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To Africa, with Love

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Work for play: Ida Franklin (third from left) with her team of volunteers who had just built a playground. “We finished our first playground just as the children came home from school,” says Franklin. “When we gave them permission, they ran to the swings and the tower and started playing. After a few minutes, they all stopped, turned to face us, and sang to us as a thank-you. It erased all the aching backs and bruised knuckles. They were some happy customers, and I was very proud of my team.”
Work for play: Ida Franklin (third from left) with her team of volunteers who had just built a playground. “We finished our first playground just as the children came home from school,” says Franklin. “When we gave them permission, they ran to the swings and the tower and started playing. After a few minutes, they all stopped, turned to face us, and sang to us as a thank-you. It erased all the aching backs and bruised knuckles. They were some happy customers, and I was very proud of my team.”

Houstonian Ida Franklin’s heart ‘is pure gold when it comes to helping others.’ by Henry Thiel How would you spend a million frequent-flyer miles? Would you redeem them for a first-class trip for two around the world, or choose to spend a month diving the world’s most beautiful reefs? Ida Franklin has chosen, twice, to take seven friends to a town in Africa to build playgrounds for orphaned children living with AIDS. Franklin, a native Houstonian and owner of Venus Construction LLC, lives in Katy on two acres with four rescue dogs and her eighty-seven-year-old father. Franklin is someone who can roof a house in the morning and finish a granite-topped kitchen island in the afternoon. She also enjoys yard work, baking pies, and diving in the Caribbean. “I have been diving for thirty years.” She has a big heart, not only for her Houston and Katy communities, but for helping others around the globe. Orphanage Project Franklin, fifty-two, joined seven members from her Creekside Community Church this past July for a return trip to Africa sponsored by Mission Discovery. Their efforts enhanced the playgrounds they built for African children in Bulembu, Swaziland, in 2009. To ensure that church members could go, Franklin donated, for a second time, more than one million of her company’s frequent-flyer miles so the volunteers could fly for free. That allowed them to use their cash to buy tools and materials for the project. Built by a team of South African and Canadian entrepreneurs and social developers in 2006, Bulembu is a city populated with more than three hundred orphaned children who are living with AIDS. The group purchased the town from the Havelock Mining Company with the goal of making it a self-sustaining community that can provide education and jobs for these children as they grow up. In the past ten years, Swaziland experienced a 900-percent increase in its HIV population. In 2009, 40.8 percent of the population was infected. The latest figures available from the World Health Organization show 61 percent of all deaths are attributed to HIV/AIDS. They are losing 2 percent of their population yearly to this horrible pandemic. AIDS transmission is exacerbated by Swazi tribal culture, which discourages safer sexual practices. They also believe that all Swazi women should have a minimum of five children, and that it’s a man’s role to impregnate multiple partners. Polygamy is common, and men are often not married to the partners they have children with. One of the most horrific tribal rituals calls for a man infected with HIV to have sex with a young virgin to cleanse himself. These problems have led to orphans becoming almost 15 percent of the population—about 120,000 in 2008. “In 2009, we arrived on a Saturday, and after we toured their school we were welcomed by the children who performed a traditional Swazi dance,” says Franklin. “On Sunday, we went to church and then spent the day just playing with the kids. Some of our younger volunteers attempted to play soccer with the boys, who were sorely outmatched. Even though we were itching to get to work, there is no working on Sundays. Sundays are for worship and relaxation only.” The Houston team, which included two high school boys from New Jersey, an electrical engineer from Austin, a young lady working on her doctorate, and her fiancé, who was a computer geek of some sort—decided that they would build playgrounds for the children. When they arrived at the playground site, they discovered that the kids’ favorite activity, in the absence of playground equipment, was looking at photos of themselves taken by visitors with digital cameras. Often, this fixation on their photo is because they have never seen their reflection in a mirror—a luxury item that is rare in Bulembu. As Franklin recalls, “We were pumped up and ready to go. And here is what they gave us: poles with the bark barely shaved off, and some planks that were so hard that they would wear out a drill bit after two or three holes. As an added bonus, all the material was stacked directly on top of where we were supposed to build the first playground! “We finished our first playground just as the children came home from school,” adds Franklin. “When we gave them permission, they ran to the swings and the tower and started playing. After a few minutes, they all stopped, turned to face us, and sang to us as a thank-you. It erased all the aching backs and bruised knuckles. They were some happy customers, and I was very proud of my team.” While some in Franklin’s group continued to build playgrounds throughout the town, others spent time in the children’s homes, helping them with their homework and getting a glimpse into their everyday lives. Each house had an auntie and six to eight children. “We marveled at the resilience of these kids. They had been through so much, yet they still had the capacity to love and be loved, and to accept their new life with the open, trusting mind of a child. “We learned from our last visit to buy as much as we could in Africa,” adds Franklin, “especially tools and materials. We would pack plenty of water for the four-hour bus ride—which took us nine hours the last time, due to road construction, lack of roads, and wildfires. Yes, the bus drove right through a fire without stopping!” Tim Douglas, pastor at Creekside Community Church, says Franklin’s heart is pure gold when it comes to helping others. “She’s a very giving and loving person. She’s been a great driving force for us by donating her time and money. She helps the elderly, disabled, and she even installed an art project for the junior high,” Douglas says. “She just keeps rolling it out and always, always goes above and beyond. Ida’s amazing.” Keeping Katy in Her Thoughts and Projects As a breast cancer survivor, and as someone who recently and unexpectedly lost her wife of ten years, Alicia Widner, Franklin doesn’t take life for granted, or hesitate to reach out to those in need. Franklin, who was raised in South Houston and moved to Katy in 1991, is on the board of directors for the Katy Area Chamber of Commerce, is a founding member of Creekside Community Church, and is also part of Katy ISD’s Leadership Katy program. She is consistently willing to do outreach when asked. In 2012, Franklin was made aware that Barbara, her friendly cashier at Home Depot, was living in a home that Hurricane Ike left barely standing, with an un-lockable door and a non-functioning bathroom. This seven-hundred-square-foot home in Brookshire became an undertaking for Franklin, her business associates, and church members. She describes it as an “extreme makeover” where local companies, Venus Construction LLC, Creekside Community Church, RBM Maintenance, and Polar Express Air Conditioning and Heating, worked together to help Barbara and her family. After about fifteen months of working evenings and weekends, Franklin presented Barbara with the key to her new front door. That dramatic moment was a stunning surprise for Barbara and her family. “We basically rebuilt her house up from the studs,” Franklin says. “We installed insulation, new windows, kitchen cabinetry and appliances, toilet and sink, and were even able to decorate the home with donated pictures, furniture, fresh carpet, and paint. We were just happy to do it.” A Company She Believes In  Franklin opened Venus Construction in 2005, and is a hands-on manager in everything she does. She is proud of her amazing, talented group of employees who work all over the Greater Houston area, but concentrate on the west side of town. They do a mix of 50 percent residential and 50 percent commercial. Their work can be seen anywhere from banks to doctors’ offices, and from new construction to full kitchen remodeling. Sales, networking, and job management are part of Franklin’s business dealings now, and she says going into this business was “a leap of faith” after working in retail six days a week. The results have been rewarding on all levels, whether business or community related. “I enjoy forming relationships with people,” Franklin says. “Some of my customers are the greatest friends ever. People are by far the best part of my job. It also gives me a great sense of satisfaction to do a great job.” Franklin and other members of Creekside Church will once again travel to Africa in 2015 for ten days of helping the children in Bulembu. Donations can be made at thecreekside.org. Click on the PayPal button at the bottom right and type “Ida’s Trip” in the purpose box. Checks can also be mailed to: Creekside Community Church, 1450 W. Grand Parkway South, Ste. G277, Katy, TX 77494. “The money goes a long way,” Franklin adds. “Good things will happen with it, and it’s 100 percent tax deductible.” Henry Thiel is a Houston-based freelance writer. This is his first article for OutSmart magazine.

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