MUNSTER | In the small southern African kingdom of Swaziland, children struggle to feed and shelter their younger siblings after the deaths of their fathers and mothers from HIV/AIDS.
Some youngsters sell themselves to men to survive. Other orphaned babies and young children are abandoned in fields, along the road or in hovels they once called home, left to die unless someone besides a predator finds them.
These vulnerable children have touched the hearts of the Williams family of Munster. Ann and Doug Williams are Hammond-based ophthalmologists.
Swaziland has a population of less than 1 million yet has more than 200,000 orphans and the AIDS rate is between 42 percent and 56 percent of the population, said Ann Williams.
“More than 5,000 children head households, many in mud huts that they'll be kicked out of when someone else needs it,” she said.
In 2008, Ann and Doug Williams and their three teenage children — Blake, Grant and Lainey — visited Swaziland to help build Emmanuel Khayalethu, a new children’s home supported by Heart for Africa.
Founded by Canadian natives Ian and Janice Maxwell, the Christian nonprofit public charity works with churches and children’s homes in Swaziland to provide care and hope for a future for the nation’s children.
Doug Williams and his family visited the country earlier this summer.
“There were 40-plus children in an ordinary sized house with adults looking after them,” he said, recalling the family’s first trip. “They had a garden to provide food for the children.”
Other visits followed in succeeding years, including being part of a medical team that served communities with Heart for Africa’s partner churches.
“We had had such a good experience that we began supporting Hearts for Africa with child sponsorships and general funds,” said Doug Williams.
The Williams family brought the idea for this mission to their church, Westminster Presbyterian in Munster, and the congregation regularly supports the work of Heart for Africa.
In 2010, a church knitting group created hundreds of beanies to be given to 15,000 children during a national celebration in Swaziland.
Ann Williams and fellow Westminster member Pam Yttri, of Michigan City, traveled to Swaziland last year to deliver Toms shoes to children.
A brunch the past spring at Westminster Presbyterian Church and attended by Janice Maxwell raised more than $24,480 to directly benefit the children.
“Through short-term service trips, child sponsorship and large fundraising programs, we are working to deliver quality care, food, water, clothing, health care and education to the orphaned and vulnerable children of Swaziland,” Maxwell told those attending the brunch.
Maxwell described Heart for Africa’s latest effort, Project Canaan. This 2,500-acre, large-scale land development is designed to provide training and employment, grow large amounts of food and allow export while supporting orphans and other children on the property and across the nation.
“The proceeds from farming will be used to help Project Canaan be a sustainable community, as well as help support existing children’s homes that Heart for Africa has partnered with,” Maxwell said.
Ann Williams was recently named to the Heart for Africa board of directors.
“There is nothing like seeing the conditions in Swaziland for yourself. HIV/AIDS has wiped out an entire generation,” said Doug Williams. “Once you experience it, even words have a different meaning.”