Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Internet: 'Infinite Family' mentoring program

The Internet, Web cameras and other high tech connections allow people to stay in touch easily and quickly. They also allow new relationships to form, sometimes among complete strangers. Paige Kollock reports on one way technology has helped two people from opposite sides of the globe form very strong bonds.

Stacia Murphy manages to connect with her net buddy 'Blessing' - "Hello Blessing, can you hear me?

Stacia Murphy is doing the same thing she does every week, twice a week. But it still excites her. She is connecting to her net buddy, "Blessing" in South Africa.

As part of a mentoring program called Infinite Family, Murphy uses a web camera to speak to Blessing. They have been corresponding for about eight months. Murphy acts as a parent and a friend to the 13-year-old orphan.

Murphy says, "The other day she asked me if I knew how to go on I-space ['myspace'], and I said, 'No', and she said, 'Well I do.'"

Former consultant Amy Stokes started Infinite Family as a way to connect adult mentors in the U.S. with orphaned or vulnerable children in South Africa. Statistics from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) show that by 2010, one-fifth of South African children will be orphaned.

Such high numbers are blamed on South Africa's AIDS epidemic that kills some 400,000 people a year. Stokes explains how the idea evolved.

"The idea for Infinite Family came when we adopted our son in 2003 from Johannesburg, South Africa," she said. "And going around touring the different orphanages, we understood that there were this great number of children that were going to grow up without an individual adult paying attention to exactly what they needed."

Infinite Family has "coordinators" on the ground in South Africa who bring the children to a computer center and teach them how to use web cameras and instant messaging. Their American mentors also are trained, and must make a one-year commitment to the program.

Murphy says it hardly feels like an obligation.

"It's a matter of making sure I'm near a computer at 12 on Wednesday and 9:30 on Sunday morning, wherever I am," she said. "So for me it's minimal."

But can videoconferencing be an adequate substitute for real human interaction?

It does not Stockes says, but it does have a positive impact.

"There is nothing that can replace a parent or a guardian's hug, or being tucked in bed by somebody you love. But video and technology can allow a very strong relationship and a very serious bond to be created," she said.

The best part, Stokes says, is that the mentors are helped by the program just as much as the children.

Simple words such as "I love you" are always welcomed.

Published with the permission of Voice of America