Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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Spokane woman lives out passion for children through service in South Africa
by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the March 20, 2008 edition of the Inland Register)
Tisha Millersmith holds Mpho, an orphan in South Africa who was suffering from tuberculosis and malnutrition. (IR photo courtesy of Tisha Millersmith)
“I have always had a passion for children, but my heart seems to fall back to those less fortunate.” In these few words, Tisha Millersmith – who grew up in Spokane’s St. Thomas More Parish and School, and graduated from Gonzaga Prep (’99) and Gonzaga University (’03) – explains her life in South Africa today.
For over four years now, Millersmith has been living with and working for an American family, Linda and Allan Ingalls and their 10-year-old son, Tucker, who is autistic. Millersmith is Tucker’s nanny. She lived with the family in England for two years, and for the past two and-a-half years, they have lived in Pretoria, South Africa. From 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. each weekday she volunteers at Tucker’s school, Unica School for Autistic Children, teaching severely autistic children from low-income families.
“Then,” she said, “I head to our classroom at home, where Tucker and I spend a couple of hours extra giving him more opportunities to work on speech, language, and life skills. Due to the severity of his autism, it is important to start with these things now, rather than waiting.”
As if this isn’t enough, Millersmith is also hugely enthusiastic about caring for South African children who are abandoned and malnourished. She volunteers with an organization called Tshwane Place of Safety. “They are a small group of ladies who work together with local hospitals and social workers, taking in abandoned and malnourished children and children with HIV/AIDS,” she said. “They take in the children from birth to 12 years of age. It is an interesting group (because) instead of the children staying there with them like in an orphanage, they assign them to foster homes, ‘places of safety.’”
These children live with foster families until they are adopted or until other arrangements can be made. “I love this part of living in South Africa,” Millersmith said, “and I will miss it very much when I go!” – tentatively set for August of this year.
There is nothing abstract about any of this, however, for Millersmith herself is a foster parent for children from Tshwane Place of Safety.
Tisha said, however, that there is one little boy, named Mpho, who “holds the key to my heart! He came to us at 10 months old. He weighed about 6 lbs. He was so malnourished and sick. He could barely hold up his head, he couldn’t sit, roll over, crawl or make babbling noises. He was very much like a newborn at 10 months of age.”
Mpho and his twin sister had been left with their grandmother, who fed them Cremora, a powdered coffee creamer, for the first nine months of their lives. Tisha explained that Mpho’s sister “died in hospital after social workers removed them from the granny, but Mpho was a miracle and fought through it! It was clear that Mpho also had some serious medical issues going on as well as the malnourishment. So off we went to the doctor!”
Tisha eventually decided to pay for a private doctor out of her own pocket, rather than continue going to a state doctor, so that Mpho could be treated with the best of care. “The government does give a certain amount of money a month to foster parents,” Tisha said, “but it is equivalent to about $20 or so in U.S. dollars, and that doesn’t even put a dent in the cost of diapers, clothes, medical bills, etc. The process to collect the money takes months and a lot of waiting down in the court house. Let’s just say that the system here is scary, so I would rather help the kids the best I can financially than keep them waiting (for the medical care they need).” Tisha added that she took on this responsibility “gladly!”
Unfortunately, Mpho was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The treatment prescribed was to administer medication four times a day using a Nebulizer – a device which changes liquid medicine into a fine mist that is inhaled through a mouthpiece or mask – plus “heavy meds,” Tisha said, for four to six months. “(Mpho) is doing fabulous now,” Tisha said, “and he is in long-term foster care. Knowing that I can’t take him home with me (in August), I couldn’t see bonding with him longer than I already had, so he is with a new foster mommy.”
Chioma Grace is another child for whom Millersmith has cared. “We got her at 2 weeks old,” Tisha said, “and she is now 4 months (old) and doing fabulously! We never know how long the kids will be with us, but I predict she will be here for a while, perhaps 6 months or so. The goal is that she will be adopted, but only time and prayers will tell.”
In Pretoria, Millersmith participates in the life of Christ the King Parish-Queenswood, and she is nothing if not enthusiastic when she talks about it. “I love love love this church!” she declared. “It is about the same size building as St. Thomas More Church (in Spokane). There are two priests there, but the main pastor is Father Craig Loubscher. He is a fabulous man of God! I really see and feel God’s presence when he speaks.
“I keep telling people that some day,” Tisha continued, “if I ever get married, I will fly him to the states to marry me and my hubby. He is just a fabulous human being and wonderful priest! He also has taken a true interest in my little foster kiddos, as well. He baptized the first boy.”
The parish to which she belongs in South Africa has an outreach program that cares for some 40 families affected by HIV/AIDS. The families, she said, consist of “grandmothers who are raising their grandchildren because the kids’ parents have died or are dying of HIV/AIDS. Food, clothing, equipment (and) money are collected every weekend at Mass, and once a month people gather together to sort the items and then go to deliver the goods to the families. I attended one of the sorting days, (and) it is magical how they help so many people! It is a church that is built on the love of God! I have never felt this way about a parish. It is something I have never seen before; the love is everywhere! I would say it is one of my favorite things about South Africa!”
Sometimes, too, Millersmith and friends visit an orphanage run by a community of women Religious. “There are currently about 30 or so kids ranging from infant to 18 years of age living together,” she said. “We try to visit them every few months to bring them clothes, food, or just to visit with the kids. They really are a great group of kids. Every Christmas Eve we spend with them.
On Christmas Eve 2006, “each child … received a backpack filled with a pair of shoes and other personal goodies.” For 2007, the children were taken to a swimming pool/playground, where they were given a gift bag of personal presents, as well as gifts to share with each other, such as books and music. “The kids here love to sing and dance; we are always blessed to have a show put on for us when we visit! It can be magical!”
Children in South Africa face a daily life that “can be scary. Being abandoned, injured, tortured or killed, all things that no child should ever have to suffer through. Even though I have become very overwhelmed with the poverty and pain here, I still do my best to help those kids.
“ I do feel that God gave me a gift in life, and it is to help protect and love children who do not receive that from their own families,” said Millersmith. “The only thing that would make this experience better for me, personally, would be to take a little one home to Washington with me – but being American, adopting is not possible at this time.”
(For information about making donations to support Tisha Millersmith’s work with children in South Africa, e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org)