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January 1st, 2003 by MrLuxuryFashionGuru
The letter brought tears to my eyes. It was undoubtedly the most touching, sincere letter I had ever received, and it came from a complete stranger. The letter was from a South African art teacher named Robin Opperman who needed my compassion and help — he wanted me to work with one of his students, Sizwe, on an international Web site design competition in which I was participating. Sizwe came from a world totally removed from my idyllic existence in Singapore. Not only did he live in South Africa – which is presently experiencing 30% unemployment and one of the highest crime rates in the world – but Sizwe was also a special-needs student. He attended the perennially under-funded Ningizimu School for the Severely Mentally Handicapped, where Robin worked. I was even more emotionally affected by Robin’s letter as I had seen at first-hand the environment in which Sizwe lived.

Just two years earlier, I had visited South Africa on vacation. While on our way to the Johannesburg airport, we had driven past a vast township. In truth, the township consisted of little more than an endless jumble of makeshift tin-and-cardboard shacks, with no phone lines, electricity, or even sanitary running water.


“How can they live like this? They should just build proper houses, there’s lots of land around.” This flippant, callous remark from a traveling companion (a comfortably middle-class homemaker) made me both cringe and blush at her cultural ignorance and social indifference. Even so, I turned away from the window, knowing I was unable to offer any real help.

Thus, it was impossible for me to turn down Robin’s earnest request. Never mind that I was participating in a Web design competition and Sizwe had never used a keyboard or mouse (his school had no computers); never mind that Sizwe spoke mainly Zulu; never mind that they lived halfway across the world from me. Despite advice from my teachers against the partnership, I knew that if I did not give Sizwe this much-needed opportunity, very possibly no one would. In fact, Robin had already been rejected by several other teams.

That was the beginning of our eight-month journey through ThinkQuest, overcoming each difficulty as it presented itself. In the end, our entry (covering the last 100 years) “The Passing of a Century”, richly decorated with Sizwe’s stunning, distinctly-African artwork, made it to the prestigious finals in Los Angeles. It was in Los Angeles, oceans away from our homelands, that I finally met Sizwe in person.

During those five days together, I marveled as the shy African boy blossomed — he became confident in his English, he learned how to send e-mail by himself, he charmed the international press present. All were remarkable feats for someone who had never before traveled more than 20 miles from his home. During our time together, I could not help but think, “It is truly amazing what a person can make of an opportunity.”

In the end, we picked up a Silver award, with college scholarships and cash, which will be used to buy Ningizimu’s first computers. Sizwe started working as a teaching assistant at Ningizimu; Robin was promoted to Head of Department of Art & Technology. This year, ThinkQuest has implemented a new award for teams with disabled team members.

Similarly, during the course of my volunteer work with the Autism Resource Centre, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to tutor and mentor Sheng Hoe, a young man with autism. During my weekly house-visits, I served mostly as simply a willing ear, to allow him the opportunity to talk to someone. Apparently, scorned and ignored by his peers, Sheng Hoe had become withdrawn and uninterested in his schoolwork. Within a few months of our sessions, however, he began to make great strides in confidence and sociability. Once, he was even admonished for talking during class, a first for him! His grades also began to improve.

What motivates me to mentor children like Sheng Hoe and Sizwe is my experience on the receiving end of a valuable opportunity. After ThinkQuest, I was approached by Cari Ladd of PBS, who offered me a job producing an awards ceremony for the corporation as a freelance multimedia designer. I was amazed that such a high-profile organization would entrust a teenager on the other side of the globe with such an important task.

Unhesitatingly, I took the job, which lasted two months. In the nine months since, I have completed four other multimedia/Internet design projects. I am sure that I would never have had these opportunities if not for a stranger who trusted me and gave me a chance to prove my worth.

Jason S. Yeo, Nov 2000


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