Monday, April 30, 2012

What to do when you meet a bear in the woods OR my sound doesn't work...HELP!

So, your sound is crappy.  You can't hear your Net Buddy and it is beyond frustrating.  You know you need to smile at the young, hopeful person on your computer screen, but you are near ready to tear out your hair with the futility of getting your VC to work.

Does this sound familiar?

Well, I'm going to tell you a story.

A few years back when I was backpacking through Glacier National Park, there was a really bad bear problem.  Bears were being sighted everywhere and attacks against hikers were mounting.

The Park Rangers would drill us with what to do if we ran into a bear.  If we didn't answer with their memorized litany of instructions, we were taken to task and given "THE TALK" again.  "Make LOTS of noise while hiking.  Shout, sing, clap your hands as you round each bend.  If you do run into a bear, get small, back away slowly, and don't make eye contact.  If the bear continues to advance. lie on the ground in a fetal position and wrap your arms around your head to blunt the trauma of the attack."

Saying, "Well, I've never run into a bear so far and I don't like making noise in the forest" would get you a withering stare and THE TALK again.

So, I'm about to give you the Infinite Family version of the Park Ranger TALK.

If you run into sound problems, make sure you are using a WIRED CONNECTION and a headset with a microphone.  DO NOT use a wireless connection or connect via your 3G or your phone.  DO NOT use the speakers on your computer or the mic that comes with your webcam.

AND yes, we understand you don't always have time to plug into a wired connection and that sometimes it works fine.  And YES, we understand that you have always gotten away without using a headset and that it has worked in the past...
But the reality is, eventually, you ARE going to run into a sound problem...and THE TALK will keep you from ripping out all your hair in frustration.

Just like the rangers said to me, if you don't take the precautions, you are highly likely to run into a bear along the path.  And quite frankly, I'd rather sing a little off tune Beatles to the bear in the woods than lie down amongst the roots and rocks watching my life flash before my eyes.

So, take the precautions.  ALWAYS use a wired connection and a headset with a mic.  That way, those big bad sound problems will stay off the path of your next VC.  

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

"My name is Zamokuhle and I like to eat."

Ask my son to introduce himself and he might say he likes soccer, or playing the drums or drawing...but that he likes to eat?  Not much of a chance.

So, when the Video Mentors of Infinite Family see Zamokuhle's blogpost on the Ezomndeni Net, and it begins with the introduction "My name is Zamokuhle and I like to eat." they know they are being introduced to a world unlike their own.

Our Net Buddy's blogs are windows into a world that few of us ever really experience.  The simple phrases they use define the landscape of their lives in profound ways.

"My name is Lebohang I live with my sister. She is the head of the house."

"My name is Ncesh. I don't have a friend and I don't know how to make one."

"Hey I would like to tell you about my birthday. It is sad because I have lost my mother before my birthday."

The Video Mentors of Infinite Family enter into the world of our Net Buddies, sit with them and share their stories, their struggles and help them find that friend, deal with their loss and see a more hopeful future.

And how do we know this?  We read the blogs.


We hope that you will join Infinite Family as a supporter, donor, or mentor. Your world will become broader and more meaningful as you join these courageous children on their journey toward independence and hope. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Video Mentors: The Next Generation of Mentoring

Taped to my office wall is a receipt.  The back of that receipt is an Infinite Family time doodles and scribbles as Amy Stokes and I tried to come up with the name for our organization and our volunteer mentors way back in 2005.

We did hit on one thing that stuck. That scrap of paper bears the words "Net Buddies", which we use to this day to describe the relationship our mentors and mentees build with one another.

And buddies they are.  Planning for the future, sharing music and laughter, struggling over math problems or creating art online -- our Net Buddies brighten each others' worlds every week via webcam and whiteboard during their weekly video chats.

Our Net Buddies have expanded the definition of mentoring relationships.  They've taken them global and they've taken them online.  They have perfected the art of screen sharing as well as the chemistry of what makes mentoring relationships tick.

So, during Volunteer Appreciation Week, we would like to thank all of you, our Net Buddies, who make Infinite Family what it is today.

Our gratitude for our Video Mentors is best expressed by one of our South African Net Buddies as she recently wrote:

"I love Infinite Family very, very much. Thank you for changing my life. Since I've been a Net Buddy things have been changed in my life because I'm not doing wrong things in the street.  Now I can see my English is getting better, I'm doing my school work, being serious on my goals and my future."

We've done lots of great things together.  We've made a lot of great strides and the future is bright. 

And just to let you know another good choice we made...we didn't pick our name to be International Family Interconnection.  That name just hangs on that scrap of paper on my wall, reminding me that not every idea is a good one! 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Insipiring Top 10 CNN Hero Award Show

Amy Stokes, CNN Hero, with (from left) Dana Gold, Infinite Family Founding Director of Programs, Lesley Yaniv, IF Video Mentor who nominated Amy for the award and Katy Keck, Chair, Infinite Family Board of Directors.
Although Amy Stokes, Founder and Executive Director of Infinite Family, was not chosen as the top CNN Hero of 2011, she was one of an inspirational few to grace the stage on December 11th during the live broadcast. 

Amy's journey as a CNN Hero would never have happened had it not been for you all:
  • The Video Mentors who spend hours in preparation in order to understand and guide their Net Buddy. 
  • The Net Buddies who show up each week in order to learn and grow and achieve with the guidance of their mentor.  
  • All of you and all of the IF staff and board who pour your hearts and souls into Amy's vision...into this wonderful thing we call Infinite Family.

So we thank you. 

For loyally voting each day and enduring that "captcha" over and over again.
For telling your friends and family and cajolling them to vote, too. 
For all the Facebook posts and emails and postcards you passed out. 
For every hopeful action you took to support Amy's bid for CNN HERO, we say thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

Of all the things we saw during the CNN Heroes Tribute Show, one of the most inspiring was to see the faces of our buddies and our mentors beaming full of hope and excitement for all the world to see.  The world knows about their work now.  They are inspiring millions across the globe.

Our Net Buddies really, truly are OUR HEROES. We are so glad that now the world knows, too.

We thank you again.


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Save the Children launches Video Chat in Bolivia with Infinite Family!

For the first time, Infinite Family is bringing its unique video technology and video conferencing expertise to Save the Children’s sponsored children in Oruro, Bolivia.  35 children there are seeing and speaking with their American sponsors via video conversation technology over the internet, providing a personal connection between sponsors and children that has not previously been possible.

Infinite Family pioneered face-to-face video mentoring using technology in 2006 and has continued to improve its capabilities so that the children and their sponsors have optimal connections during their weekly 30-minute video chats.  Save the Children is a world leader in creating educational and community development programs that support children growing up in very challenging circumstances.  They have been working with Infinite Family since early 2010 to design and develop a video conversation platform that meets Save the Children’s unique needs.

STC sponsors were trained in the technology over a two-week period and have been connected with their sponsored children since mid-May for their video chats. "I can't think of a better way to support Save the Children's mission than to create a personal bond with my sponsored child in this way," said one of the sponsors.

Founder and Executive Director Amy Stokes says, “We are thrilled to work with Save the Children to add the power of worldwide personal relationships as another way their committed sponsors can play an increasing role in helping the children they support financially.  And, we are excited to extend the reach of video mentoring to children in South America.”

Thursday, April 28, 2011

BBC Outlook: Video Mentoring with Infinite Family

Mbali and Sheila, Net Buddies with Infinite Family since 2007, share their story of connection across cultures and generations in this moving BBC piece. 

Catch Mbali and Sheila's story at 18:40, directly following the piece on the Belarus underground theater company.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Infinite Family Volunteers Appreciated from the US to South Africa!

Zoleka Petse at Tsogang Sechaba Opening
Zoleka Petse, Infinite Family’s South Africa Coordinator, skillfully and confidently steers Infinite Family on the ground in South Africa. “Zo,” as she is affectionately known, is an effervescent and passionate leader who does everything from training the Net Buddies to creating new partnerships to managing NGO relationships and intervening with Net Buddies who need extra love and support. One of Zo’s favorite tasks is working with Infinite Family volunteers and video mentors. 
We asked Zo, in honor of Volunteer Appreciation Month, to reflect on what makes our Infinite Family volunteers and video mentors so special. 
Despite the many challenges to the program’s growth and smooth operation, Zo is energized by the driven and motivated team of volunteers.  On the hardest days, she keeps going by knowing that Infinite Family volunteers and video mentors bring a smile to so many little faces.
Most of Infinite Family’s Net Buddies live in shacks without running water or electricity, with parents or guardians that are either unemployed, too sick to care for them or dealing with significant family problems. Our video mentors become the children’s lifeline as they cope with these very challenging circumstances. The Net Buddies can share their thoughts, feelings and frustrations with mentors who care.
“I witness a lot of children who have so much sadness and hopelessness in their lives light up every time their video mentor’s name is mentioned” says Zo. “Their eyes shine after their video conversations or when they open an email from their mentor. Watching the Net Buddies as they begin to look forward to the next day with hope because someone cares about them is so inspiring!”
“It is an honor for me to work with such selfless people. I salute all of Infinite Family’s volunteers and video mentors for the wonderful gift they are giving our children.”

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

“The Net Buddies of Infinite Family don’t have someone to listen to their fears, their dreams or even their daily lives. Video Mentors can be that person and it matters.”

Infinite Family Video Mentor Kelsey Kempter and her husband, Joe.
On Wednesday morning at 9:30 from her Colorado home, Kelsey Kempter readies herself for her video conversation with Thokozani, a 12 year old boy orphaned by HIV/AIDs and living in an orphanage with his sister.

Kelsey, who works for Sylvan Learning Center as the Director of Education, has a passion for working with children.  She was attracted to Infinite Family because she saw it as a new way to be in contact with children from around the world.   She says, “I show up each week because I have a friend expecting me to be there for him.”

On Wednesdays in Johannesburg, South Africa, Thokozani comes back to the orphanage from school, does his homework and then lines up outside the computer lab.  He patiently waits for it to be 4:30, when it is his turn to speak with Kelsey during their weekly 30 minute video conversation. 

When Thokozani sees Kelsey, he smiles brightly.  When asked what he likes about his time with Kelsey, Thokozani replies, “Kelsey makes me happy and brings a smile on my face.  She asks me about school, my week and my day.  I like her because I talk to her about everything and she teaches me about computers.”

Thokozani values his time with Kelsey, because “I have learned how to talk to other people nicely.  I have learned respect.  I have learned how to love other people around me and myself.  I love Kelsey so much.”

Through Infinite Family Kelsey has gained the perspective “that no matter where children are from or what experiences they have been through, they want the same thing.  Being a child is universal.  Children want to be loved.  Children want to do well in school.  They want to have friends.  Children want to know that someone cares for them and loves them.”

When asked why the work of Infinite Family is so important, Kelsey took a global perspective. “Children are our future.  It doesn’t matter if we are in the same school, city, state or country, caring for our children will help us to have a brighter future.  Some of the most valuable moments I have spent through Infinite Family are the times when Thokozani and I are just in the company of each other.  It doesn’t take a lot to make a difference.  Letting someone know you care and showing them by committing your time makes a difference.  The children we work with don’t always have someone to listen to their fears, or their dreams or even their daily lives.  Through Infinite Family, we can be that person and it matters.”

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Privilege of Struggle

In Memory of Sthandiwe
When I first travelled to Nkosi’s Haven in 2006, Sthandiwe was too sick to come to the computer lab.  I became acquainted with her through the photos taped to Heather’s office wall.  A little bushy haired girl in a pink sweater.  A slight child holding a teddy bear.  A little girl who crayoned words of affection and love for Gail, Heather and the staff at the Haven.

Standiwe struggled through her short life.  Struggled with an illness that takes so many.  Struggled with the challenges of being a teenager without a direction.  Struggled to find the love she so craved as an orphaned girl who’s heart never seemed to find enough…enough attention, enough love, enough loyalty to fill her up. 
Sthandiwe struggled.  Like so many teenagers all over the world, Sthandiwe struggled.  Her hard choices and missteps were not unusual or unique. 

But Sthandiwe’s struggle ended too soon.   Today, Sthandiwe is at peace.  

Being at peace is not a goal the living should fulfill at the age of 20-anything. 

Being at peace is the absence of struggle.  And struggle is part of living.  Struggle is what we do.  Struggle is a symptom of the resilient, always-seeking human spirit.  Sthandiwe’s young soul would not let her settle.  It pushed her to seek out the answer to questions that are planted in all of us.

Who will love us?  Will we realize and use our God-given gifts?  Who will admire us for our strengths and in spite of our faults?  Where will we find fulfillment for our restless spirit?  

Sthandiwe did not get to answer those questions. 

Sthandiwe’s struggle ended too soon, before she could find the answers, fill her spirit, live into her promise.  

That is the fault of the virus, of AIDs.  Not the fault of Sthandiwe.

So, please, do not blame her struggle for the shortness of her life.  Blame the virus.  

We will miss her.  We mourn that her questions will not be answered, her gifts unrealized, her love left unfound.

Sthandiwe‘s struggle was rewarded with peace. 

Peace is the reward of the dead. 

Let us strive for the reward of the living.  Let us be grateful for the privilege to struggle and strive and live into finding our own answers for the questions planted within us.    
 And in our struggle, let us strive also for a cure.  An end to the bringer of untimely peace.  An end to HIV.


Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Lazarus Effect: New Life through a Blog

When we were designing the blog on the Ezomndeni Net, the password protected internet platform where Net Buddies and their mentors interact, we had no idea how it would be used. We were hopeful that the children would write about their lives. We were hoping they would practice their English and improve their grammar skills. We hoped that it would be a forum for exchanging ideas.

Our hopes were not only realized, but exceeded beyond our imaginings.

The children are giving us their rawest emotions, their deepest hurts, their highest hopes...their dreams.

I've shared some of the posts. I've shared some of the trust that the children are placing in the community of Infinite Family.

The words jump from the page in neon green, or rainbow fonts. They are punctuated with smiley faces.

The words are misspelled. Capitalization is ignored. The blogs stand stark and bold, quickly offered snapshots of their internal world.

We are given such a gift in these words. Amazingly tender reflections on their brothers and sisters and grandmothers. Sweeping wisdom in the span of four lines.

We are very blessed by these children. Not just us, the community of Infinite Family, but the world. What these children have to teach us from their perspective and experience of life is so profound. Life lived without a mother. Life lived in the grips of poverty and deprivation. But life still lived. Lived fully. Lived with hope. Life lived with threadbare shirts ironed crisply, symbols of their intention to succeed. Their spotless school uniforms ask with dignity that they be taken not just seriously, but demand that we see them in terms of their intentions for themselves.

And they intend BIG things. Pilots, doctors, lawyers. Social workers, actors, writers.

Their crisply ironed shirts and the well groomed hair are what they can control in their lives. It is their way to say to the world...I am. I am this boy here. This boy with the clean face and the completed homework. I am not to be defined by the hunger I experience. I am not to be defined by the virus that runs through my veins. I am who I choose to be.

And I choose life.

I choose a future.

The pain is knowing how little choice they may have.

We need to make choices available to them. The choice to live a life extended by affordable medication. The choice to be able to use their skills and talents and passions to impact their world...their families, their communities, their country.

I want these children to impact my life, my world, the future. I want these children to be the leaders of their country. I believe in these children. Passionately believe in them.

I want you to believe in them, too.

We make it easy. 30 minutes a week from the comfort of your own home. A computer, a webcam and a headset...the tools to change your life...change a child's whole world...and our world, too. And if you don't have the time, support someone who does by giving a donation to IF on our website: