Alumna creates nonprofit to carry on a legacy of compassion and care
by Lily Wolfe (’18)
Brenna Riggers’s (’12) nursing career unknowingly began during her gap year before attending Westminster. With no prior education or skillset, Brenna went to Mthatha, Eastern Cape South Africa, an area that has faced decades of systematic underdevelopment due to apartheid. Brenna volunteered with family friend Sister Mary Paule Tacke, who had connections to local projects in the area. Brenna spent most of a year working under the direction of Sister Mary, helping young children who were chronically ill and without a home. “That was my first experience with children and the medical community, so I definitely got inspired,” Brenna says. When she arrived at Westminster, she dove into her studies to earn her BSN.
Brenna returned to South Africa multiple times during college, even taking her mother, Joan, along to volunteer. In 2014, Sister Mary passed away. “My mom and I began questioning what we should be doing after losing that connection and what the needs of the community were,” Brenna says. By 2016, Brenna and her mother formed Sister Mary’s Children, a nonprofit organization named after the woman who started it all.
Sister Mary’s Children partners with three projects in Mthatha: The Bethany’s Children’s Home cares for abused, abandoned, and neglected children from birth to six years old, while the Thembelihle Home cares for children ages six to 16. Ikhwezi Lokusa Rehabilitation and Development Society teaches professional skills to young adults who have mental or physical disabilities. After working with Ikhwezi Lokusa for a minimum of two years, the young adults return to their communities and are able to live independently.
“We supplement and support the efforts of local projects on the ground that are doing the work every day,” Brenna says. The goals of these projects are not only to create a safe and nurturing environment, but also to provide education on site for the children. Many of the children can’t be in the public school system for safety reasons, so much of the financial assistance given by Sister Mary’s Children is supporting education within the homes.
Brenna attributes much of her success in co-founding Sister Mary’s Children to inspiration from Westminster and its networking opportunities. “Westminster really gave me the foundation to jump in and pursue this. I don’t know if another experience would have given me that.”
Brenna would like to see the organization expand; however, she realizes that building relationships with communities takes time. The partnership with Mthatha began in 2006, and Brenna does not intend to rush into another project. “Right now, our focus is this community in South Africa,” Brenna explains. “We are mindful that if we were to expand into different areas, then we’d need to build that connection first and really look to local community and leadership.”
Visit sistermaryschildren.org for more information.
About the Westminster Review
The Westminster Review is Westminster University’s bi-annual alumni magazine that is distributed to alumni and community members. Each issue aims to keep alumni updated on campus current events and highlights the accomplishments of current students, professors, and Westminster alum.