While doing volunteer work in the South African village of Indermark, in Limpopo Province, eight years ago, Mohapi “Funky” Ralethe began hearing about the HIV/AIDS epidemic that was sweeping through his country. A quick trip to the village clinic revealed the magnitude of the problem. More than 60 percent of the people who visited the clinic were HIV positive, a proportion similar to that in other rural clinics across the country, he was told. Even more troubling: during that particular month, 22 of the 25 teenage girls who visited the clinic tested positive for HIV.
“I told myself then, ‘I’m not going to sit around and watch while our youth are dying like this. I have to do something,’” Ralethe remembers.
Within a year he created The Funky Foundation, an organization dedicated to educating South African youth about HIV/AIDS and helping them steer clear of the social ills that contribute to the disease’s spread: unprotected sex, alcohol and drug abuse, teen pregnancy, and dropping out of school.
“These kids are disillusioned with life,” Ralethe says of the children he helps. “They’re hopeless. So at The Funky Foundation we say, ‘We are the hope of the hopeless.’ We show them all is not lost.”
Ralethe, a physical education teacher at the American International School of Johannesburg, uses sports to get the children’s attention. Two of his foundation’s biggest efforts are the Funky Cups and the Funky Camps. The Cup is a yearly tournament in which 600 children from across the country compete in soccer, netball, volleyball, and running while also attending workshops on HIV prevention. Funky Cup participants who show leadership potential are also invited to attend the Funky Camps, where they learn how to educate their classmates in neighboring villages about making responsible choices and avoiding HIV/AIDS.
Ralethe’s long-term goal is to build his own school where the focus will be on leadership development. “Our communities are lacking good role models, which is why we need such a school,” he said. He has already acquired the land for the school and is working to secure sponsors to help build it. (Brett Mitchell ’09, who founded the nonprofit Friends of Funky organization to raise money for Ralethe’s foundation, is helping with this effort.)
Ralethe received his master’s in education through TCNJ’s off-site global graduate program in 2012, and he credits the experience with helping him in his work. “I learned so much that’s relevant beyond the classroom,” he said. “When I’m talking to the kids or to sponsors—just for them to know that I’ve got a master’s degree from The College of New Jersey, it makes people start listening to me.”
Ralethe said he’s “addicted” to the work, but added that what’s most important is, “I think we’re winning.
“Though it’s on a small scale, we’re increasing awareness, and making sure those who are still negative, stay negative. We make sure that we never have new cases of HIV. The kids are seeing there is a light at the end of the tunnel. They’re taking good care of themselves.”