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An artful awakening

Sarah Jackson transforms eye-opening experience into book of hope and inspiration

Virginia De Leon Correspondent

In many ways, South Africa was a second home for Sarah Jackson. Her parents were born and grew up there. When she was 4, she lived in South Africa for nine months and attended preschool. Throughout her childhood, she regularly visited her grandparents in Johannesburg and outside of Capetown.

Yet at the same time, the Spokane native wasn’t convinced she really knew the country that was part of her heritage and identity.

As someone who’s white, English-speaking and middle-class, Jackson was convinced she was out of touch with the vast majority of South Africans – the people who suffer from poverty, discrimination and the remnants of systemic racial segregation known as apartheid.

During her freshman year in college, Jackson recalled being profoundly affected by an article about AIDS in South Africa.

“I couldn’t stop weeping,” she recalled. “I kept thinking to myself, ‘I need to do something. I need to go back and help in some way.’ “

Last year, the St. George’s School graduate dedicated a year of service to two impoverished communities in South Africa. Her background in art and literature led her to work with preschool teachers and children, and to write and illustrate a book to help promote literacy and creativity among impoverished youth.

Throughout her stay and especially as she transitioned back to life in the United States, Jackson received emotional and spiritual sustenance from a Spokane-based organization dedicated to supporting young adults who volunteer to live and work among those in need.

The Krista Foundation for Global Citizenship was established a decade ago in memory of Krista Hunt Ausland, a young woman from Spokane who died in 1998 in a bus accident while working as a community development volunteer in Bolivia.

To honor her memory and create meaning from tragedy, her parents, Jim Hunt and Linda Lawrence Hunt, and others established a nonprofit to help other young adults who have embraced global citizenship and service as a way of life.

Ten years since its inception, the foundation has provided support to 169 Krista Colleagues from Spokane and throughout the Northwest.

Some serve as AmeriCorps or Peace Corps volunteers; others work with organizations such as the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, Lutheran World Service, the Mennonite Central Committee and other nonprofits.

Modeled after the Fulbright Scholarships, the program seeks to help those who work in the three areas that were important to Krista: urban communities, developing nations and environmental stewardship.

These young adults who are chosen from dozens of applicants every year receive mentoring and support through annual retreats and conferences that explore the meaning of global citizenship. Each colleague also receives a service and leadership development grant.

Jackson, 24, was among last year’s group of Krista Colleagues. While working on the east cape of South Africa, she volunteered for two organizations: the Centre for Social Development in the community of Grahamstown, and the African Medical Mission in an informal settlement known as Mthatha.

In the Grahamston township, which has a 75 percent unemployment rate, Jackson trained preschool teachers from the surrounding areas and worked at an after-school program for local farm kids. She also organized a two-day literacy workshop for the annual National Arts Festival.

Most children in that area do not have access to books at home, Jackson explained. They also rarely find decent books written in Xhosa, a language spoken by nearly 20 percent of the South African population.

Jackson also discovered that the preschoolers from the poor schools didn’t even pretend to read or show any of the beginning signs of literacy. When given a book, many of them held it upside down.

The situation was even worse in Mthatha, where many of the residents had no electricity or running water. Many also lived with HIV or AIDS.

As an artist who earned a bachelor’s degree in creative writing at the University of Puget Sound, Jackson’s love for children’s literature and beautiful illustrations compelled her to start writing a book for these children.

Because the preschoolers and other students in these indigent communities have no access to art supplies, let alone books, Jackson decided to use a medium that could be available to everyone regardless of their income: mud.

By mixing dirt and water and then creating images with a straw, feather, tea strainer, an old T-shirt and other everyday items, she wrote and illustrated a book about a poor little boy who wants to be an artist and discovers the wonders of mud art.

“I think books make the world a more beautiful place,” said Jackson. “In the process of reading, (children) begin to understand and get excited and then they find beauty.”

After returning to the United States in December, she submitted her illustrations as part of her graduate school portfolio to the Savannah College of Art and Design.

She also decided to use her service and leadership development grant from the Krista Foundation to attend a workshop on how to use art to serve communities. Her hope is that the book will be published in Xhosa by a South African press.

“Her work is very evocative,” said Linda Lawrence Hunt. “When she saw the limits in the townships, her goal was to write a book in the language of the people. … She has used her talents as a writer and illustrator to contribute to children’s literacy.”

During her stay in Grahamstown and Mthatha, Jackson said she often received e-mails and packages of T-shirts and CDs from Krista Colleagues and others associated with the foundation.

“I was so encouraged by the community,” she said. “I felt like there was a group of people who understood what I was doing and cared about me.”

Whenever she gathers with other Krista Colleagues, Jackson finds inspiration.

“It’s wonderful to meet people who have had similar experiences,” she said. “We can start our conversations at a point where most people don’t even go (when they inquire about service work).”

While many organizations such as the Peace Corps and Jesuit Volunteer Corps work hard to recruit and place volunteers, they rarely have the resources that provide the support that many young people need when they return home, said Hunt. That’s where the Krista Foundation comes in.

“They are immersed in some really hard places in the world,” Hunt said. “When you go that deep into suffering, you are left with more questions than answers.”

Virginia de Leon is a Spokane-based freelance writer. Reach her at Virginia_de_leon@
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