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“Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change…”: St Mary’s Diocesan School for Girls, Pretoria, goes to Nepal

| August 28, 2015 | 0 Comments

By Angus Paterson

Standing in an idyllic setting next to a gurgling Vaal River in Gauteng on a glorious holiday autumn morning, preparing for the wedding of an alumnus, turned into a day to remember.

Our Grade 11 students are inevitably on WhatsApp, and they sent a message about a massive earthquake in Nepal to one of their teachers. I received an SMS from the teacher telling me of this. It took a moment for me to understand why I had been sent this information, and I must confess to a few expletives followed by a heartfelt prayer. At the time, our school, St Mary’s Diocesan School for Girls, Pretoria, had eighteen students and two teachers on a World Challenge1 expedition in Nepal.

World Challenge had already established its reputation in our school, and previous experiences had been life-changing for the girls on earlier expeditions.

Creating a sense of comfort and control

The only communication with the Nepal groups was through the World Challenge head office in London in the United Kingdom. Once I had the telephone number (emergencies only!) I called, to be told that they had made contact with the one group that had finished its hike and was starting its community work, but the group that was starting its hike and had finished its community work was still “unaccounted for”.

Soon after that call, I was informed that some parents of the girls, obviously very concerned, were now casting aspersions about the lack of response and contact from the school. It was holidays, I was away, and the school was closed. I had only just found out! I reminded myself to deal with the issue at hand and not become defensive about the school.

Four hours later, I was enormously relieved to hear from World Challenge that all our girls were safe, and that World Challenge was holding a conference to decide how to deal with the situation, as they also had a school from New Zealand in Nepal at the time. World Challenge also had to become familiar with the de facto situation on the ground in Nepal.

21st century technology: a help and a hindrance

I called a very relieved parent with the good news and this was spread through the parents’ own WhatsApp group.

It was only when I got home that evening and news came through on the TV, that the extent of the quake hit home. These were the images the parents were seeing, and they were unable to communicate with their children. No wonder they were anxious!

The next day, I called every parent I could get hold of and assured them that I was back at school and they could call me. I made sure they had my cell number. At the same time, World Challenge started issuing daily e-mails to all parents. Our attention turned to getting the girls back home.

What became clear was that the girls themselves had experienced very little except a strong tremor and were unaware of the devastation, while the parents at home were seeing ‘worst-case scenario’ footage. This disconnect, together with the lack of personal communication, meant that there was enormous discomfort among parents. Yet, the range of reactions was interesting. One parent simply wished she could get on a plane to go and help with the relief effort, while others were almost hysterical.

The South African media went ballistic as soon as it heard that St Mary’s DSG had girls in Nepal. I utilised daily (and sometimes more than daily) posts on the school Facebook page and responded to every request for interviews, whether by phone, radio, television or newspaper. My response became a litany: “The girls are safe, were not involved, have not seen anything bad, are being protected from the disaster, are slowly being brought closer to Kathmandu where they will hopefully fly home as scheduled. World Challenge is fantastic!”

Support and concern amidst celebration

We were enormously relieved when the airport started accepting commercial flights again and our girls were able to get a slightly earlier flight back home than anticipated. They flew home via Doha, and I was able to arrange for the South African ambassador in Qatar to meet them in the transit area and make a bit of a fuss of them.

The girls arrived home to a huge reception of friends, family and media at OR Tambo airport in Johannesburg, Gauteng. They had left their camping equipment in Nepal as a gift to the relief efforts.

The new school term started with a service of thanksgiving for their safe return, prayers for the people of Nepal, and a R10 000 collection for the Gift of the Givers organisation2 – the largest disaster response non-governmental organisation of African origin on the African continent, which rushed to Nepal immediately after the first quake to offer rescue and support services to the Nepalese government and citizens.

A ‘ground-breaking’ experience

Counselling services for the St Mary’s DSG, Pretoria girls, individually and as a group, were offered through the school’s counselling department. For most girls, it was a case of what they had not witnessed that was the major problem: almost a sense of guilt about being okay.

The last interview I had was with radio journalist Jeremy Maggs on Power FM,3 some two weeks after the girls’ return. He made the point with which I agreed, that such experiences can make a huge difference in a young person’s life. The girls have helped the poorest of the poor through community work, and realised how privileged they are. They now know that with privilege comes responsibility. They have seen majestic places and had new experiences. They have been touched by the plight of suffering and experienced the love of family. They have felt the touch of God.


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Category: Spring 2015

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