The Song of Tough Angels
May 15, 2013
Patty Melnice of Tough Angels joined our community a few years ago, and when I saw her website and what she was up to I was profoundly moved by her work. I love hearing the stories of all the good work being done by all of these amazing service based organizations, but when it is one woman on a mission I have to say I get fired up. Patty and I have been keeping in touch as time moves along and her vision of working in Africa makes me hold onto that red thread of hope. The song of tough angels like Patty is hope, and it gives us all hope when we hear her story, and the story of the women and children she serves.
Patty and I have been speaking about how to collaborate more in the future – to share the work the Red Thread Nation and our tribeswomen of Cosmic Cowgirls and Color of Woman are doing with bringing self expression into the world. With technology advances and increased access to platforms in Africa, Patty and I talked about being able to bring creative processes of healing through video. This is in the works… Let me share Patty with you… ~Shiloh Sophia
My decision to quit my job as a visual stylist for a luxury retailer . . . to put my belongings in storage . . . to walk away from my home . . . to venture into the unknown and travel alone to South Africa, followed a divorce after 24 years of marriage. My life had to be about something bigger than my divorce, and I couldn’t think of a better way to move through the heartache than to be of service to others. I never dreamed however, that it would change the course of my life so completely. Moreover, I never dreamed my actions would have a ripple effect that would reach further than I ever imagined possible.
After spending six months, independently volunteering in Africa rescuing children that had been raped, I returned to the US driven by a voracious passion for aiding and assisting women and children of violence. I don’t know why I’ve been chosen to do this work, but I do know there are far too many synchronies to deny my life’s purpose. After my experience, I was determined to incite awareness as step one to begin the process of transformation and healing for women and children far less fortunate than ourselves. Surprisingly, along the route, what I discovered was so much more about myself. I found I had the courage to walk away from my comfortable lifestyle in order to dedicate my life to humanitarian efforts. I have recently founded my own non-profit organization, Tough Angels, Inc.
I am determined!
Rescuing children that had been brutally raped and the rate at which it occurred was an incomprehensible experience that I didn’t know I was equipped to handle. I assure you however, I found so much more there than tragedy. I came to know and love these wonderful, strong, forgiving and grateful people that became my teachers.
It would be impossible to illustrate with any accuracy the depths of adversity and hardship that is experienced in this culture. To give you a thumbnail sketch of what I encountered, the youngest rape case, though not uncommon, was a 4-month old baby that died from her injuries. From point of rescue, to the final court proceedings of each case, I worked with the child victims, the police, Child Protective Services, the hospitals, and the judicial system to address what is now an epidemic problem in Africa. The final case I was involved in only days before I left the continent, was an 11-year old girl; stabbed, raped and left for dead on the side of a road after her perpetrator rolled a huge bolder on top of her tiny body. The brave little girl clung to her life and was able to give us the details necessary to track down the rapist. The police officers and I searched for days through the impoverished hills of the countryside for the rapist. High speed chases, guns firing, and attack dogs still did not deter this man. Each day the little girl clung to her life. In the end we did catch him and in the end, she lost her life – oddly within minutes of his capture. Did she fight to stay alive until he was arrested? I always believed she did.
South Africa claims the #1 spot in the world for rapes of women and children and HIV infections. Many of these tragedies can be blamed on a tribal myth that exists within the poverty-stricken communities that believe purification and a cure for AIDS can be attained through sexual intercourse with a virgin child. The work required around education, prevention, and the reporting of the abuse in order to undo this myth is believed by some, insurmountable. I however, believe that by empowering the women to have a voice, to stand for justice, and to refuse to accept this as a way of life for themselves and their children is the way to bring about change. Women rising up . . . this is new for them!
I worked closely with the Zulu people and one woman in particular, named Lady Fair, became my benchmark for grace, gratitude and generosity. Lady Fair is a single Mom supporting her family of 5, in addition to 11 orphans that she has taken in off the streets. She receives no financial help for the orphans and she once told me that if she had 2 potatoes, God would want her to give one away to help others. Lady Fair lived in a tiny tin shack with dirt floors, no running water or electricity. She never complained, nor did she ever ask for help. When I became aware of her circumstances, I knew I could not leave the continent without helping her. I had no idea what that looked like or how I was going to accomplish it but I was determined to create a warmer, safer place for her and the children. Without financial means of my own to achieve this, I pawned my wedding ring and with the help of friends was able to secure land and build Lady Fair a house. She now lives in a home with a secure foundation, and running water for the first time in her life.
That being such a cathartic experience for myself, I started “The Wedding Ring Project” as my first campaign to raise funds to return and build a safe house in the Kwa Zulu Natal region of South Africa. Others can do the same and donate their broken, unused, or repurposed jewelry to Tough Angels, Inc.
I remain in touch with Lady Fair as I’m certain I will until my final breath. She is my sister. She recently told me that she had been in a deep dark hole all her life and many people had stopped by to look at her in the hole. She stated that the change occurred because I believed in her, and the difference being, I got down in the hole with her to help her out. I did not do anything extraordinary. I saw a need and stepped up . . . the same as anyone with a heart would’ve done. The real story is in what Lady Fair has done as a result of being given a chance. We were recently in contact, at which time she told me she had a surprise for me. Within days, I received a letter from an attorney in S. Africa with an attached proposal for a safe house Lady Fair wants to build and facilitate. Can you hear me screaming with excitement and joy?! Her dream was to run her own safe house for children awaiting placement in adoption or foster care once they had been rescued from rape. The name for her proposed site is Ngiwelise, which loosely translated means “crossing over the bridge but remembering where you came from and turning around to help others cross over too.”
Contained in the proposal is the outline of who the safe house will accept and assist. In addition to the children awaiting placement, Lady Fair will care for children of teenage mothers during the day, with the stipulation that the moms attend school. That is where the healing begins and change begins to take place. One by one, life improves and it begins to have a ripple effect. We can all be part of the solution to make a difference! It doesn’t require going to a developing country and volunteering for 6 months, but it does beg us to get involved. Spread awareness. Brainstorm ways to bring about change. We are all in this together.
I keep this photo handy. When I first arrived, I remember riding in the backseat of a police car with this little girl on our way to the hospital for her forensic exam. It was about 1:00AM and the night air was blowing through the opened windows of the rickety police car. She trembled in my arms with her head resting on my heart for the entire ride. We couldn’t speak each other’s language but I wrapped her in all the love and protection I possibly could. Months later, right as I was getting ready to leave, I was at an orphanage and didn’t even recognize her until she came running to me with open arms. She is my “hope” talisman and my reminder that we can heal . . . her body was indeed raped, but as you can see, her spirit was not.
From the bottom of my heart, and on behalf of the children and women I serve, we thank you.