Betsy Meyer had an epiphany nearly nine years ago on a bus ride in Seattle.
That bus ride took her on a journey to South Africa where she founded an organization called Thembalethu, “Our Hope” in English.
“God put AIDS and orphans in my heart,” Meyer said during an interview Friday in Enumclaw. Also in her heart was the will to make a difference in this world, and she has.
Recently Meyer returned to the Enumclaw area to visit her father, Rich Elfers, and to raise money around the region for her nonprofit, Thembalethu Care Organization, that provides assistance for the children and adults who are ill from HIV.
Meyer went to South Africa in 2004 to help a home-based caregivers organization. The workers were trying to support their South African neighbors who were dying of AIDS.
“The people were dying like flies because there was no treatment,” Meyer said. “They (the home-care workers) were just trying to come along side and support them and make them more comfortable.”
About 40 percent of the adults in the KwaZulu-Natal area of South Africa are currently HIV positive. South Africa as a whole has about a 20 percent AIDS infection rate.
Life expectancy in the 1980s in South Africa was in the 60s and today has dropped to the 40s due to the impact of HIV.
Meyer said there is such a stigma attached to AIDS families would often try to take their sick and hide them.
“If you were HIV infected it meant you must be a very promiscuous kind of person,” Meyer said.
HIV in South Africa is primarily in the heterosexual population.
Meyer said in the rural area where she is working, the men travel to the city and get infected with HIV from a sexual partner, then take it back home to their wives.
When she first went to South Africa, Meyer joined forces with Xoli, who was a home-base caregiver, to give a 10-day training to the social workers and nurses at a hospital in the Amangwe region. The training provided information about HIV, the infections that occur as a result of the virus and providing for the many orphans left after the death of the parents.
“HIV is so big and it often hits both members of the family (parents) in the prime of life,” Meyer said. “You have a lot of mothers and fathers who are dying and you end up with a lot of children infected as well.”
Meyer said according to statistics 1,000 South Africans die every day from HIV.
“Right now we have 320 patients we are caring for and last month we had five people die,” she said. “Some women were in their 30s and another was a 12-year-old boy.”
Tuberculosis is another problem. When HIV lowers the immune system in the body, TB takes over in many. Meyer said the majority of her patients have both HIV and tuberculosis.
In 2006, when the training project ended, it appeared to be the end of Meyer’s work in South Africa.
“We’re leaving these women with lots of knowledge, but the level of need was so great we didn’t know what to do,” Meyer said. “I’d finished my time with the microfinance project and I thought I was done.”
She returned to the U.S. thinking her time in South Africa was over, but just before leaving she put in a proposal with the Winterton Methodist Church in South Africa. The church members had asked her to submit a proposal.
Once back in America she discovered the church had given her about $25,000 to start her program.
The church bought her a bakkie, or pickup, and gave her about 18 months of operating expenses to travel around to patients’ homes and help orphans.
Meyer has been able to keep the care organization going each year through fundraisers. She also has a principal sponsor, The Global Fund to fight AIDS,TB and Malaria.
Meyer’s organization serves a population of about 50,000 people, the Amangwe Tribal Area.
When she returns to the U.S. she catches up with friends and family, but spends much of her time raising money and supplies for Thembalethu.
Her father said he has had some mixed feelings about his daughter living in Africa.
“I’m very pleased she is helping people and proud of what she is doing,” Elfers said. “I’m not real excited about her being 10,000 miles away…. Skype has really helped a great deal.”
Meyer’s path to South Africa began in part while at the University of Washington where she majored in international studies with a focus on international development.
The crossroads came after graduation while she was riding a bus in Seattle.
“I heard God’s voice clearer than I ever have before,” Meyer said. “I was reading through a book about God’s heart for the poor… (“Rich Christians in an age of Hunger”) and the Book of Leviticus. It was talking about God’s design for societies in terms of caring for the poor.”
Meyer said next she received a letter from her dad.
“My dad likes to send me these love letters, a little note like ‘I remember the day you were born,’” Meyer said. “There were a couple of other things and it all came to a head when I was on a bus in Seattle. I was reading the paper and there was this article about African women who were caring for orphans in Kenya. They were talking about African women with no education or maybe a third-grade education and they were doing a tremendous amount to care for children with AIDS. I am not normally a super emotional person, but I broke down in tears on the bus. It was pulling everything together.”
What struck Meyer was the women with very little education helping so many.
“Here I was already in the 1 percent of the world’s population with a college education thinking I can’t do anything,” Meyer said. “God just really convicted me. He’s given us a lot of love, he has a tremendous love himself for the poor and for all people. My dad had a lot of love, these women had a lot of love because they knew their creator and they were able to share that. Why couldn’t I? All these kids really needed was love, not some high degree to go over there. So I went.”
Her decision of faith has grown into an organization that cares for 300 or more patients every month. Thembalethu trains family members, provides food, transportation assistance and many forms of support. The group operates a soup kitchen and works with orphans. Since 2005 UNICEF reports there are 1.2 million orphans in South Africa.
There is treatment for HIV today, antiretroviral medication that will suppress the virus in the body. The medication must be taken for life and if accessed too late other infections can attack the body, causing death.
The other problems Meyer’s organization will deal with are getting the medication to the afflicted patients and the stigma of AIDS. The medication is provided for free, but it is often difficult to get the patients to the clinics or get the medication to the patients.
The stigma also creates a problem because children are not being told about their illness. Many of the children get the virus from their mother.
The challenges for Meyer are many and varied, but her life is a life that has been changed.
She and her husband have adopted a 2-year-old boy, Joshua, and they have found their life caring for the sick and orphaned in South Africa.
“They say you get Africa in your blood,” Meyer said.
God’s voice found Betsy Meyer on a bus in Seattle and carried her to Africa.
Meyer can be contacted for donation to Thembalethu at firstname.lastname@example.org