Canberra's Despina Voudouris was so moved when she visited a sanctuary for vulnerable children in South Africa that she set up an organisation in Australia to support their work. Planning a trip to South Africa in 2003, Despina made a last minute request to a friend in Johannesburg to organise some volunteer work at an AIDS orphanage. Within three hours of her arrival in Johannesburg, Despina was at Cotlands, which was established in 1936 as a care centre for unwed mothers and their infants, where she was to spend three days doing volunteer work. Cotlands has evolved into an organisation offering shelter for abused, abandoned, HIV-positive, orphaned and terminally ill children up to the age of 14. It also provides community based services to vulnerable children in five provinces. Cotlands impacts more than 4,200 families either through home based and residential care or through outreach, capacity building, counselling and psychosocial support.
Describing that first experience, Despina says: “I was totally blown away and moved by what I saw. I felt that I had to do something to support Cotlands because otherwise I would be allowing this situation to perpetuate. That was something that I couldn't live with.”
On her return to Australia, Despina set up OzCots with the aim of raising awareness of HIV issues generally and funds for Cotlands. Since then the organisation has handed over more than $170,000 to Cotlands and obtained support from about 10 major organisations. One supporter, South African Airways, sponsored Despina to volunteer at Cotlands for two months from November 2004. Around this time Despina gave up her job saying that it interfered with her passion, and she didn't have enough time to organise all the fundraising activities whilst working full-time. Despina's work has another link with Africa. She has dedicated OzCots to thememory of her two great aunts who passed away within 24 days of each otherin November 2003. They were brought up in an orphanage in Egypt after Despina's great grandfather was murdered and her great grandmother could not afford to bring up all her children on her own. OzCots volunteers have visited Cotlands four times. The most recent returned to Australia early in March this year. Despina says that it was an opportunity for the volunteers to see the beauty of South Africa, as well as to give back to humanity in a small way.
During the recent visit the team spent time at several Cotlands projects around South Africa. These included a community centre in Soweto, where they assisted in digging plots for a garden project. “The singing and constant smiles of the grannies is something we will always treasure,” says Despina. The team travelled to projects in Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal, with some members staying on to visit in Cape Town as well. They also had some time for sightseeing in the Kruger Park and white water rafting. In the impoverished rural area of Hlabisa in KwaZulu-Natal, the team met a young orphaned 16 year old who is looking afterfive siblings including two with disabilities. “Cotlands provides assistance with schooling, meals and homework, as well as emotional and medical support for this community that has been heavily affected by HIV and AIDS.” Despina says that the impact of Cotlands really hit home for the Australians to see people living in such impoverished conditions. For more information see www.ozcots.org.au or http://www.cotlands.org/