“I am a 16-year-old girl living in a wealthy and beautiful town, eating full and delicious meals every day, attending a prestigious school every day, and I have just received a shocking reality check,” Laguna Blanca School junior Arabella Weston-Smith wrote in July. She and classmate Arabella Watters-Grubstein had just participated in filming a documentary about the Phelophepa Health Train, which travels around the rural towns of South Africa providing health care.

Laguna Blanca School juniors Arabella Watters-Grubstein, left, and Arabella Weston-Smith were all on board for their documentary about the Phelophepa Health Train in South Africa.

Laguna Blanca School juniors Arabella Watters-Grubstein, left, and Arabella Weston-Smith were all on board for their documentary about the Phelophepa Health Train in South Africa. (Weston-Smith family photo)

The girls were two of a crew of five, which included Weston-Smith’s mother, Kirsten Weston-Smith, who works in the film business. But the adult crew members served as producers only. Both Arabellas did the filming. Watters-Grubstein worked as the writer of the screenplay, interviewer and on-camera reporter while Weston-Smith directed. Their crew also included a third high school student and friend of the Weston-Smith family from Miami, who managed all the technical aspects of the production.

The project was sponsored by Virgin Atlantic, Seagate Technology and Canon Cameras, which supplied them with new HD cameras and other equipment necessary to make the film.

The train travels 9,500 miles annually, serving more than 45,000 people who visit its various departments set up in its 16 cars. It provides primary health care, checkups, optometry, dentistry, psychology and pharmaceutical care. The Phelophepa Train extends even further than the tracks to serve more than 1 million people through its outreach programs in schools, villages and communities.

“The day we traveled to these schools was one of our best, as we captured great footage while also having our eyes opened to the differences between a school like ours and the isolated primary schools of South Africa,” Watters-Grubstein said.

“Experiencing these villages and the needs of the children ignited in me a desire to make a difference — the biggest gift I could have been given.”

Weston-Smith echoed the sentiment.

“The people who I have recently spent time with are in pain, live on about $30 a month, and most of them have a family of six or seven with four of them suffering from HIV and AIDS,” she said. “Still, they smile and wave.”

Although the girls were sorry to say goodbye as the train pulled out of the station, they were satisfied to know that its story would be told both in the United States, and for all the world to see.

Their plan is to submit their documentary to film festivals to raise awareness of the Phelophepa Train and help raise money to support it and create others like it. The Santa Barbara International Film Festival plans to preview the film, of which a final version is expected to be ready early next week.

The Phelophepa Train Foundation, based in New York, is planning a fundraiser for the end of November, and the girls will be on hand for a preview of the film and a question-and-answer session afterward. 

On the Laguna Blanca campus, the girls are starting a club so that, according to Weston-Smith, “we can be regularly active and keep in touch with fundraising for the train.”

Click here for a related essay by Arabella Weston-Smith.

— Tara Broucqsault is Laguna Blanca School’s communications director.