A Young Hero in New Paltz

First-year undeclared student Jacob Yoder recalls his first trip to Swaziland where he and others in attendance biked across the small nation in southern Africa, as a lifetime of experience.

One memory that stands out to Yoder happened when he first rode across the country with others. The cyclists were riding by a school just as the students were being let out and the kids, barefoot and giggling, ran after the bikers to race them home. That experience stays with Yoder as he plans his next trip to the country.

“It made me realize that happiness has no direct correlation with material possessions,” Yoder said, commenting on the touching simplicity of the experience and his time meeting the children.

Originally from Trumbull, Conn., Yoder has trekked to Africa with the Young Heroes Foundation, an organization that works to help the AIDS-ravaged country of Swaziland. This year he said he plans to make the trip again and has been organizing fundraisers on and off campus to help his cause.

Steve Kallaugher, founder of Young Heroes Foundation and the organizer of the Swaziland trip, is a longtime friend of Yoder’s father. The pair played in a punk rock band together years ago.

Kallaugher said the organization’s primary mission is to assist the families ravaged by the AIDS epidemic in Swaziland.The country is one of the last remaining absolute monarchies and has the highest rate of HIV infection in the world with more than 26 percent of the population is HIV positive.

According to UNICEF, more than 25 percent of children in the country had lost at least one parent to the disease as of 2009.

“The burden of raising the kingdom’s orphans has fallen heavily on the grandmothers of the nation, most of whom are too old now to farm themselves — they are at the age when their family should be taking care of them,” Kallaugher said. “In other cases, it is left to the eldest child to raise his or her young siblings.”

Since most of the nation’s citizens are farmers who rely on their land for their livelihoods, Kallaugher said that it’s important for the families to stay on their land and keep their claims on it to sustain them throughout their lives. The Young Heroes work to keep these orphan families alive, healthy and living together on their homesteads and in their communities.

Yoder takes part in one of the organizations major fundraisers when he goes on the adventure trip through the mountains of Swaziland, focusing on cycling and hiking across the country.

The trip costs $2,400, plus any additional expenses.

Yoder, a full-time student, has been working to fundraise. He’s been using a pledge page on dojiggy.com to spread the word about his cause.  Yoder is also working with the hall government in Esopus Hall, where he lives, as well as various local establishments to raise the money.

Donation boxes for Yoder’s Swaziland endeavor are at Dedrick’s Pharmacy, Inner Wall Rock Climbing, Earth Goods and the Bike Rack. Yoder has also used Lee’s Taxi Co. to raise funds, after he asked to keep one of his boxes inside the cab of the small business after using the service.

But Yoder said the money goes a long way given the benefits of the trip. On the cycling trip, the bikers ride through the mountains, covering about 200 kilometers of seldom-travelled land in the four days of the trip.

“We went around, saw some of the families, saw first-hand how much some of the children are struggling and what the situation is,” Yoder said.

It’s during this first-hand experience that Yoder said he felt the greatest connection with the people the organization is helping.

“We brought food to some of the families. We played with the kids — absolutely unforgettable— we played jumprope, ran around. They’re amazing people,” Yoder said. “It’s really tragic to see the situation they’re in.”