The Benedicts of Pennsylvania
By Tammi DeVille
A computer powers up and a family logs on in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At the same time, an orphaned teenager logs on at a computer lab in sub-Saharan Africa. Through the miracle of the Internet and web cameras with built-in microphones, Linda Benedict and her children connect with their "Net Buddy," Tumi, through a program created by Infinite Family.
Thousands of African children are orphaned every year by AIDS, usually left to fend for themselves, care for younger siblings, and sort out life's challenges. The ratio of children to available adults in many areas is 12 to 1. Infinite Family has created an internet mentoring program that allows adults and families all over the world to provide love, friendship, and guidance to these parentless children thousands of miles away.
Linda learned about Infinite Family from Dana Gold, a fellow church member who is a program director with the organization. They are one of many nonprofits that have posted virtual volunteer opportunities on VolunteerMatch, making it simple and convenient for people that want to help remotely. Linda's husband and three kids were as excited as she was to jump in — so it really is a family affair!
"Each time I've done anything as a volunteer, I've always gotten more out of it than I put in." Linda shares, "Tumi has changed our life."
Fifteen-year-old Tumi lost her parents to AIDS when she was young. The computer lab where she connects with her Video Mentors is at a local orphanage, but she doesn't live there. She lives in an informal settlement on local farm land, and walks nearly a mile to school and another half mile to get to the computer lab.
Tumi excitedly talks about school and boys and cars with Linda's daughter, also a teenager. Her son and Tumi share websites and draw things on the Infinite Family's website whiteboard. And, as Linda says, "They just giggle. It's so funny. All the barriers of being in a different country and being a different age seem to melt away, and they're just kids having fun."
Linda talks with Tumi about her schoolwork and asks if she needs help with any math problems; Tumi and one of Linda's kids both take algebra, so they can help each other. Linda confesses, "She's a normal teenager and doesn't want to spend the time working on her homework."
When staff members of Infinite Family visited Africa, they were able to deliver to Tumi an envelope stuffed with photographs of Linda's family. In return, Tumi sent back a big envelope with the Infinite Family staff containing beaded necklaces for everyone, a keychain, cards she'd made, and pictures of her when she was little. "That just blows me away," Linda says, "because these kids are in no position to be giving gifts."
When asked what she likes best about this opportunity, Linda explains, "It's that we are actually having a relationship with Tumi, who's in South Africa! We have a one-on-one relationship with her, instead of just sending money or supplies. It's the ongoing relationship that's the magic of it."
About the Author
Tammi Lynn DeVille is the author of Changing the World on A Tuesday Night, which features profiles of 50 people from around the country who work full-time jobs or have otherwise busy lives, but find time to volunteer for a cause they are passionate about. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/tammideville.