The Donkey Trail
I was born in Cape Town and lived the first 11 years of my life in Simonstown, attending school in Fish Hoek. My father was appointed Military Attache at the SA embassy in Bonn, West Germany and so we transferred to Europe for the high school years of my life. In a desperate bid to fit in with a very different young society, at the young age of 11 I became involved in drugging and started on a journey of complete destruction. 17 years later, back in South Africa I was still gripped in the claws of addiction. My mother and sister had been praying for me for more than a decade but I believed they were “insane” to believe that there was a god that could help. It was also at this time that I faced the horrific reality of a nasty childhood molestation that I had experienced as a 5 year old girl.
At the age of 30, I did meet Jesus and experienced, through my water baptism and complete deliverance from addiction. Up until this stage of my life, nothing had made any sense at all. The following story reflects part of the journey God has taken me on since. He is truly able to bring beauty from pain. All glory to the Most High God.
CALLING! LOVE! PASSION! INSANITY! In 1998 we moved to Groenfontein as a lifestyle choice to raise our own three children and believe we were called to love the broken kids in the valley. During our physical move into the valley we noticed a dirty, suspicious little coloured chap (Emile) watching our every move from the koppie behind our house. Being in the shipping business, Hans felt it would be great to find him an opportunity as a deck hand on a ship to the Philippines as we had two young daughters (one of 2 yrs and one of 4 months). Yes, out of sight out of mind – problem gone! This of course was wishful thinking and soon Emile became a familiar face hanging around the farm, an ever present nuisance, yet, somehow he grew on us.
One day the police arrived looking for him (he was then 14) for the rape of an 11 year old girl. He was sentenced to several years in juvenile prison. We knew that he was in a relationship with this young girl and caught “in the act” by her alcoholic mother. He was not a violent kid. We approached local welfare to see whether there was any other option for him. They told us we could have him and promptly declared us a “place of safety”????? Crazy thought, as we sort of already did “have him”. After a few formalities Emile was placed into our care and moved into our home as a son, under strict discipline and guidance. Our calling to love the broken kids had started.
Emile lived with us for 3 years, returned to school, became a prefect and was much loved by all his fellow students and teachers. He attended boarding school and came home every weekend and school holiday. He has flourished into a fine young man and now supports his own mother and four sisters in Hermanus.
Emile does not work as a guide on the Donkey Trail but he certainly set the stage for many more such cases who have come through our home since 1998, some voluntarily, others placed with us through social welfare or even correctional services. There have been many successes and many failures all of which we continue to love as our own children. It is the life stories of these young people that inspire us to be part of building their futures. This is why the Donkey Trail has come to be. The HOW, is another story within a story.
When we moved to the valley, we were in a place in our own lives where we had just had a miraculous encounter with the Most High God. This is another story within the story. We had an unstoppable zeal to share our faith as we had experienced firsthand how our God made the impossible, possible. We started casual meetings on Wednesday nights with any willing young folks, Emile included. We wore jeans, sat on our living room floor with them (the dining room where you ate) and shared stories, listened to music, sometimes watched an inspiring movie. Forrest Gump was always a favourite. Soon trust developed and many parents started joining their kids on Wednesday evenings. Local pastors started coming in to find out whether we had started a new church (we had NOT, in fact we encouraged the youth to support their existing churches). Eventually we started singing and praying together. This is when real engagement took place. We had found a very special place to share with one another beyond the flesh, beyond the skin colour, beyond the massive class and economic divide.
We have dedicated 12 years of love to the families in Groenfontein. We have survived death threats, stones being lobbed at our cars, offensive and abusive language. We have chosen forgiveness in every instance. One of the greatest lessons we believe has been learned is the story of persevering forgiveness. This love has exposed sexual abuse of children and senseless beatings of woman, hidden secrets of an unsolved murder , horrific substance abuse (even babies are given wine in their bottles to “knock them out”) it has also caused one of the young men to be sentenced to 27 years as a paedophile. We still support him and visit him in Malmesbury prison, we are all he has, even though we exposed his problem. Clearly doing “good” does not always make one popular. Life lessons are the most valuable ones being learned.
I am not sure whether our hikers realise the HUGE impact that they are having on each one of our guide’s lives. Every trail, each interaction, from difficult to compassionate guests who perceive the heart of the trail, all make their incredible mark and contribution to the university of life that our guides have embarked on. Our hikers are definitely not just hiking a trail; they are participating in this project. We cannot take our guides to the world but we are bringing the world to them. They are rubbing shoulders with Ministers, politicians, surgeons, lawyers, chefs, locals, Germans, Italians, you name it, and also just the caring retired hiker that completely respects and adores our natural wonders, thereby instilling an understanding of the value of biodiversity in our young people.
Im happy to illustrate one example of a guide sharing his own feedback. We were offered an opportunity to speak about how the Donkey Trail had changed the lives of some of our young people, at a Biodiversity Funders meeting at Kirstenbosch in 2009. We selected Franklin, a 26 year old married with 2 young kids, guide to attend this occasion and speak together with me. Due to extreme time restraints we had to fly to Cape Town and back (from George) making Franklin the first Groenfonteiner to board a fixed wing aircraft (most of them have experienced at least one helicopter flip up to the camp). We had a 15 minute opportunity to share the Donkey Trail to 200 potential donors, both local and international. After a short PowerPoint presentation I handed the floor to Franklin (had never spoken publically before) and let him speak from his heart. He described the Donkey Trail as a rehab for his body, mind and soul. He explained how proud his children are of him and how happy his wife is that she now has a washing machine. He told the audience that he now has a future for his children, that he is too tired to even consider going out and drinking when he gets home (something he previously did) so he stays home with the family and teaches them what he has learned that week (even cooking ideas) and talks about all the interesting people and stories he encounters on the trail.
We have had very positive feedback from parents and spouses of guides, not only regarding spiritual growth in the lives of their partners but also financial improvements at home and with regards to the fitness and personal hygiene and nutrition, changes spilling over into their lives. There is also a positive and much needed mentorship arising from the guides, with many of the much younger people in the valley looking up to them and aspiring to be guides themselves.
Giving the guides responsibility has been high risk. Looking back at my own life, probably one of the craziest and impossible risks I have taken. Many people in our surrounding area told us we were insane to trust them, the trail was nicknamed the Dronkey Trail before we even started as sceptics spoke doom over the operation. We have had our fair share of challenges but these young men have taken ownership of this product. They have come to understand the value of “biodiversity conservation” they have started understanding the huge potential and opportunities that tourism hold for them. They have started looking beyond tomorrow into a deeper brighter future. Exciting stuff.
Many of these kids have lacked parenting, discipline, “pruning”, consequences of negative behaviour etc. Although Hans and I are both business professional and we apply these principals over to the Donkey Trail, we see our role with the guides very much as that of a parenting or stewarding role. Always prepared to be there when needed to support the guides, take responsibility where it is needed but also to trust them as they grow and help them carry the consequences of bad choices. Our challenge of course is going to be to “EXIT”. We do have a plan for this but not until at least a decade is over by which time we believe it will be possible for our role to become absolutely minimal.
Our greatest challenge has been trust and honesty. Although there is a deep lying spiritual trust between us and most of the families here, there is a skin surface legacy of mistrust and even hatred due to the country that we live in. This surfaces time and again. When we combine this reality of our country with MONEY, need and greed, we end up with a quite different scenario to sitting in a room together praying, singing, sharing heartache and joy.
What we have seen emerging, on a positive note, is that our young men are becoming more and more mature in receiving reprimand and criticism for their errors, taking responsibility for their mistakes and growing from them rather than seeing them as white on black/coloured issues. This is a huge sign of hope for us on the Donkey Trail, something that we strive to achieve. We of course balance this out with MASSES of praise for work well done and then there is the feedback from guests which is such a boost to their morale.
We have not touched the surface with these answers. Each guide has his own incredible life story, I want to share them ALL. God is alive!
We share so many precious times, we really do cry together and laugh together. For us this is just our lives. From comments we receive time and again, we must believe we as a community share something special. Deep down we know this and we really want to share our hope with all. We believe in this country! It can work. South Africa needs love, forgiveness, perseverance and unselfish dedication of one’s time.
‘LORD, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, LORD.’ HAB 3:2
COAL into DIAMONDS. Every minute has been worth it. We are SO PROUD of Geraldo, Franklin, Malcolm, Johnifer, Davian, Morne, Bokkie, David, Anthony, Chalton, Chantal, Eunice, Juliette, Mackie,Jannie,, Hans, Beata, Grace, Matthias, Mimi, Jennifer and Maxwell. We also give credit to our donkeys, Buddy, Marmite, Thyme, Goldie, Saartjie, JD, Sophie, Haggas, Mijas, Natal, Taxi, Mary, Sunshine and all the new young ones, Flapjack, Sonny, Liquorice, Ami, Cabby and Speedy who through their own rehabilitation on the farm have also taught us valuable character building lessons in trust, serving, patience and perseverance.
There are several other projects on the go. We have the preschool on the farm Stepping Stones,(in its 6th year) which is currently starting a bread and soup making project to help feed the older school kids when they get home on cold winter afternoons. There is a donkey cart, wine/port farm touring project in the pipeline which will recruit, train and empower guides in Calitzdorp and then there are several other trails which we believe should be guided and could learn from our model. We are happy to share. We also dream of a halfway house on the farm for young people on their way from rehab back into society.
Looking back, I can only praise God for what he has done. I encourage all people who feel broken, to surrender to him completely and let him take over and direct your lives from here. It makes looking forward so much easier to do.
~ Erika Calitz | Founder of The Donkey Trail ~
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