Weston doctor humbled by experience helping orphans in South Africa
Published 1:06 am, Friday, April 23, 2010
Weston resident Dr. Charles Morgan, the chairman of psychiatry at Bridgeport Hospital, has the means to travel anywhere in the world. He could vacation in Bermuda, Italy, or anywhere else for that matter, if he so desired.
But rather than heading off to where ocean water is crystal clear, or visiting the sights of Rome, Morgan spent the latter half of March in the region of Kwa Zulu-Natal, South Africa, working with Thanda, a nonprofit organization under Orphans Against Aids dedicated to providing support for orphans of AIDS and other vulnerable children.
More specifically, Morgan worked with the 20-something-year-old men and women counselors/teachers at the Thanda After-School Project, a new low-resource approach to unemployment, HIV/AIDS, and the orphan crisis in Kwa Zulu-Natal.
The counselors/teachers serve as role models to the children under their wing and so it is important they set a good example.
"If you don't have a role model you end up making poor decisions and end up in a system that is not set up for them to succeed," Morgan said.
He said many children have lost parents to AIDS or violence.
Morgan worked with the counselors on psychoeducation, "but spent more time looking at affirmations, looking at strengths, and to build skills."
He said Thanda is working on "saving this generation of kids" through empowerment and education. There are still myths in South Africa as to how to treat AIDS. Thanda, however, works to educate people on how not to become HIV positive -- the disease that causes AIDS.
It is estimated that there are 1,000 deaths a day from AIDS in South Africa and by 2015, there will be 5.7 million AIDS orphans.
Morgan had the 14 young people he worked with engage in exercises that made them look at their strengths, weaknesses, write about their accomplishments and what they are passionate about. In the end, it allowed them to "pull forward so that they can then use that as a way to motivate themselves," according to Morgan.
"Not only that," he said, "it's an exercise you can easily teach young people to do."
Morgan, who made the trip overseas with Linda Rost, LCSW, who is in private practice in Wilton and an expert in trauma, said their goal was to build resiliency and help staff understand their own issues with trauma without causing retraumatization.
"We used an experimental approach tapping into their passion for music/singing, art, cognitive exercises and psychoeducation. This would allow them to translate this work to the students they serve," Morgan said.
The young men and women were also taught relaxation exercises and "ways to check in with themselves when they're under stress."
Each day, early in the day, everyone was asked what the best thing that happened to them in the morning was. At the end of the day, they were asked to sum up their day. Answers, among others, included, "cooperation," learning" and "innovation."
While Morgan has visited Jamaica several times with PRN Relief, this was his first trip to South Africa to help make a difference.
"I am left humbled and inspired by the experience," he said. "The warmth with which we were received, the openness to exploring the issues with people from another continent left me in awe. I am motivated to be more creative with the resources I have and to focus more on the strengths that I and others around me possess."
Morgan said seeing how the young men and women give back to their community, despite a lack of resources, makes him feel like he measures up very short. He told the Westport News he plans to step up his volunteer efforts. He noted that many of these young men and women could get better-paying jobs in a big city, but they instead choose to stay where they are and help the youth.
Between the work he was doing, Morgan was able to find time to go on a safari, go on a pilgrimage to find a Zulu mat, and be entertained with quality singing from the local school children.
"The Zulus must have been born singing," he said. "The harmonies were excellent. You get moved to tears."
Morgan said the singing over there is "as natural as speaking here."
"I have gotten more out of these trips than I probably have given," Morgan said. "They are emotionally, spiritually and intellectually satisfying, and they inspire me to try to do more."
In fact, he plans on building off of his first foray to South Africa.
"In the fall I would like to host a fundraiser to help the staff and provide facilities to house the program on land donated to the organization by the chief. A return visit in a year is possible if it is believed we can be of further help," Morgan said.