When she was a student at Colorado College, Whitney Johnson vowed she would help the sick children she met while volunteering at an orphanage in South Africa during her study year abroad.
When she was 21, Johnson founded Ubuntu Africa, starting with ten kids and one room in Khayelitsha, a township outside of Cape Town, and a mission of providing health and social services to HIV-positive children.
Now she’s 26. Under her leadership, Ubuntu has grown to include a staff of 12 and serves close to 200 children ages four through 18 annually with healthcare, HIV-education, food, counseling and social services. Plans are underway to build an even bigger facility, doubling the program’s size and reach.
Johnson is modest about her accomplishments and said simply that she “felt aligned with and inspired to action by this particular cause.” She’s also inspired another Northern Westchester resident, superstar Vanessa Williams, to join her in raising awareness and funds for Ubuntu at the annual spring fundraiser.
"Whitney's commitment to bettering the lives of South African children stricken with AIDS is extraordinarily admirable for a young woman. I was immediately caught up with her passion for change and purpose on our first meeting in Cape Town,” said Williams. “Whitney guided us through the township and it was apparent that she is a rock star in that village. I applaud her continuing efforts in a magnificent country with a daunting epidemic."
Tickets are still available for Saturday’s event, which takes place from 7:30 p.m. – 10:30 p.m. at the Arts Center at the Harvey School in Katonah and includes cocktails, food, music, dancing and a live auction. To purchase tickets, click here or call Beth Golde at 914-707-1567.
As for what drives Johnson to continue her work in South Africa—when many of her peers with similar, privileged upbringings in Bedford may be occupied with working and having fun in the U.S.—she said it is the children who inspire her.
“There are challenges in America and throughout the world that require compassionate action, but I feel an intense calling to do this work,” she said.
She recalled one boy who came to Ubuntu Africa at the age of nine, and, in addition to having HIV, he had been neglected and abused by extended family members. “He was sick, sad, and completely withdrawn when he arrived at our center. It took a lot of care and love from the staff and he is now healthy, energetic and smiling,” said Johnson. “There is so much strength and hope that lies within a child’s spirit and it is amazing to see these children rise high above their circumstances.”
Over 330,000 children under the age of 15 live with HIV in South Africa, and HIV is the leading cause of death in children under 5 in South Africa, according to the statistics gathered by Ubuntu.
And how does a 26-year-old handle performing work that can be so devastating?
Meditation and connecting with nature helps, she said.
“Meditation made me a braver person and also taught me to trust and follow my intuition. I have strong connections with my co-workers and the children that Ubuntu Africa works with, which makes work fun—and I do have fun in Cape Town. I am able to relax and re-charge after work by hiking in the mountains or surfing in the sea.”
But for this weekend, Johnson has returned home for the love and support of her friends and family.
“I’m grateful for the support of Vanessa—it was really incredible to have her and her daughter Jillian take such an interest in our program. I am also incredibly lucky to have family and friends who supported and had faith in my vision.”
For more information about Ubuntu Africa, visit their website.