College of Social Studies majors Angela Larkan
’06 and Lindsey Reynolds ’04 raise funds and awareness for orphaned pre-schoolers
in South Africa through their non-profit organization, Thembanathi. Larkan's
thesis at Wesleyan involved establishing a method of care for AIDS orphans
using their school system.
contributed by Maya Casagrande)
Student, Alumnae Research Orphan Care In South Africa and Establish Aid
Larkan ’06 was raised in an apartheid South African town knowing that she
could have been born into a poor family just down the road. With an
estimated one in three South African children expected to be orphans by the
year 2010 due to the AIDS virus, Larkan always knew she wanted to make a
difference in her native country.
“When I look into the eyes of the orphans, they all seem to be telling me
the same thing,” says Larkan, who has family roots in South Africa reaching
back to the 1800s. “They show me that they matter as human beings; that they
have energy, love and innocence to offer the world, and that they need
someone to help them survive.”
In 2003, Larkan took on the task of co-founding a non-profit organization
dedicated to raising funds and awareness for children in South Africa. The
organization, Thembanathi, means "hope with us" in Zulu. Social
major Lindsay Reynolds ’04 has worked on and off in South Africa for the
last three years on HIV prevention projects and co-directs Thembanathi with
According to the South African Department of Health, in 2004, South Africa
had more HIV positive people than any other country in the world. In the
province of KwaZulu-Natal, known as the “AIDS belt,” 40.7 percent of women
attending antenatal clinics had HIV/AIDS. Mothers have a one in three chance
of passing the deadly disease onto their children.
Thembanathi partners with Holy Cross AIDS Hospice, a non-governmental
organization which supports orphans of AIDS and other vulnerable children.
Money raised by Thembanathi goes toward feeding programs, a summer camp, children’s educational fees, and transportation
for children to and from the preschool, among other needs.
Larkan’s interest in the orphaned children of AIDS was intensified during her
sophomore year at Wesleyan. She applied for the Davenport Study Grant,
normally awarded to juniors doing thesis research, to go to South Africa and
conduct research on the AIDS orphan crisis, and determine a strategy to best
handle the dramatic increase of orphans expected by 2010.
“I wanted to work on something that was real and more relevant to today's
world,” she says.
Larkan received the grant, and for six weeks, she traveled around the city
of KwaZulu-Natal, interviewing key players in orphan care and the AIDS
pandemic. There, she worked with Reynolds, who received a similar grant her
junior year to study in South Africa. That opportunity crystallized
Reynolds' interest in AIDS on an international level and expanded her
interest to working with children orphaned and made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS.
Together, the women witnessed dozens of pre-school-aged children left alone
to fend for themselves in areas where hunger, disease,
and poverty were
already part of daily life. They communicate with the children through an
acquired “toddler Zulu” and hire a translator when conducting research.
“Our time there was fateful because we left with a desire, drive, and
persistence to do more than just write about the AIDS situation,” Larkan
explains. “We knew that we had to do something, no matter how small, to help
the children that we had seen.”
Larkan, who spearheads Thembanathi's fundraising efforts, has coordinated
benefit concerts, bake sales, candy-grams, refreshment sales at athletic
games and jewelry sales to raise money for the organization. Beaded AIDS
pins, handmade by Zulu women, are the program’s top seller. Thembanathi
raised $14,000 in its first two years, and acquired a $33,000 grant from the
Wellesley Rotarians and Rotary International to establish a water
purification system at Holy Cross.
Last summer, support from President Doug Bennet and the Christopher Brodigan
Fund afforded the Thembanathi directors to return to South Africa for two
months. While there, Larkan conducted some follow-up research on her thesis,
which involved establishing a method of care for AIDS orphans using the
school system. In addition, she developed a proposal that would link at-risk
children in orphanages and schools with non-governmental agencies and social
Larkan and Reynolds are also building networks, and are trying to have their
ideas discussed in academic public policy circles.
Richard Elphick, professor of history, supervised Larkan’s thesis.
“I certainly encourage my students to do projects in public service, but
Angela is doing extraordinary things on a number of different fronts,” he
says. “Rather than studying AIDS prevention, Angela is working on the other
end - how to deal with victims, or the tsunami of orphans. She’s very
intellectually acute and practical, and it’s wonderful that she’s out there
raising money for her cause.
A good part of running Thembanathi is administrative work, so Larkan and
Reynolds can work using remote devices. Reynolds is living in Chad, Africa
for 2 1/2 months doing more research as part of the completion of her
Master's in International Public Health from Johns Hopkins. Larkan, who
finished her studies at Wesleyan in December, is living in Colorado.
“Some people don't understand why I want to spend four hours a day working
on something that doesn't pay me, but they haven't met the children I worked
with,” Larkan explains. “They haven't interviewed officials who sadly,
slowly, tell you how they country is being ruined. It is the experience on
the ground that keeps me going. Children are innocent and don't deserve to
be the victims of a crisis this large before they have even learned to
Larkan and Reynolds hope to run Thembanathi full-time in the future and set
up AIDS testing clinics and pediatric antiretrovirals for those AIDS orphans
that are positive.
Larkan credits her experience at Wesleyan with her present and future plans.
She’s worked in the Office of Community Service where she ran a group called
AIDS and Sexual Health Awareness, teaching HIV prevention in local high
schools and raising awareness about local and global AIDS issues.
Classes in government, economics, history and philosophy at Wesleyan
provided Larkan with a broad range of pertinent information, allowing her to use to use
these tools innovatively to build a model for orphan care. But it was
Wesleyan's students, she says, that inspired her to jump at the problem and
try to change it.
“Wesleyan's atmosphere is inspiring and makes you want to be active in
creating change,” she says. “Most importantly, it makes you realize that you
can be a part of that change.”
For more information on Themabanathi visit
Olivia Bartlett, Wesleyan Connection editor