BROOKLYN PARK, Minn. -- A Twin Cities-based non-profit called YouthAssets is using cell phones to help a generation of kids in Swaziland, Africa who have lost both their parents to AIDS and are now raising younger siblings on their own.
"I can't even imagine trying to grow up and raise a family without my parents," said Jennifer Sly, Executive Director of YouthAssets.
Sly lives - and now works - in the Twin Cities, but she has also done Peace Corps duty in Swaziland, a land-locked country in southern Africa that is about the size of New Jersey. It is estimated that 15,000 young people there are running a household left without parents when both the mother and father died of AIDS.
"Their two big issues are emotional support, because they have lost the adults and the guiding light for themselves; and the second is the financial support, so they can eat and go to school," Sly explained.
YouthAssets is using cell phones to help on both fronts. Initially, the phones offer heads of households a connection to other young people who are facing very grown-up problems.
"We share ideas," said Sibusiso Dvube, a young man who is raising his younger siblings. "Bad and good ideas that we have passed through in our lives."
Beyond the peer support, participants like Sibusiso are also making money through YouthAssets. They are paid in cell phone minutes for their participation in special group discussions.
"If they don't want to use the airtime, they walk around their village and say, 'does anyone need airtime?'" Sly explained. "So then they can get cash for that airtime and use that to buy food or use it to get to town if they need to get to the doctor."
Sly says the idea is to offer help with their immediate needs and also offer support for future plans.
"I'm hoping to give them opportunity," she added. "Because they are really ready for any opportunity that comes their way."
Right now, YouthAssets is only reaching a few of the thousands of orphans in Swaziland. Sly hopes the success she is seeing with this first group can be replicated.
Besides monetary donations, the group is also collecting used U.S. cell phones that can be recycled to buy ones that work in Swaziland.
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