The House is on Fire - 10th Anniversary Thoughts from George

While touring Canada, Hands at Work founder George Snyman sat down and penned these thoughts reflecting on the challenges and successes of 2011 and looking forward to beginning the journey of 2012. This year marks the 10th anniversary of Hands, and we are grateful to be able to celebrate God's faithfulness and continue living in it as we launch into the next decade of serving His children. 

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January 2012; yet another year with more challenges and more opportunities. It’s been a huge year for Hands at Work, and while it’s been an exciting year, we are realistic in understanding that 2012 will be tough and bring challenges.

We are celebrating our tenth anniversary this year. It’s just incredible when we look back over the past decade and reflect on what took place. Where can we start to describe this wonderful journey? How can we describe the story of different people from all over the world, from all walks of life from different cultures with different expectations all coming together and walking with the people of Africa? As we went into the poorest, most isolated places, our hearts changed. We all started dreaming together. Of course, a few years before we even registered as Hands at Work, a few essential moments happened that had a huge impact on Hands at Work – on our philosophy, our way of thinking. We identified with the term ‘the house is on fire’. The founding members of Hands wrestled with the questions of:  "what would make us different from any other organization?”Do we even have the right to exist? Today, we firmly believe the answer to that is a big “yes!”, and it has nothing to do with us planning or dreaming to be a part of an NGO or a family or a charity that would reach out to countries in Africa. That answer was born in the slums of South Africa in a small hut. It started with a young lady named Sibongile. She was young at twenty two, with two children to care for. She joined thousands of others who were dying of AIDS with no medical assistance; no support. Eventually, I met her in the hospital and I held her hand as she was dying. She died in the same hospital where Carolyn and I would find Nozipo a year later. Nozipo was lying in a bed at seven years old, HIV positive, and she had never had a visitor. She had been an orphan since before she opened her eyes, as her mother died giving birth to her. Nozipo became part of our family – we took her out, she visited our children and plans were being made for her to join our Christmas party. It would be a huge event, and we were so excited, as she had never been a part of a Christmas party before. On Christmas eve, as Carolyn and I walked into the hospital and the doctors were wheeling Nozipo’s body out. She would never see that Christmas party we had planned for her.

This isn’t just a story about a child; it’s a story of an experience that changed our lives forever. As we walked out of that hospital that Christmas, we knew in our hearts that the situation had crossed the line. Something occurred that forced us to believe that what we were doing wasn’t good enough, and that what was happening to these people was not okay. My heart changed from “I want to love and to help people” to a place where I declared war on what I saw in the hospital that year. “The house is on fire” echoed in our hearts. Since then, there are medications and treatments and it is possible to live with HIV today. People don’t have to die. However, we know that there was a new wave that hit Africa when thousands upon thousands of children became orphans, with no support and no one to help them.  We were required to learn and to try to understand this because our hearts are houses on fire. We were determined to dig deeper. We had to find these people with no hope.

One day, I was walking in Malawi and I saw a child in a hut and I sat next to her. Local leaders told me she was a twelve-year-old orphan, and that her parents died when she was nine. She had to leave school and learn how to survive on her own. This child faced unimaginable challenges that adults can’t even comprehend. I asked her to share her story with me, and she told me the biggest challenge that she had ever faced: that I was the first person to visit her since her parents died. Again, it was a turning point in my life and the life of Hands at Work. I realized that we will never accomplish our purpose if our hearts do not say “You will know them by name”. This became a huge influence on Hands at Work in the first ten years. The most incredible people in Africa are community volunteers and Service Centre workers – the incredible people that we know and love and respect. These are the people who have sacrificed their lives to care for the most vulnerable children. These are the people with whom we wake up and we share together the adage “we will know them by name.” That’s our philosophy. The earliest members of Hands at Work paid a sacrificial price. It was not because they had to, but because they wanted to. It was because something they experienced was so huge to them that they gladly took on the task of being a part of relieving the despair. Whatever they did was sacrificial. It was then that we realized that the core of Hands at Work had to be just this. Why? This is the one link that we have to that grandmother, that child, that volunteer – those giving out of the little that they have. This is the common matter between all of us – that all of us are doing what we do sacrificially. We encourage our friends and supporters worldwide to live their lives to the fullest, to be fruitful in whatever they do. But we tell them that if they want to be a part of Hands at Work, they need to be a part of it out of a sacrificial heart. We want them to feel the cost that comes with spending ourselves on behalf of someone else.

I have talked to people all over the world - businessmen, students, leaders, housewives, children, schools. The aspect they love about Hands at Work is that it’s personal, we want to know the children by name, and that is it all wrapped in sacrificial love. We invite people, just like you, to say “Yes” to that. One of the most beautiful songs we sing at Hands at Work is also the simplest. It’s basically one line – “I say yes”.

Today, I had lunch with a businessman in Canada. He told me about the decision he had made with his family to support some children in their education. He supported them out of sacrificial love, and while he was not going without food, their family would simply go without something they would have had if they didn’t give. It is intentions such as this that is not only good for the child, but it’s good for the giver. I want you to guard these treasures, these stories with me as we launch into the next decade of Hands at Work. May we grow in that, may Hands at Work  be a place where we not only reach children without hope, but a place where people come to reach children and change. May it be a place where peoples’ lives change, where they redefine their values. It is important to us that our friends and those who know the work of Hands must change also. They must go home and want to make changes in the way in which they live.

When we look back, we can say that it has been an amazing ten years that God has given us. We have cast a net wide in these years; we have reached into countries and communities and mobilized them. I remember thinking “How are we ever going to manage to do this?”, and now that I look back, every single step of faith was taken because the house is on fire. Something amazing took place. I love this lifestyle and I love introducing people to it. At Hands, we don’t believe that you must have everything sorted out, everything perfectly planned with all your resources before you take a step. We wish that would be the case for the grandmothers in Congo, who are looking after ten or twelve children and being unsure if they will get a meal the next day. We are able to say to them “We are together”.  While we would never cope with what they must deal with, in our own way, we want to be stretched. As you go into 2012 and as we celebrate our 10th anniversary, we can celebrate God’s faithfulness in what He has done for us. We can celebrate the friends and family who have loyally supported us sacrificially; we can celebrate the parents releasing their children to become lights in Africa. We can continue on our sound foundation if we take ownership and protect what we hold dear. What an amazing future we can give – not only to the children of Africa but to our own children as well.