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Tuesday, March 19 , 2019, 10:31 pm | Partly Cloudy 52º


Two Months in South Africa with 30 Teens No Typical Retirement Plan

Jan and Ron Cronk share their life experiences with orphans and staff at Bridges of Hope-run academy.

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Living and working in a campus environment felt familiar to Jan and Ron Cronk, shown here with three students and their bikes. The Cronks had spent years associated with Westmont College, where Ron was a longtime administrator. (Cronk family photo)

For many people, retirement means travel, time with the grandchildren and a more relaxed pace, but for Jan and Ron Cronk, retirement included a completely different experience. For two months, they worked with 30 teenagers at a residential school for orphans in South Aftica.

“Our primary role was to coach the two house parents who live in the dormitories with the students,” Jan said of the couple’s time at Bridges Academy in Franschhoek, about an hour from Cape Town. “The house parents are single and young — mid-20s and early 30s — and we were asked to share our life experience with them and encourage them in their roles as surrogate parents.”

This was right up the Cronks’ alley as Ron had retired from Westmont College as the vice president for finance. Jan was the stateside administrator for Bridges of Hope International the organization that founded and oversees the South Africa academy. Together they raised two children.

Living at the academy 24/7 gave the Cronks opportunity to really engage with the 18 girls and 12 boys ages 13 to 17 that make up the first student body. These students were chosen by community leaders in the township of Philippi because they were orphans in need of a safe place and they could benefit from a high-quality education.

Students follow a curriculum much like students in the United States, although many have a lot of catching up to do. South African and American staff members love, teach and mentor the students, who are anxious to learn. While their native language is Xhosa (pronounced Kosa), classes are taught in English. The Cronks helped teach math, computer skills and sewing in addition to coaching the house parents and advising the principal as they joined in their daily routines.

“Teaching and encouraging students was very rewarding,” Ron said. “It was wonderful to see students immediately apply a math concept after showing it to them. I recall talking to another after he passed a major test with the highest score in his class and encouraging him to build on this success.”

In addition to the classes and study time, daily life at the academy includes farm chores, cooking and cleaning. During their free time, the students enjoy playing soccer (in their crocs!), riding bikes, singing, creating elaborate hair styles, and working in the new computer lab.

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Jan and Ron Cronk enjoy a quiet moment of relaxation on the Bridges of Hope academy’s bucolic campus. (Cronk family photo)
Life for these students has not been easy, but the academy provides a safe, structured environment in which they receive teaching, food, shelter and care — something that many have not experienced consistently in their lifetime. For the Cronks, it was interesting to see these teens who had no parents and no more than fractured extended families become family for each other.

“Students were so excited by the success of others such as cheering wildly and hugging fellow students who received awards for good work or special privileges,” Jan said. “When students returned to the academy, they were enthusiastically greeted by the other students as brothers and sisters coming home.”

The Cronks observed firsthand the collision of the first and third worlds in daily life. Ron compared it to Montecito and Tijuana being adjacent to each other with a large majority of the total population being from Tijuana.

“Although educating these 30 teens — intellectually, spiritually and socially — may not change much in South Africa,” Ron said, “it will definitely make a big difference for these kids. It was a huge blessing for us to be able to give a little of our time to meet some of the needs at the academy.”

“At a farewell gathering we learned what we meant to the students as one of them told us we had become their parents. This was followed by a tearful hug from each student as we left,” Jan added. “We realized that you don’t need special skills to make a significant difference in their lives.”

The academy opened in January as a result of the vision of Susan and Dennis Wadley. The Wadleys started BHI in 2002 as a social-action organization dedicated to helping the fight against AIDS in Africa. They spent five years living in South Africa and working in Philippi and the surrounding area to create long-term, self-sustaining solutions to the challenges people affected by the AIDS epidemic face on a daily basis. The academy is just one of the many ways the program serves the people of the area.

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Valerie Kushnerov is the daughter of Jan and Ron Cronk.

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