Sackville resident Stephen Puddle is shown with one of the children at the Mpumelelo Day Care Centre on the outskirts of Johannesburg.
Stephen Puddle, a native New Zealander, moved to Sackville in 2005, not realizing just what the following years would hold for him in this small close-knit community.
He started working at Mount Allison University and, with his passion for theatre, soon saw an opening for a new theatre group on campus. And so in 2007 he started The Performers' Company. He wanted however to bring townspeople into the mix, and so began his goal to create a community theatre company for the town.
By 2011 The Performers' Company had indeed become that, with five shows behind them and plans for expansion.
In February 2010 Puddle handed in his resignation at Mount A and decided to spend a year "downunder" in order to be closer to family still living in New Zealand and Australia. Obtaining a job with the Australian branch of the Virgin Airlines group, he was able to fulfill a long-held dream to become a flight attendant.
During that time he enjoyed traveling to a variety of countries, but it was his encounters with the Mpumelelo Day Care Centre on the outskirts of Johannesburg that had the profoundest effect on him.
The daycare centre had become the focus of Virgin Australia's cabin and flight crew after a flight attendant met a supporter of the centre on one of the airline's flights to Johannesburg. As a result, crew began visiting the centre during layovers between flights, taking with them badly needed food, toys and clothing, as well as lots of hugs and love.
"When we'd arrive to visit for an afternoon the response was electric. The kids would scream and wave. They'd sing to us and do dances for us. Their energy was boundless. We'd play with them but sometimes they just wanted you to hold them or sit with them. Sometimes they wouldn't say anything, just stare at you," said Puddle.
The crew soon learned, however, that behind many of the smiles were stories of abuse and abandonment. Circumstances were such that Maria Gaba, the centre's director, began to take children into her home.
"Maria told us that children were sometimes just left on her doorstep. During one of our visits she told us of a local school principal who phoned her and asked if she would take two sisters who were in foster care and being abused. Maria never turns any child away."
Thus, over 20 children now live with her and her own children. Some of the children have HIV/AIDS and some she is in the process of formally adopting. Her humble home had to eventually be extended. With rooms filled to capacity, an Australian building firm came to her rescue and thus badly needed bedrooms and living space were added.
In February 2011, Virgin Australia ceased flying to Johannesburg and so a sad farewell was made to Gaba, her small staff and over 100 children the crew had befriended.
Puddle, however, was determined not to let this encounter be a "fly by night" event. He returned to Sackville in April and began to set up his own home-based travel agency, offering the local area a travel reservations and advice service. He didn't know that in doing this, he would be going to the international staff conference for the company he works for, in Birmingham, England, in November. When he realized he would be that much closer to South Africa he knew it was the chance he'd been waiting for to return.
"When I visited before we'd only be there for a few hours. This time I'll be able to visit for six days and so am very excited to see how I can help and to see how they're going."
Puddle is hoping that, as a result of this trip, he will be able to set up things where students and other interested people who wish to do volunteer work abroad, can go and help the daycare.
"It will change their lives," he said.