On September 9th, nine months after she returned home from Israel, Stephanie joined Save a Child’s Heart’s annual Young Leadership Conference in New York City. Since her return to the US, the impact of her experience in Israel has only intensified, which led Stephanie to speak at this year’s conference. She spoke about how she fell in love with SACH, created lasting relationships, and learned so much from the mothers and children, specifically through a relationship with Bikombo from Zanzibar.
In her speech, Stephanie shared that, “From the second I met the children, mothers, nurses, staff, and fellow volunteers, I felt welcomed and loved. To a enter diverse community of those who dedicate their lives and time to helping others was incredible, and I’m still so thankful to be a part of the SACH community."
“One of the many incredible relationships I built while volunteering at SACH was with “mi mi rafiki” (“my friend” in Swahili), a young woman named Bikombo from Zanzibar. At the age of 5, Bikombo had life saving surgery at SACH, and now, at the age of 24, she returned to Israel for her second surgery and I was lucky enough to be there with her. There was a side of Bikombo that was stern and somewhat closed off, but another that was extremely light-hearted and calming. She always wore a beautiful, contagious smile to match her beautiful dresses and headscarves. While it took a while to earn her trust and break down the barriers she had up, once we connected I felt as though we had been lifelong friends. Bikombo and I had an incredibly special relationship built on very broken English, laughter, hugs, and my growing knowledge of Swahili, thanks to the collaborative effort made by many of the mothers and Bikombo herself. We would often sing Jambo Bwana together while she laughed at me for not knowing the words. We would try our best to communicate, but would usually end up in fits of laughter over the fact that we could not understand a word the other were saying.
“Bikombo always made me feel safe and loved, and now it was my turn to do that for her. For the first time, I saw her vulnerable side, I saw her scared. Yes she had already had this surgery earlier in her life, but by no means did it make the second time around any less scary. She softly cried and gave me a huge hug before she got in the car to head to the hospital. Yes, her eyes were filled with tears and a hint of fear, but more so, they exuded tenacity and a sense of purpose. I promised her she would be okay and tried to show her this by putting all of my love and support into that hug. When putting myself in Bikombo’s shoes, I cannot imagine being so brave. This is why watching her face her procedure affected me the most. I saw many of the children leave for surgery, and while I always felt nervous, Bikombo left me with butterflies in my stomach until the day of her return. Many of the children leave the home for the hospital with little fear, not understanding the severity of the procedure. Bikombo was fully aware, and faced this hardship with such courage and poise.
“I checked in on Bikombo with one of my favorite nurses, Khadija, every day but I felt the need to see her. About a week later while performing my favorite task of the day, waking the children and mothers up from “kulala” also known as nap time, I knocked on Bikombo’s door in hopes that she would be back, and sure enough she was. The embrace between the two of us was filled with so much excitement, and is a moment that I will never forget. My friend was happy. My friend was healthy. My friend was healed. Bikombo taught me that with a warm presence, simple acts of kindness, and an open heart, you can form a genuine connection with anyone. That a smile can go further than any words, a smile is an international language that breaks all barriers. Bikombo proved to me that if she could face having a second heart surgery at the age of 24 with such bravery and grace, then I too at 24 could face any challenge that comes my way. Bikombo was one of the many special people to leave a life long impact on my heart. To think that I have created such strong, meaningful bonds with those who walk completely different paths of life than I is something I will forever cherish.”
Upon returning back to the US, Stephanie knew her experience at SACH wasn’t over. She wanted to “bring the two most important communities in my life together: Save A Child’s Heart and my mother’s preschool.” With the goal bringing awareness of SACH’s mission home, as well as helping her loved ones to understand just how important and meaningful the work at SACH is, Stephanie held an art auction fundraiser with artwork made by some of the SACH children she worked directly with.
“SACH has taught me how to incorporate love into everything I do in life and that is something I am forever grateful for. Perhaps the greatest thing I took away from SACH is learning that in the end, your greatness is not measured by what you have, but by what you give.”
This isn’t the end of Stephanie’s involvement with SACH: “I continue the important work through outreach, education and fundraising. I am constantly speaking to others about my experience, the organization itself, and what it means to me. I feel empowered and responsible to be the voice and face of the children, mothers, and organization that I feel so connected to.” Stephanie has just joined SACH’s New York Young Leaders board and will continue to stay involved in this organization that has shaped her life. Also as a result of her time at SACH, she is currently training to become a Child Life Specialist.
We are incredibly proud of our alumni – the time they spend in Israel in one of BINA’s international programs is only ever the beginning of their journey. They build on their learning and volunteering experiences, which often serve as a springboard for their career paths.
Stephanie Raphael, originally from New Jersey, was a participant in the Fall 2017 cohort of our Tikkun Olam (post college) program. As part of the program which combines Jewish study and social action, she volunteered at Save a Child’s Heart (SACH). Stephanie has just joined SACH’s New York Young Leaders board and will continue to stay involved in this organization that has shaped her life. As a result of her time at SACH, she is currently training to become a Child Life Specialist.