Iowa Alumni Magazine | December 2005 | People

Forgotten Children: Traci Johnson

By Kathryn Howe
“I don’t care what you do with it,”

The woman said as she held out a shoebox containing a tiny baby girl. Immediately, Mama Gladys took the baby into her safekeeping.

Caretaker at the Oceans of Mercy Children’s Village, a home on five acres just outside Port Elizabeth, South Africa, Mama Gladys oversees the welfare of 11 children who are orphaned or affected by AIDS.

The village opened this past spring, thanks to an Oceans of Mercy group that includes Traci Johnson. Its purpose is to provide what so many children in South Africa crave but do not receive—a safe, loving environment that feeds body and soul.

Johnson, a stay-at-home mother, discovered Oceans at her local coffee shop in Shawnee, Kansas. Shop owner and South African native Schaun Colin had just founded the charity to help devastated children in his homeland. Johnson pored over his newsletter, discovering the abhorrent circumstances some South African children face: eight-year-olds forced to run their households; young girls prostituting themselves for money; infants raped under the unthinkable yet widespread assumption that sex with a virgin cures AIDS. Johnson glanced at her own children, innocent and free. Who would protect the little ones half a world away? She couldn’t solve the problem, but she could do something. Soon, she found herself sharing fund-raising ideas with Colin.

Oceans of Mercy volunteers face staggering statistics. In the Eastern Cape region where the organization operates, AIDS leaves more than 230 children abandoned each month. In one township alone (population 330,000), some 300 funerals take place every weekend. The volunteers refuse to throw up their hands. They hope to build more homes on their Port Elizabeth property, as well as a school and medical clinic.

“Every child has a story that breaks your heart,” says Johnson, who found herself particularly drawn to four-month-old Phila-Sande (pictured above, at left). “When she arrived at the Village, Phila-Sande was empty inside; she had no smile,” Johnson says. “Now, she’s laughing and playing. That’s how kids are supposed to be.”