alumnus Ben Kelcey is making a difference in a remote village in South Africa
Ben Kelcey, B.S.’01, was the first white person in more than 100 years to come to the small village of Masia in Venda, an area located in a remote corner of South Africa about twelve hours from Johannesburg. When he first came to the village almost two years ago as a Peace Corps volunteer, the children cried when they saw him or patted him like a dog, trying to ascertain if he was real or a ghost. They know now that he is real; in fact, he is an accepted member of the community, speaking their language fluently and participating in their customs. His Venda name, “Livhuwani,” means “thanks” -- most likely given for his entrepreneurial, “jack-of-all-trades” contributions to this town of roughly 9,000 people.
Kelcey credits UAlbany with helping to prepare him for this experience. “The University challenged me, expanded my mind and made me realize my ability and potential,” he said. His math teacher, academic advisor and friend, Professor Ed Thomas, remembers Kelcey as “a real pleasure to have in class...kind of laid back, but always ready to tackle a challenge and see it through to completion.” Kelcey was an honors student who carried a 3.93 grade point average as a math major with minors in business, CSI and education, while also earning accolades as a star athlete. “He was an outstanding football player,” said Thomas, “earning All-America honors as a blocking back and special teams’ player. His teammates elected him co-captain and he received MVP honors.”
Ben graduated (summa cum laude) with a mind set in the direction of Marine flight school. His plan, however, changed. Many people questioned his motives, wondering if he was running away from something. “I wasn’t afraid,” he said. “I wanted to do something to help and I wanted to explore -- to see ‘what’s on the other side of the mountain’.”
The challenge in Masia was monumental. It’s a drought-ridden area where poverty is a way of life. There is a “Survivor” quality to his way of life now that was difficult to adjust to, but which he now takes in stride. His daily diet regularly consists of worms, spinach, chicken heads and feet and Pap, a kind of starchy mush, which he admits he’s learned to like. He lives with a host family -- a “mother” and two “brothers,” who are nine and ten years old. “My South African mom reminds me so much of my mother at home in the U.S. Both are wonderful and inspiring, work hard and love their kids,” says Kelcey. His South African mom has counseled him through homesickness, helped to put things in perspective and treated him like her own son. His “brothers,” up and coming computer gurus, speak English pretty well and are generous with their hugs when they know he needs it. A local woman, Mrs. Masia – the same name as the village - works selflessly on behalf of the community and helps with all the projects Kelcey is involved in.
Kelcey came to the community to be a teacher trainer, specifically for student-centered education in math and science. When the government came through with electricity Kelcey’s job evolved into a technology procurement project – bringing the people of Vendi into the computer age. He went after grants and local businesses, writing business plans, proposals, applying to the South African board of education for permission to teach computer technology and the establishment of a physical structure to house the computer lab once the money was there to fund the project. The money came in from many sources and the community pitched in to construct the building. He began training teachers how to use computers and then spun that off to create a program called SHOMA an initiative that instructs teachers in the use of multimedia vehicles (computers, video, television, VCR’s and interactive software) to support student-centered education and computer literacy. That venture is supported by US AID (American International Development agency), which donated the computers to the program.
In his free time he set up a boxing club for the village children to give them (and himself!) opportunities for physical conditioning and competition. There were costs involved in sponsorships and travel, but wearing his entrepreneurial “hat,” Kelcey helped generate a three-million dollar grant for the province to fund the boxers’ transportation and basic needs.
With his tenure in the Peace Corps nearly done, he reflects with some anxiety on his return home. So much has happened in the last two years here in the United States. His own experiences have changed him as well. He remembers the story of the boy trying to save some starfish that had washed up on the beach. A man tells the boy that he can’t save them all, but the boy picks up the starfish and throws it back anyway, then proceeds to do the same for all he finds. The future holds many possibilities for Ben Kelcey – choices and options that he has opened for others will help him as well. He may continue with his education or join the Marines, he’s not decided. One thing he’s sure of, however, is that there are many ways to make a difference.