Faculty Member Dr. Azzi-Lessing Visits Lillydale Literacy Project

Trip to Lillydale project in South Africa Last February, I traveled to South Africa to begin planning Wheelock’s first South African service-learning program.  I was very fortunate to be traveling with Mary Tiseo, Executive Director of South Africa Partners, a Boston-based organization that fosters partnerships between the US and South Africa in the areas of health and education.  Mary has been traveling to South Africa for many years and was an excellent guide for my first visit to this beautiful and resilient country.  My journey began in Cape Town and ended in Johannesburg.  Throughout, I was privileged to meet many South Africans, to hear their stories, and learn about their work, particularly in striving to overcome the lingering effects of their country’s apartheid past.  I visited sites as sobering and inspiring as Robben Island and the Apartheid Museum, as well as squalid townships crowded with shanties that house too many of South Africa’s poorest citizens.

For the last part of the journey, Mary and I traveled north to the bush country, to visit Wheelock Alumna Toby Milner (’70) and her husband, Charlie, and their Lillydale Literacy Project.  As the sun set over the green hills, we drove past small herds of Impala gathering for the night, and arrived at Toby and Charlie’s South African home, a chalet crowned by a thatched roof and overlooking the edge of a deep, tangled jungle.

Toby and Charlie warmly welcomed us and introduced their friend and colleague, Mavis Maseko, who had traveled from Johannesburg to co-lead the week’s training with Toby. Over dinner, Mary and I learned about the Lillydale Literacy Project that Toby and Charlie co-founded in 2000.  The Milners first came to the bush country for a safari after visiting their daughter, who was studying at the University of Cape Town. During the trip, Toby and Charlie saw the poverty and lack of education in the surrounding area, as well as the spirit and resourcefulness of the people who live there. In conversation with some local educators, Toby learned of the enormous need to teach English (South Africa’s official language) as a second language in schools and community programs. Back in the states, Toby worked with other educators who had experience in South Africa, to adapt a program for training English-language teachers.

The Milners, who live in Connecticut, return to Lillydale three to four times a year, to provide training to local teachers and school administrators.  Mary and I arrived on the first day of a week-long leadership training that Toby and Mavis were conducting for local school administrators.  The next morning, we rode for several miles along dusty, pitted roads, past local women carrying large plastic containers to hold the day’s supply of water.  Some of the women simply carried the jugs on their heads; some had babies and toddlers swaddled to their backs or riding along in a wheelbarrow.

On the way to the Literacy Project, we stopped at the Bhubezi Health Clinic, where Charlie introduced us to its director, Jerry Marobyane.  On the day we visited, adults of all ages waited patiently in lines that extended out onto the clinic’s grounds, in order to be seen for testing and treatment of HIV/AIDS.  Mary and I were impressed with the range of health care services provided at Bhubezi, as well as with its dedicated staff.

In addition to providing us with a tour, Charlie had come to Bhubezi to meet with Jerry to discuss a new project that he and Toby were spearheading.  Though their association with Wheelock, the Milners had learned about Persona Dolls that are used by Ububele Educational and Psychotherapy Trust in Johannesburg, to work with traumatized and grieving young children.  Many of the children served by Ububele have witnessed extreme violence and/or experienced the loss of one or both parents, often due to HIV/AIDS.   Ububele staff members use Persona Dolls, cloth dolls made by local women, to help young children express their feelings and heal from the trauma they’ve experienced.  Wheelock President, Jackie Jenkins-Scott, introduced the Milners to Ububele CEO, Getti Mercorio, and to Mary Tiseo. With a grant provided through South Africa Partners, Toby and Charlie were purchasing 60 dolls from Ububele, along with training for educators and health care workers, in order to make therapeutic services available to traumatized, young children in the Lillydale area.  Upon learning about this project from Charlie, Jerry enthusiastically agreed to send some of Bhubezi’s staff members to participate in the training.

We next drove to the Lillydale Environmental Educational Center at which the Literacy Project is based, and met its young co-directors, David and Excellent. The center’s headquarters are modest, consisting of two cement-block buildings with concrete floors and large windows without glass or screens.  Since becoming involved, the Milners have worked with David and Excellent to bring a computer learning lab and library to the center. The Literacy Project’s leadership-training class was underway. Mary and I were impressed with Toby’s and Mavis’ teamwork in facilitating powerful discussion among the dozens of school administrators participating in the course. Later that morning, Mary left to conduct other business in South Africa while I stayed on with the Milners for a few more days.

Extending my visit enabled me to get to know Toby, Charlie and Mavis and develop a deeper understanding of their work.  In the forty years since she graduated from Wheelock, Toby has worked as an educator, academic therapist and a consultant.  Charlie had a long career in the financial sector prior to retiring a few years ago. They raised a son and a daughter and are proud grandparents of two young children.  Mavis and her husband both grew up in the Johannesburg township of Soweto, where she counted Bishop Tutu’s children among her childhood playmates. Mavis’ description of growing up in the birthplace of Bishop Tutu’s and Nelson Mandela’s movement against apartheid was fascinating. I was delighted when she offered herself and her husband to provide a guided tour of Soweto when I return with Wheelock students in January, 2013. 

Toby and Mavis are a dynamic team; their collaboration, deep affection and shared commitment evident as they prepared for each day’s training.  Charlie’s role in the Lillydale Literacy Project can best be described as Director of Logistics. I observed Charlie’s remarkable dedication and well-honed business skills, as he promoted the Persona Doll training to school and health care administrators.  I also accompanied Charlie to the grocery store, where he bought enormous bags of frozen chicken, rice and cornmeal, and giant jugs of water.  After loading them into the car, we delivered those provisions to a pair of local women who, with little more than two outdoor fire pits, turned them into a delicious and hearty lunch for training participants. 

My last day in Lillydale coincided with the final session of the training program.  I listened as Toby and Mavis facilitated a discussion on the critical importance of school leaders working together to challenge and overcome the corruption and inefficiency that too often hinders public education in South Africa. Although the conversation was a difficult one, the mutual respect and solidarity of participants and leaders was evident. Afterwards, Toby and Mavis presented each participant with a certificate while Charlie served as photographer, capturing the joy and spirit that filled the proceedings.  After the last certificate was awarded, one of the participants led the group in singing a traditional South African hymn, which floated out of the large windows, cooling the dusty, afternoon heat. The beauty of the men’s and women’s voices in sweet, powerful harmony brought a lump to my throat. It still lingers in my ears, as I look forward to bringing Wheelock students to this inspiring and vital oasis.

Dr. Lenette Azzi-Lessing, Associate Professor of Social Work, will be leading the South Africa Service-Learning Trip in January, 2013.  For additional information, please contact her at lalessing@wheelock.edu


I’m so excited to be going on this adventure in January. I can’t wait to meet these wonderful people.

Posted @ Monday, November 26, 2012 8:51 PM by Kayena Pierre Louis

Wow, this is such an amazing story and experience that you had Lenette!! I am so looking forward to this trip! :-)

Posted @ Monday, November 26, 2012 8:52 PM by Ayesha Wilson