Mentor makes 'Lucky' choice

South African orphan gets guidance from Mt. Lebanon helper


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During a visit in July to Kruger National Park in South Africa, Betsy Hohlfelder talked with an orphan named Lucky about the hard work that is required to make a dream come true.

After she returned home to Mt. Lebanon, and she and Lucky had a videoconference, during which Lucky held up his notebook with goals outlined for his dream: To attend a university.

"He really took my words to heart,'' Mrs. Hohlfelder said.

A non-profit program called Infinite Family allows adult mentors to share their wisdom and guidance -- through video-conferencing and e- mail -- with South African children affected by poverty and sometimes HIV/AIDS.

For the past 2 1/2 years, Mrs. Hohlfelder has engaged in video conferences on her basement computer with Lucky. Twice a week, for about 30 minutes, Mrs. Hohlfelder logs into a secure Web site that Infinite Family has developed.

"We talk about everything and anything: What he's doing, how school is going; about his dreams and about the floor hockey that he plays," she said.

The program is somewhat similar to the Big Brothers Big Sisters program in terms of mentoring, she said.

Lucky, 18, lives in a Johannesberg orphanage called Nkosi's Haven.

Mrs. Hohlfelder, 48, an accountant with a husband and two grown children, was one of six local residents who volunteered in June 2006 to participate in an Infinite Family pilot program.

After eight hours of training, she was assigned Lucky.

"Mentors become the invisible cheering section,'' said Dana Gold, of Munhall, who is program director for Infinite Family.

She developed the program with Executive Director Amy Stokes, of New York City, while both women were raising children they adopted from a South African orphanage.

"What we recognized is that not everyone should or can adopt an orphan from South Africa. But we can still be there for them," she said.

"Technology makes it possible to be there face to face with kids," Ms. Gold said.

There are 75 mentors nationwide and in the United Kingdom and Puerto Rico for 120 children, with roughly 30 of those mentors based in Pittsburgh.

In July, Mrs. Hohlfelder flew to Johannesburg to meet Lucky at her own expense, except for some funding from the scholarship fund of Bower Hill Community Church in Mt. Lebanon, of which she is a member.

"By the end of the trip we felt very comfortable with one another, with our relationship deepened in such a meaningful way," Mrs. Hohlfelder said.

She credits her faith and her love of children for her involvement.

"When you hear about the number of kids in Africa who are orphans without an adult who cares, it is heartbreaking and a little overwhelming. I can't solve the bigger problem, but I have the time to invest in one child.

"Lucky knows that I care about him, and that means a lot to him," she said.

To donate, or for information on becoming a mentor, contact dana.gold@infinitefamily.org, or visit www.infinitefamily.org.


Freelance writer Margaret Smykla can be reached at suburbanliving@post-gazette.com .


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