I can’t believe it’s been almost seven years since I first connected with Mtuseni in a video chat, which I took much of the air out of by trying too hard. A “naive farm boy” as he would later describe it, back then he was kinda gawky and silly and shy — with a squeaky voice, half-baked opinions, and a typical love for cars and loud teen-boy movies. He also had dreams, drive, and a big if wounded heart.

I could never have imagined that first awkward conversation would have extended to a deep, loving relationship and greetings such as this…

dad day 2016

It’s been an amazing journey with Mtuseni, this accidental fatherhood for someone who never wanted kids and — truth be told — isn’t a big fan of the species. The rewards and satisfaction and happiness are incalculable.

But it’s difficult not being able to watch him play soccer … or see him graduate from college … or be there to offer a hug on tough days … or give him a warm, safe place to sleep during the cold South African winter.

I heard recently that having a child is like your heart walking around in the world, and you constantly worry over its safety and well-being from challenges big and small, real and imagined. That concept is crystal clear to me. And it’s much tougher when your kid is 8,000 miles away. But somehow we make it work, and can celebrate the love from my no-longer-gawky-or-shy, growing-up-too-fast son on another Father’s Day.

Follow and share updates about the Long-Distance Dad book proje

fun day 1 4x6It’s been a while since my last post here — just over a year, in fact. In some ways the previous post about Mtuseni’s trip to Washington DC with City Year seemed a fitting way to conclude our story, although certainly our relationship would continue. And blogging requires considerable time and commitment; with Mtuseni somewhat on cruise control, I decided to pivot a bit and focus more on my own life.

But the journey with my son is never-ending — and as I hinted at in a previous post, my role has recently expanded. For how could I help Mtuseni forge a better life, yet not do anything for his younger sister and brother? After Mtuseni told me last December that his sweet sister Bongeka was being teased and ostracized — both at school and in the community — I had to take action. I’ve been there, at the bottom of the adolescent pecking order, and my parents putting me into private high school was one of their better parenting moments. And I know from Mtuseni and news reports how terrible South Africa’s public schools are, particularly the more rural ones. Luckily I found a big, new private school ten minutes away from the family’s settlement. Bongeka started seventh grade at Meridian Cosmo City School in January. It’s been a tricky transition, but she’s steadily finding her feet. She’s taking exams now and starts winter break in a couple weeks — already halfway through her first year!

So going forward, the Long-Distance Dad blog will share stories of Bongeka’s experiences. I’m completing the application now for Musa so he can start sixth grade at Meridian next year. And although Mtuseni has a job, his ongoing challenges and victories will be shared here. There will be many more tales to tell.

Some people have told me “You’ve done enough already with Mtuseni. You don’t need to do more.” Logically I don’t need to, but I want to. That’s just me. My years with Mtuseni have been a string of bills and a rollercoaster ride of debt, not to mention constant low-level stress given the realities of South African poverty. Perhaps I’m philanthropic beyond my means. Maybe I’m just crazy. But these three kids have become my family. And I can help them to have brighter futures. As I look at how many calendar pages have flipped through my life and sometimes wonder what it’s all been for — I know that Mtuseni, Bongeka, and Musa will be my legacy. That’s my reward. That’s why I’m here.

I hate roller coasters, and I have a feeling that the years ahead might make my time with Mtuseni seem like a merry-go-round. But I’m strapped in and have already crested that first tall hill with Bongeka and am hurtling through the early twists and turns. This e-ticket ride continues…

Follow and share updates about the Long-Distance Dad book project on Facebook!

Soaring at City Year

May 3, 2015 — 1 Comment

A few years ago, in a Cape Town karaoke cafe with Mtuseni, a guy sang I Believe I Can Fly, a powerful, uplifting anthem. He had an amazing voice. The place seemed to be a popular hangout for college kids, and as the song built to its crescendo, everyone was standing and shouting the refrain “I can fly!” like in a church revival. I looked around the room and at Mtuseni, watching all these bright faces full of hope and promise — and my tears just started flowing. Knowing the difficult challenges and harsh realities that exist in the country, I wanted Mtuseni and all young South Africans to be able to succeed. To thrive. To fly. Whenever I hear the song now, I’m taken back to that night — and it still gets to me.

Mtuseni has totally embraced his City Year experience since the program began in February, and in April he started working with students at a school in Tembisa township. From the beginning, I was just pleased and relieved that he is engaged and happy; since graduating from college last July, he never got one job interview.

I was impressed and a bit surprised when Mtuseni was elected co-captain of his City Year team a couple months ago. I couldn’t have been more proud … but then it got better. Six weeks ago he was selected as one of two corps members to represent South Africa at the City Year National Leadership Summit! He just returned from three days in Washington, DC, where he attended meetings and receptions with executives, staff, dignitaries, members of Congress — and most importantly, other City Year corps members from across the United States. I couldn’t be in DC, but thanks to Twitter at #cysummit, I was able to follow Mtuseni’s activities in real-time. To see his bright eyes and ecstatic grin in photos, hanging out with peers from across the country, all sharing his commitment to public service — I was beaming and walking on air.

His schedule was packed and he would only text me little snippets, but on Thursday morning he said “I’m speaking tonight, and I’m nervous.” I had no idea he was expected to speak, so I gave him a little text pep talk and then he was gone. The summit was hosting a gala reception at the Newseum that evening, in part to honor the 10th anniversary of City Year South Africa and the fifth anniversary of City Year London. On Twitter, I saw photos of the South African CEO and the other corps representative speaking at a small podium, then the tweets switched to members of the UK corps. I figured the social media team didn’t get a picture of Mtuseni, or, worse, that nerves got the best of him and he bailed. “Too bad,” I thought.

And then I saw this come across the Twitter wire…

cy summit newseum mtu8

To see him up on that stage, speaking to a crowd in the soaring lobby of the Newseum, has to be the proudest moment of my life. He texted me quickly afterwards and said “Well, I did it.” I congratulated him and told him to go enjoy his night. He said “I’m gonna have a blast!”

Then moments later, City Year SoA tweeted this:

cy summit mtuseni speech

I never anticipated that Mtuseni would talk about me in his speech. I figured he would discuss his work in Johannesburg and the program’s value to the city. Needless to say, the tears flowed freely when I saw that.

I was pretty naive when I offered to support Mtuseni and put him through school; it was infinitely more than I anticipated. The journey has been pretty rough at times, but it’s also been the best decision of my life. My work’s not over with him, but these images were the first time I’ve been able to step back for a moment and think, “I did it.” I look at the picture of a teenage Mtuseni in his school uniform hanging over my desk, the first image I ever had of him, and I can’t believe how far “my little yellow polo shirt boy” has come.

At minimum, I’ve always wanted Mtuseni to be happy and safe and secure. But knowing what a special person he is, I really want him to fly. This week, he took wing … and is soaring.


Source: City Year



Source: City Year



Source: City Year


Follow and share updates about the Long-Distance Dad book project on Facebook!


Cookie Power

April 26, 2015 — 3 Comments

Valtentine's-Day-heart-cookiesWhen Mtuseni and I decided to continue our relationship when the nonprofit that connected us folded, I envisioned frequent connection via numerous paths, including the mail. Because he lives in a settlement with limited, insecure mail service, I rented him a PO box at a chain of copy shops so I could send him cards and letters and small gifts. I soon learned about the corruption of South Africa’s postal service, as some cards and small parcels sent by first class mail never made it to him; they just vanished. One properly addressed card came back to me via boat, bent and tattered, eight weeks later.

I learned that the only safe option was US express mail. This is not only crazy expensive, but a logistical obstacle course. Express mail (which becomes South African service in-country) doesn’t deliver to Mtuseni’s area, so packages must be addressed to him care-of someone in Johannesburg proper. They get a slip, Mtuseni takes it to the post office, he pays a tariff, and they give him the package. If they can find it. They’ve never lost a package, but sometimes I need to call and email to figure out where the box is being held and, one time, what shelf it was on. The package usually gets to South Africa in three days — and then can float in limbo for a couple weeks. The word “express” seems to have a different meaning in there.

It’s a hassle, but worth hearing his reaction and offering something more tangible than text bytes. South African law only allows him to receive two packages from me per year, so I make the most of it … following a loose interpretation of the ridiculously low allowable rand value for items sent. The mainstay is clothes, since he has so little and can’t look like a poor shack boy out in the world. I also include cards, letters, sometimes toiletries or vitamins. Not only does this help him, but it frees up money for his mom to spend on the household or the other kids. I’ve also sent stacks of photos from his visits here, because pictures on a laptop aren’t the same as ones hung on his wall.

A few years ago, I sent him a batch of cookies. He was surprised that I had “bought so many,” and more surprised — and impressed — when I said I had baked them myself. As they have no oven in the shack, Mtuseni doesn’t get homemade cookies very often. Given that he had about six dozen cookies, I was surprised he didn’t share them with the family. I’ve learned over the years how life in the settlement is pretty much every man for himself.

Each time I get ready to send a package, Mtuseni gets very excited. But the last couple times he seemed more concerned about the cookies than the clothes. I laughed to myself and thought, “Hell, next time I’ll save a ton of money and just send cookies.”

IMG_1908A few weeks ago I sent a box with photos from last year’s trip, drawings from my nieces, pants, sweaters, and the required black belt and hats for his City Year uniform — and a big batch of his favorite oatmeal cookies with raisins, cranberries, and walnuts. He’s been so busy — and tired — with City Year that we only talked a bit about the box when he received it. It made me sad when he said that he wanted to save his cookies for “hard times.” His money has been tight with long commutes and having to buy meals, but I told him to just eat them and know I’d keep him safe from hard times, at least in terms of food. He said he would and fell asleep mid-chat, as he often does.

So the other day I asked him how the cookies were. He said, “They help me to relax and be happy.” And then I finally understood why the cookies seem to be the most important part of the package for him, and why he doesn’t share them. They’re not just sweet treats, but something I made made especially for him. Despite having real pride for and commitment to South Africa as his home, life there weighs heavily on Mtuseni — from the personal challenges of poverty to the lack of jobs for young people. With the recent xenophobia attacks and a teachers strike that has affected his City Year school, Mtuseni said last week “It’s bad in this town.” But he keeps forging on, for his future and for the country.

And when he gets home to his small bed in the unheated, wallboard shack with the dirt floor, it makes me glad to know that a few simple cookies can give him some solace and strength — and help him feel loved.

Follow and share updates about the Long-Distance Dad book project on Facebook!BBBBB