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St. Paul Park native's mission to Africa sparks passion for service

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Overlooking the Komati Valley in Swaziland’s Highveld, the small town of Bulembu is home to a well-known orphanage that treats children with HIV and AIDS. (Submitted photo)2 / 4
St. Paul Park native Kristina Gardner spends time with Arnold, a young orphan living at the Bulembu Ministries Swaziland orphanage. (Submitted photo)3 / 4
During her six-week mission trip to Bulembu, Swaziland, St. Paul Park native Kristina Gardner helped community members repaint several houses on the orphanage campus. (Submitted photo)4 / 4

For as long as Kristina Gardner could remember, there was something about Africa that intrigued her. Be it the culture, the breathtaking scenery or its humble people, the St. Paul Park native was drawn to the area.

Still decompressing from the jet lag and readjusting to life back in the states, Gardner recently returned from her second mission trip to the small town of Bulembu in northwestern Swaziland. Gardner partnered with Mission Discovery, an organization that pairs church congregations with mission opportunities around the world, to participate in the six-week mission trip.

During her time halfway across the world, she stripped wallpaper, painted houses and rebonded with the children living in the well-known orphanage, which makes up nearly the entire village’s population. With a renewed sense of purpose, Gardner said she now, more than ever, knows that her calling is to serve others.

Abandoned town turned refuge

It was once a mining town full of promise, economic prosperity and a growing population of Swazi people. Bulembu, located four hours east of Johannesburg, South Africa, was a longtime excavator of asbestos. However, in 2001, the health effects of mining asbestos were realized and the miners abandoned both the mine and the town of Bulembu. The once flourishing community quickly became a ghost town.

Purchased in 2006 by British entrepreneurs, the empty town was put into trust with the Swazi charity Bulembu Ministries Swaziland with the intent to restore the community by providing total care for orphaned and vulnerable children, nearly all of whom are living with HIV or AIDS. The former miners’ homes were turned into living quarters for children, staff and ministry volunteers, and the executive buildings were turned into a hotel of sorts for tourists who visited the mountain town.

While Bulembu is slowly gaining traction once again, Swaziland is still the only developing country in the world experiencing negative population growth because of the HIV pandemic that is widespread across both the community and the country.

“Nearly all the children in Bulembu have either HIV or AIDS,” Gardner said. “That never scared me. I was just ready to be there and start helping.”

Healthy dose of work and play

It took more than a year of working at two jobs to finance her travel arrangements to Swaziland, but once she landed in Johannesburg and made the trek to Bulembu, Gardner said the hard work was worth it.

“From the United States to Bulembu it was roughly two days of travel,” she said. “But once I started seeing the familiar area, I knew that I was home.”

The purpose of the six-week mission trip was to help the locals paint and refurbish some of the older housing units. With it being the winter season in Africa, Gardner said the weather wasn’t brutally hot while working outside.

“This trip was just to do whatever it was that they needed us to do,” she said. “We did work projects and completed the painting and sanding of two houses. I can honestly say that I won’t be painting anything for a while.”

When she wasn’t lending a hand on the houses, she was working alongside the Aunties, a name given to the women leaders who were in charge of the day-to-day operations, and  interacting with a handful of the roughly 800 orphans living at the orphanage. Ranging in age from toddlers to teenagers, nearly all of the children were given to the orphanage by parents who were dying of HIV or AIDS.

“Sometimes you get the emotional stories of parents who want their children cared for, and other times the kids were found in the garbage, in the river or left at the hospital,” Gardner said. “A lot of the children were brought here because this is such a well known orphanage.”

Part of the reason parents who have the disease leave their children at the orphanage is because they know the children will receive proper medical care.

“A lot of blood work is done on the children here when they first arrive and they are checked once a month,” Gardner said. “They are treated very well here.”

King Mswati III, she said, is a passionate advocate for the work at the orphanage and is a key supporter for the allowance of mission trips to Bulembu.

The children loved to play outside and kick around a soccer ball. While it was not her best sport, Gardner admitted, the children afforded her the benefit of the doubt. When the children weren’t running around, they were peering down the lens of Gardner’s camera.

“They loved to take pictures and see themselves in the screen,” she said. “It was the little things that really excited them. Having little to nothing did not bother them like it would with children here. They were so happy with so little.”

As the six weeks came to an end, there was one little boy in particular that tugged at Gardner’s heart. While on her first mission trip to the village in 2011, she met a then 2-year-old named Ernest. She carried back to Bulembu with her a photo of Ernest on a swingset hoping she would be able to find him. To her amazement, one of the Aunties recognized the toddler and reintroduced her to Ernest, who immediately knew who she was.

After spending six weeks with the now 4-year-old, Gardner said she couldn’t bring herself to say goodbye not knowing when she would return.

“I decided to sponsor Ernest,” she said. “It was so hard to say goodbye to him last time. It’s a way for me to stay connected to him and be involved in his life. It’s only $35 a month, which is chump change to me but means everything to them. I get to see updates and it’s another way for us to stay close.”

Coming back to the United States with a clear goal for her future, Gardner said she wants to help people feel good about themselves and give back to those in need. In the fall, she will begin cosmetology school, where she hopes to pass along the message she learned from the young girls in Bulembu, which is to always have pride in yourself.

“Working with these kids was such a blessing,” she added. “It was tough leaving them behind and coming back home. But it was where God wanted me to be and I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.”

For more information about the Bulembu Ministries Swaziland, go to: