Dena Coates got to experience South African culture while she was on a mission trip in Cape Town June 21 through July 5. (Photo submitted)
Dena Coates got to experience South African culture while she was on a mission trip in Cape Town June 21 through July 5. (Photo submitted)

OTTAWA — Many people make a bucket list. Ottawa native Dena Coates has one, too; visiting Cape Town, South Africa, was at the top of her list.

Her interest in the Rainbow Nation began during the 2010 World Cup that was held there. She immersed herself in learning all she could about the country. About a year ago, Coates began her quest to fulfill her dream. She searched for mission volunteer trips on the Internet, and found one through Cross Cultural Solutions (CCS). “I prayed, ‘OK Lord, I have been thinking about his for a long time.’ I had such a strong desire to do it,” she recalled. “I thought, ‘I could go there. I could do it.’”

Coates clicked the “enroll” button, before she changed her mind.

“My heart was thumping. I learned with God, all things are possible,” she grinned.

The effervescent Coates is employed as a personal trainer/group exercise instructor at the Putnam County YMCA. She also provides exercise classes to residents at local nursing homes. Two days before her departure, she received her volunteer assignment, at a nursing home in Cape Town.

After a 27-hour flight, arriving at 2:00 a.m. local time was no problem. A representative of CCS was there to transport Coates to her “home” for the next two weeks. “South Africa is the most warm and friendly place,” she observed. “People are eager to help. I felt welcome as soon as I got off the plane.”

Coates roomed in a church’s guesthouse, located in the middle of Cape Town’s central business district. There were coffee houses, cafes, and restaurants everywhere. While it was only 30 minutes from the beach, swimming was not on the agenda. It was winter in the southern hemisphere, and temperatures were in the mid- to lower 60s.

Eighteen volunteers, 15 women and three men ranging in ages from 18-52, almost all from the United States, stayed in the guesthouse. Coates shared a room with two other women. Household members shared bathroom facilities. The staff included a chef, a housekeeper, and a guard.

“We were like family by the time I left,” Coates acknowledged. “We were together all the time. One of my favorite things was getting to hear others’ stories and how we came to be in Cape Town at the same time, and meeting people from all walks of life.”

Monday through Friday, a bell rang at 8 a.m. to alert the volunteers it was time to board the bus to travel to their work sites. Volunteers went to several different locations in Cape Town, including a school, a childcare center, an HIV center, a psychiatric hospital, and the nursing home.

Coates and another young man assisted the home’s occupational therapist (OT). Coates taught chair aerobics three days a week. She and the young man helped the OT with activities and games or provided support to the residents when needed. She fondly recalled memories of the residents. “They were a joy to be around. They were witty and appreciative, and hugged me every day,” Coates smiled. “One lady, who was the second oldest resident, had such a beautiful presence.” Another resident spoke seven languages, and shared her extensive travel stories. Music is very important to the South African people; one male resident played his saxophone every day, while another performed on the piano.

Coates favorite activity, by far, was listening to the residents’ personal stories. They willingly shared their wisdom with her, which she appreciated. All the home’s occupants had lived through apartheid, a former social system in South Africa in which black people and people from other racial groups did not have the same political and economic rights as white people.

“South Africa has such an interesting history,” Coates stated. “I got to feel the heartbeat of South Africa, and what is was really like, not just from a tourist’s perspective. Volunteering could not have been a better experience. Getting to know those who had lived through South Africa’s history was a bonus.”

Coates and her comrades spent afternoons and weekends exploring the city and the outlying areas.

“The city had so much beauty: statues, colorful building, lots of artistic touches were everywhere. Their art is so expressive. There was lots of traditional African music, although every time we were in a public place, American pop music was playing,” she described.

Coates especially liked the District Six Museum. In the late 1860s, District Six was a vibrant multicultural community comprised of people from all walks of life. Black South Africans were displaced from the area beginning in 1901. In the mid-1960s, the government bulldozed the area to make room for an all-white settlement. The museum was established in 1994. It has many carefully reconstructed displays to show what life had been in the area. Many artifacts people had collected from the era are housed in the museum. A memory quilt at the historical institution helped people reconnect with one another.

Another favorite experience was attending a drum circle at the guesthouse. The leader did music therapy for healing traumatic memories for people who experienced Apartheid. “This was one of the best experiences I have ever had,” Coates concluded. “I would go again, in a heartbeat.”