“I was holding down the kettle lid today, desperate for a cup of coffee,” Angela Larkan tells ELLE.com. “It doesn’t boil unless you hold down the lid, and as I stood there, hand on kettle, looking into the corner of the bare cement and noticing that we clearly have cockroaches in the office again, I thought about how my life might be different if I had just gotten a normal job.” There are at least 325 children that are thankful that Larkan did not get a “normal” job.
Larkan was just 19 when, sitting in her dorm room at Wesleyan University, she was hit with a bout of procrastination; while most might surf their favorite online shopping websites or head to Facebook, Larkan ended up reading about the HIV/AIDS pandemic in South Africa. Horrified by the number of orphans the pandemic has caused and unhappy with all the existing models to care for those millions of orphans, she decided to design her own. As a result, Thanda (which means “love” in Zulu) was born in rural KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa in 2003.
Thanda is a makeshift family—a “modern family” if you will—for children whose families have been shattered; Larkan serves at the head alongside her boyfriend, Tyler Howard, who she’s been dating since high school, and who moved to South Africa to help support the program’s setup. “He is my rock,” Larkan says.
In 2008, Larkan and Howard founded the Thanda After-School program, which provides 325 local schoolchildren who have been orphaned or are deemed vulnerable due to HIV/AIDS with a meal and after-school activities. Each child can join the basketball, soccer, computer, art, dance, or agriculture programs. “Our teachers offer guidance, life skills, emotional support, and educational foundations to help fill in the gaps from missing parents and local poverty,” Larkan explains.
Of course, rural South Africa is not without its challenges. “There were rats in the copier, getting stuck in the mud, breaking down,” she says. “Even today, we don’t have water or reliable cars.” But according to Larkan, nothing compares to the unbelievable rewards: “There are emotional moments when my heart tightens and tears pour down my cheeks.” When Thanda’s under-13 soccer team made it to the finals, she says, “I cried as I watched them standing in front of the crowd of 500 people, with their hands on their hearts and their heads down, singing the national anthem. They looked so grown up.”
Thanda also helps women support their families: The organization has partnered with the women of the Zulu Beadwork Project for Thanda Zulu jewelry. The handbeaded pieces are crafted by skilled artisan women—in the same KwaZulu-Natal region—who were previously unemployed, and proceeds from the jewelry collection support the Thanda After-School Project.
For her efforts, Larkan has been chosen as Clarins Most Dynamic Woman of the Year in 2011 and supported by the Levi’s Go Forth program, second only to Matt Damon and his Water.org project. She says she’s no hero, however: “The young children who lose their mother only to pick themselves up, put on their uniform, and walk themselves to school the next day—these are the real heroes of our nation today.”