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Eyes on Africa helps orphanage

Kate McClelland | Thursday, September 13, 2007

When sophomore Jeff Lakusta returned from a service trip working in a South African orphanage this summer, he decided to found a nonprofit group called the Eyes on Africa Foundation to continue to support the children through donations.

“I was really touched by my time there,” Lakusta said, “and I was determined not to forget. … So I contacted people from the trip and friends from home and began to set up the foundation.”

The orphanage, Othandweni, is located in the township of Soweto. About 90 children currently live there, including 30 infants. The long waiting list has caused orphaned children to rely on each other until they get a spot.

“While waiting for a place in the orphanage, the kids form families with one another -you’ll find a 15-year-old watching out for several other kids and … responsible for bottle feeding a baby. Can you imagine doing that at 15?” Lakusta said.

He said he was struck by the children’s lack of basic necessities in the orphanage.

“We were bringing them simple things – a washer, dryer, socks – things that we [in the U.S.] take completely for granted,” he said.

Othandweni – which means “place of love” – is the most under-funded orphanage in all of South Africa, Lakusta said, a fact the foundation hopes to change.

“We want to make a sustainable difference, not just giving them meals, but making a lasting improvement in their lives,” Lakusta said.

The foundation’s goal is to build a new orphanage with funds raised by college students on campuses worldwide. Campus coordinators and councils are currently being set up at several universities in addition to Notre Dame, trying to raise awareness with posters and T-shirts.

Right now, Lakusta said, Eyes on Africa hopes to be involved in Notre Dame’s Africa Week. In the spring, the group plans to coordinate an event for all schools with Eyes on Africa councils – possibly a five-kilometer run.

For Lakusta, the project is also a continuation of his research. His trip to South Africa with the International Scholar Laureate Program Delegation on Medicine was also part of the undergraduate research on HIV/AIDS that he is conducting under the instruction of Father James Foster, associate professional specialist of preprofessional studies.

Lakusta said Foster has helped greatly with the development of the foundation.

“He has put me in contact with different groups of people, other professors, that are helping me learn what exactly I want to do to help and the best ways to make a lasting difference,” he said. “He has also helped me find opportunities to speak about my experience, and the more I learn, the better I can explain it to others when I speak to them.”

The Eyes on Africa Foundation hopes to takes its message off campus as well by contacting organizations, publications and celebrities.

The organization is actively trying to contact Time magazine, the Gates Foundation and celebrities like Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker – not only for monetary donations, Lakusta said, but also for displays of support.

“We’re sending Polaroids, Eyes on Africa T-shirts and letters explaining our cause to as many celebrities as we can, in the hopes that they will simply take a picture of themselves in the T-shirt and send it back to us as a show of support for Othandweni,” Lakusta said.

He wants the children’s stories to impact other students as much as they did him.

“I just want them to understand how lucky and blessed we are here,” Lakusta said, “to live in the United States and go to Notre Dame. We have a moral obligation to make a difference, and it starts with one person – you.”