It's hard not to be happy around 12-year-old Olwetu. She greets visitors with an infectious smile and sparkling eyes. Usually surrounded by friends, the outgoing South African seventh-grader is constantly smiling, laughing and talking.
But this is not typical behavior among Olwetu's peers -- hopeless is the best word to describe youth from the nation's Xhosa minority in the slums of Cape Town.
Most young people here must deal with a myriad of issues -- abuse, violence, drugs, gangs, rape, loss of one or both parents, poor education, HIV/AIDS, poverty. These problems have far-reaching tentacles affecting every family in the township.
"We began to see students that were asking ... 'What do I do when I've been raped by my uncle?' 'What do I do when my father and mother are abusing me?' 'I don't have any food at home.' 'My mom and dad don't have work.' 'My mom and dad are dead and I live with my aunt,'" said Bruce Erickson, a Southern Baptist missionary in Cape Town.
"There are so many kids that live in such difficult situations without hope. They don't see a future for themselves here in South Africa. They don't see a future for themselves in their homes."
Originally from California, Erickson and his wife Sheri have served in South Africa for nearly four years; they have three children, one of whom is in the U.S. attending college. Focused on reaching Xhosa youth in Cape Town with the love of Christ, the Ericksons use their educational skills to interact with the students at their schools.
Thirty percent of South Africa's population is age 15 and under, compared to only 13 percent in the U.S., according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on health care issues in the U.S. and abroad.
"What an incredible opportunity for us to reach a huge part of this population and really have a chance to impact a nation for Christ," Sheri said.
The Ericksons lead a project for OneLife, an International Mission Board initiative to connect students in the United States with missions projects around the world. The Cape Town project's goal is to minister to South African learners -- primary and secondary school students.
"We teach life orientation classes, which is sex education, character building, being a good citizen and also learning how to deal with bullies and gangs and abuse -- different things that the kids would face in their life," said Sarah Cowan, a journeyman missionary from South Carolina. She and Michal Mitchell, a journeyman from Illinois, have been assisting the Ericksons in the youth ministry.
"After school, we have leadership clubs or girls [and boys] clubs, worship services -- different ways that we are able to interact with a few of the learners from our classes," Cowan continued, "and we're able to go deeper with them and to share the Gospel."
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SOURCE: Baptist Press