Lynda Hetrick has a dream — to bring hope to the children of Swaziland, an impoverished landlocked country deep in southern Africa where Hetrick was born and where she spent the first 12 years of her life. A single mom with five children, Hetrick is the child and grandchild of Nazarene missionaries to this nation, about the size of New Jersey, where AIDS is devastating the population and malnutrition is common. After her divorce several years ago, the 43-year-old Tarpon Springs mom decided to return to her roots, reinventing herself as a positive force in the lives of Swazi children.
"I feel as if God has given me a new song to sing," she said. "I'm no longer okay with even one child suffering from malnutrition."
That new song has led to what she hopes will be regular missions to Swaziland with a team of churchgoers from various Christian denominations across Florida. She spearheaded the first mission this past year under her new organization, named Hope Alive. A Christian rapper was among the 22 people who joined her.
Hope Alive contributes to 32 Swazi orphans from the area surrounding one village center, where local volunteers take care of the children. Participants from the mission pitch in by delivering food, clothing, toothbrushes, toothpaste, flip-flops and other small necessities.
Through Calvary Chapel, her church in Palm Harbor, Hetrick also collects about $200 a month for the children, much of which goes toward food staples such as peanut butter, oranges and rice.
During a 16-day stay in the country, last year's team performed puppet shows, ran vacation Bible schools in three villages, painted the children's ward in a local hospital and played soccer with the kids using balls donated by Crossroads Baptist Church in Palm Harbor.
Hetrick's mind is awhirl with projects. Last year, through her website (hopealive2010.com), she requested quilts for children in a village hospital. About 70 people responded by sending homemade quilts, which the team boxed and carried along on the plane. This year's project entails sewing dresses for girls and shorts for boys, all made from small pillowcases in a variety of colors. They will be delivered on the next mission, possibly in September.
The experience of returning to Swaziland has had a profound impact on Hetrick. One morning she presented some statistics from a United Nations fact sheet.
"A whole generation is missing because of AIDS," she said. "In Swaziland, the most significant hut belongs to the grandmother, who more often than not is raising the children."
According to the U.N. report, the median life expectancy of the country has dropped to age 28, and the HIV rate hovers close to 45 percent of the population. It is the highest HIV infection rate of any nation in the world.
Hetrick radiates a passion when she speaks of the Swazis, whom she calls "my people."
"My own life experiences have given me a passion and a compassion for others," she said, "and now I have a God-sized job to do."