A mission of St. Joseph’s Academy alumnae wired a South African township school for computers in two days last month.
As the St. Joseph’s team was packing to head home, thieves broke into the school and stole the computers.
When a South African television crew showed up to do a story on the break in, they found the Baton Rougeans had stayed up all night putting the lab back together before leaving for home.
“The lab was unveiled on a Friday,” said Elizabeth Callender, a May LSU graduate in accounting and a 2005 SJA graduate. “That Sunday night everything was OK. Monday morning, we opened the door and the computers were gone.”
The missionaries, using spare computers, worked through the day that Monday and into Tuesday morning.
St. Joseph’s Academy sent 24 laptops and tablets to South Africa. After the burglary, the township donated some old computers which had to be repaired.
“They took computers,” Callender said, “but they left the server and the electrical conduit.”
“We finished the lab five hours before we left town,” said John Richardson, a computer instructor at the academy.
The Baton Rouge contingent left for South Africa June 30 and got back July 16. From their dorms at a school in Nelspruit, east of Johannesburg, the computer missionaries traveled about 20 minutes to Edwaleni Primary School.
Because of the progress their students had made, it was important to the computer team that they leave a working lab.
“The people all had cellphones, but they didn’t know anything about computers,” said Grace Richardson, John Richardson’s 10-year-old daughter, who made the trip.
“We spent the first day showing them what a desktop is, icons, username and password,” said Callender.
Callender and the other St. Joseph’s graduates had worked on the SJA student “Help Desk.” Callender had her A-plus computer certification when she was 15.
Richardson was hired to start the “Help Desk” which assists students and faculty with their laptops and repairs the computers.
SJA issued laptops to its students in 1998. The “Help Desk” is responsible for about 1,000 laptops. Present and former students, using their knowledge of computers, have accompanied Richardson on missions to Mexico and Nicaragua.
“There’s a lot of working together on the repair desk,” said Claire Luikart, who’s on the academy’s computer staff and a 2006 graduate.
One of Luikart’s jobs in South Africa was capturing an Internet signal from nearby Mpumalanga Kruger International Airport.
The name of the school Luikart and the others were wiring means “at the rock.”
“Edwaleni school is at the top of a hill,” Luikart said. “There’s perfect line of sight from the airport, five miles tops. You could see the planes on the runway and the towers.”
“Telemedicine is the focus of next year’s trips, doctors seeing patients on Skype,” Richardson said.
“There’s a clinic a stone’s throw away from the school,” Luikart said. “It would be nothing to connect the Internet.”
Doctors in Baton Rouge might see South African patients by Internet hookup, as well as physicians anywhere else in the world, Richardson said.
The lab’s students included teachers and school administrators.
“I met people who got up at 3 a.m. to walk for hours,” said Michelle Forbes, a May SJA graduate. “They were still at the school at 10 that night.”
The hardest part was going from “a student mindset to teacher mindset and the language barrier,” said Hannah Gassie, a May SJA graduate.
Lunch conversation was often a crash course in Swati or Swazi - “Thank you. I love you. Cool. See you later.”
Some South Africans who came to the school spoke fluent English.
When the SJA bunch found out that not all of their students got lunch, they bought food for them - bread, peanut butter and jelly - or shared their lunches.
“They inspired me,” Callender said. “A lot of them come from nothing, but every morning they have smiles on their faces. They improved my computer skills. I’d ask them, ?What do you want to learn tomorrow. That night, I’d brush up to make sure I understood enough to teach them. They were sponges.”
St. Joseph’s Academy has a fund for mission expenses. Alumnae pay their own way, said communications director Mindy Averitt.