senior care provider?

First of all, it is a reminder that we should have a more global perspective. We need to learn more and care about plight of children and seniors in disadvantaged parts of the world. Those of us who have been born in a place of relative wealth and freedom need to live in full appreciation of those blessings and live our lives in a way that reflects gratitude for the blessings we have received.

Secondly, there is much we can learn from our African brothers and sisters; like the strength of living in community, the willingness to share meager resources without reservation, and the vital role of seniors in holding a community together to create a better future.

On a professional level we should re-examine our tendency to look at each other as belonging to different generations. Human need crosses generational boundaries, and we need all generations to work together to meet the big challenges before us. The discovery that working with orphans in southern Africa is also a ministry to seniors was an eye opener for me in this regard.

Personally, I have been inspired to take action now and to think about how I want to continue to make difference as I look forward to retirement in the future. There is no need to wait to make a difference in the lives of others. Forgotten Voices is one of many organizations that are making a difference in the lives of children and seniors. Anyone who is serious about helping someone less fortunate can find an organization working in Africa or anywhere else in the world.

The idea of retirement has become less about finding interesting things to do with my time. Thoughts of retirement are now focused on opportunities to grow and develop, become a better person, and use my talents and abilities to make a contribution to this world and those who live in it. It has also changed the way I look at the future of Presbyterian Senior Living, engaging those we serve in ways that will enable them to reach out to others in the community and the world at large.

For more information on Forgotten Voices International, visit its website.