Trip inspires work in Africa

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Ian Gronau | September 4, 2013

ROSCOE — Ashley Bridges always told herself that she wouldn't be a missionary.

But after spending two weeks photographing a trip to South Africa by members of her church, that all changed.

Shortly after graduating from high school, she was approached by her church, Life Church in Roscoe, to document the trip.

When she returned home and paged through all the photographs she'd taken, especially those of the children, she knew she had to go back.

So in January she headed to Johannesburg and is now chronicling her own journey.

 “I am working with a non-governmental organization called Impact Africa. My favorite part of being in South Africa is talking to the people; they are so welcoming and joyful here. If you saw the oppression in some of the places I frequent, you would understand my amazement,” Bridges said. “I work in the informal settlements, also called squatter camps, where people from all over Africa stay when they travel to South Africa to find jobs in hopes of sending money back home to their families in other countries with perilous economies.”

Many of the people living in these squatter camps can go days without food and pay around $20 to live in one-bedroom aluminum, wood or plastic shacks with no electricity or running water with the exception of a few community water pumps, Bridges explained. Most of the migrant workers are lucky if they make $50 a month.

In her work with Impact Africa, Bridges spends much of her time with the children at the preschools, centered in the squatter camps, run by the organization. Some of the children come from abusive homes, homes with no father or mother, and can be rough around the edges, Bridges explained. Though the conditions are difficult, Bridges is optimistic about the effect she is having.

“They receive love when they come to the schools and have blossomed because of it,” Bridges said. “The teachers are from the squatter camps, and I help them come up with craft and organization ideas as well as brainstorming about expansion possibilities. The preschools are now at full capacity and are looking to expand.”

The experience has been an eye opener for Bridges, and not only has it moved her to make the biggest positive impact she can, but to also, through writing and photography, keep a record of her journey in the form of a blog and a personal website. During her travels she has had experiences that have the makings of perspective-changing stories.

In March, she visited a children's hospital. The conditions left Bridges awestruck shocked and feeling nauseous.

“Children with broken legs were placed in jailed cribs, with iron bars along the top,” Bridges said. “The worst was entering the infant unit full of babies with lung problems. It was in that moment that I knew the passion I have for children is very real and alive.”

Another poignant imprint was by a woman named Sharon who Bridges met while working at the squatter camp. Sharon and her 4-year-old daughter, Amanda, collect trash off the streets and turn it into a scrap yard hoping to make enough money to feed themselves each day. They stay in a shack so small that it barely fits a full-sized bed. Bridges has spent much time with Sharon since she regularly attends Bible study.

“She reads the Bible I have given her and says she has dedicated her life to live for God. But she still faces opposition,” Bridges said. “We offered her daughter a sponsorship to attend the school, but Sharon told us that she was scared of men harassing her. When the men see her daughter on her back, they don't mess with her because she is a mother. But without her daughter, men will find her an easy target to terrorize.”

Sharon's story has inspired Bridges to keep pushing to organize a safe work environment for women while their children receive an education.

Bridges journaling and blogging are ways for her to keep in contact with her family and friends back home.

The former Janesville resident misses home often but loves traveling and has adjusted to living in South Africa quickly. The moments she misses most are the ones spent with her family. Bridges says watching her two younger sisters, Sarah and Gabriella, grow up through email and pictures has not been easy, but she is thankful that at least she has means to communicate with them.

“We are incredibly proud of her,” said Brian Bridges, Ashley's father. “The first couple weeks she was gone were pretty hard on me. But then we saw some of the pictures start to come back. She is a very talented photographer, but we told her to start giving her camera to someone else so we could actually see some pictures of her. When I saw her face again for the first time in those pictures, I saw joy and fulfillment. After that, it didn't bother me as much because I could tell that she was truly happy. She was doing what she thought God was calling her to do.”

Though much of Bridges' mission is to help support the population of the squatter camp, it is also largely about sharing her beliefs with them. Bridges often finds that some people just need an ear to listen to them while some just aren't interested.

“I have seen hundreds of people giving their lives to Christ in a one-on-one conversation setting,” Bridges said. “It is humbling to see God change their lives from being empty and full of depression to a life complete with hope.”

Bridges plans to continue her work, partially funded by Life Church in Roscoe, with Impact Africa. Though she will return home again to Janesville, Bridges may have been bitten hard by the travel bug.

“Long term, I hope to travel all around the world to different countries,” Bridges said. “I want to capture the culture and true essence of other countries through photography and writing, highlighting different people I meet and the stories they tell me or write themselves on the trips.”

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