A Call from Around the World from a Legacy That Began in Cottonwood
Born teachers are driven by a passion for their subjects and a calling to their students — even if those students are on the other side of the world. This is what happened for Joan Brown, an elementary school teacher from Chatteroy, Washington, when she began to feel drawn to serve in Mthatha, South Africa.
“It’s a mysterious, holy thing,” she says. “I didn’t want to go there but I heard a strong call that said ‘yes you are.’” Her husband Kevin encouraged her to keep listening.
Joan, then a mission elder at Colbert Presbyterian Church in Spokane, had been invited to go on the trip as part of a delegation to determine whether a church in Mthatha could form a partnership with the church in Spokane.
The church also supports Thembelihle Home, a foster group home for children who have suffered abuse or neglect, and a school run for these children was in need of volunteers. The school serves the students so that they don’t fall behind in their education. Many of these students “have huge gaps in their learning because of their family situations,” Joan explains.
In 2007, Joan took her first trip to Mthatha. She visited again in 2008, traveled there with Kevin and their two children in 2009, and returned with Kevin in 2011 as a way to celebrate their 25th anniversary. In 2014 she took a semester off from teaching in Washington to serve at Thembelihle and spent five weeks there in 2015. She took another trip in 2016 and she and Kevin are planning a trip for 2018.
Mthatha is a poor town in South Africa’s poorest province; it is a place known for crime and can be dangerous. Apartheid, a system of institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination, formally ended in South Africa in 1991 but the country is still struggling to be a democracy. Social services are sparse and inconsistent. But “even amidst that, I keep feeling called to go back,” Joan says.
“There are so many stories of transformation. I think of Lungelwa, who has lived all of her life at Bethany and then Thembelihle. When I met her in 2014 she was six years old. Despite institutional living, she has so much spunk and can put other kids in their place. She is also very grounded in Xhosa traditions, the cultural dances and singing. I watched this girl blossom and become a mentor to other kids coming in.”
“I am an extremely relational person...and what I think we’re called to do in service is to be in relationship,” she says. “They don’t need an American volunteer taking over. I knew I had to gain trust and create relationships before I could be relevant.” 
It was on her semester stay in 2014 that Joan met Sister Mary Paule Tacké, a founder of Thembelihle Home and its longtime director until her retirement in 2007. Since her arrival in South Africa in 1952 (shortly after joining Sisters of the Precious Blood Order of the Catholic Church) Sister Mary Paulé Tacke had been a pillar of social change, community development, and an advocate for the most vulnerable in Mthatha.
Early on, Sister Mary Paulé helped run a school for disabled children called Ikwezi Lokusa. Soon after, she also helped to start a home for women and their newborn infants who were sick or in need of care. This home would later develop into what is now Bethany Children's Home. Seeing the need for a similar home for older children, Sister Mary Paulé helped establish Thembelihle Home, for children ages 6 to 16. With her emphatic emphasis on education, it is to her credit that there are many doctors, nurses, teachers, and social workers both in the local community and around the world.
Alongside her direct work with the children’shomes, Sister Mary Paulé also aided the the many affected by HIV/AIDS in the community. She made countless home visits, prepared weekly community food parcels, and assisted many other community boards and charities working tirelessly to combat the impacts of the disease. 
Sister Mary Paulé was also born and raised in Cottonwood, Idaho. 
“Meeting her and getting to know her story was one of my biggest gifts of being there,” says Joan. “Sister was often described by community members as the ‘Mother Theresa’ of Mthatha. However, her bluntness, sense of humor, and her extremely bad driving made her a very ‘human’ saint! She was a spitfire — and yet so authentically compelled to serve people. To me that was inspiring.”
The meeting was made even more poignant when, a week after Joan had returned home, she learned that Sister Mary Paulé had tragically died while a victim of a carjacking incident.
Suddenly the work turned toward helping to ensure Sister Mary Paulé Tacke’s work and vision flourished. Sister Mary Paule’s brother, Mark Tacke; her niece, Mary Lytle; Joan and Brenna Riggers (also volunteers to Mthatha); and Steve Tacke joined to form a 501(c)3 non-profit organization known as Sister Mary’s Children (SMC) that supports Sister Mary Paulé’s three biggest projects: Ikwezi Lokusa, Bethany Home, and Thembelihle Home. Joan Brown and Sue Tacke later joined them as members of the board.
Sister Mary’s Children is working to create a network of support, that includes an endowment and increased legacy giving, and extends beyond Sister Mary’s hometown of Cottonwood, a community that has repeatedly answered Sister Mary Paulé’s calls for help whenever one of her projects was in crisis. Joan’s current church, First Presbyterian Church in Spokane, has also supported SMC for the past two years through its mission funding. 
A Dinner Dance fundraiser will take place on Friday, November 10, 6 - 9 p.m. at Greencreek Community Hall at 1062 Greencreek Road, Greencreek, Idaho. There will be live music, baked potato bar, beer and wine, and an auction. Tickets are available at www.sistermaryschildren.org or by calling 208-962-3902.
“Little did I know that when I went there that it would open a different path,” says Joan. “The beauty of the Sister Mary’s Children foundation is that it reconnects us to our own relationships with Sister Mary Paulé. Although her death was tragic, we’re seeing that redemption can happen from that.”
Visit www.sistermaryschildren.org to learn more about Sister Mary Paulé and her work, buy tickets to the Dinner Dance fundraiser on November 10 at Greencreek Community Hall, and much more.

Joan Brown with Thembelihle Home student in 2014.

Kevin and Joan Brown at Thembelihle Home 2011. Submitted photo. 

Cottonwood, Idaho 83522


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