TRANSFORMING LIVES: Charmaine Wheatley has so far led 38 Australian volunteers to help out an orphanage in Welkom, South Africa.
TRANSFORMING LIVES: Charmaine Wheatley has so far led 38 Australian volunteers to help out an orphanage in Welkom, South Africa. Patrick Woods

Welcome Aussies leave a mark on Welkom

AT THE heart of a decaying city that once rode high on a wave of prosperity lie the children who have been left behind.

Welkom, South Africa, is home to an estimated 17,000 orphans, a legacy of the city's once booming gold mines, which attracted countless migrant workers from neighbouring countries such as Swaziland and Angola.

At one time, South Africa was responsible for producing two-thirds of the world's gold.

As the country's gold sector continues to decline, much of Welkom, situated 300km south of Johannesburg, has slid into poverty.

But there remain people who still believe Welkom is home to a precious commodity.

Forest Glen woman Charmaine Wheatley, 61, has spent the past 10 years helping pan for the potential in the city's orphans.

Charmaine has seen both faces of Welkom - she was born and educated there, and returned a decade ago to find her hometown almost unrecognisable.

"When I left Welkom, when I finished school, it was one of the wealthiest cities in South Africa. Then when I went back it was one of the most impoverished," Charmaine said.

"After the closure of the mines, the migrant workers left and returned to their homelands and left 17,000 orphans in one town."

Many become orphans through the scourge of HIV/AIDS.

When Charmaine was invited back to Welkom 10 years ago to inspect the Dunamis Christian School and an associated AIDS orphanage run by her friend Doreen Cloete, she was shocked by the high rates of crime, unemployment and homelessness.

But she was also amazed by what had been achieved.

"I was astounded at what she had achieved with the goggos (grandmothers) and the old donated mine offices, which Doreen had transformed into a school with many classrooms," Charmaine said.

"The old goggos had cleaned out over 500 bags of rubbish, painted the classrooms, and Doreen harnessed friends and relatives to repair broken doors and windows and obtained the necessary licences and certificates to help the orphans and most vulnerable children within the community."

Charmaine said the proof of Dunamis's success was in the students whose futures had been transformed.

"One of the most heart-wrenching experiences for me was when we rescued a little girl who had been living on the rubbish dump with people who had taken her in after her mother had died of AIDS and her father had deserted them," she said.

"She was covered with filth, snotty little nose and torn clothing.

"Three months later, as I was working near her classroom, a now clean and happy little girl ran over to me, grabbed my hand and excitedly took me to show me the running water in her classroom when she turned on the tap."

Charmaine has seen students enter the school as orphans and become teachers themselves after graduating.

A member of the Mooloolaba Rotary Club, Charmaine has become a Rotary International project manager and has so far led 38 Australian volunteers to assist at the orphanage, to work as teachers, teachers' aides, nurses, engineers, accountants, librarians and general helpers.

Charmaine refers to the impact the Australians have left on Welkom as a "heart print".

Charmaine's next trip to Welkom is in October.

A film premiere fundraiser will be held in September at the Sunshine Plaza.

For more information, visit charmainewheatley. wix.com/volunteer-welkom.


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