AZ Giving & Leading: Open Arms Home for Children

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After taking a family mission trip to South Africa in 2005, Bob and Sallie Solis of Phoenix felt called to do something about the plight of children orphaned by AIDS in the country. They used their life savings and bought a 70-acre hilltop farm and established the Open Arms Home. Today, the home houses over 50 orphans. Bob Solis will talk about the Open Arms Home.

Ted Simons: Every month on "Arizona Horizon" our giving and leading segment looks at folks doing good things in the world. Tonight we learn about a local family that used their life's savings to open a home in South Africa to children orphaned by aids. Bob Solis, thank you for joining us.

Bob Solis: Great to be here.

Ted Simons: Congratulations on this. Give us a better definition of Open Arms Home.

Bob Solis: It's a residential facility, Ted, for children who have lost their parents to aids in South Africa, which is a particularly bad problem. Most of these children come to us with the shirts on their backs and end up we will raise them to adulthood. It's a residential home.

Ted Simons: You're based here, you live here. How did this start?

Bob Solis: My wife and I have five children of our own. About ten years ago we took our family on a mission trip of our own. We worked in an orphanage in South Africa so our kids could see how the other half of the world lived. We saw so many children in need from this aids problem we came home, thought, prayed about it. We had been saving up to pay off our house for many years. We said, what the heck, that's why they invented 30 year mortgages and we took a trip and bought the farm.

Ted Simons: When you went on the trip what did you expect to see and was there a moment when everything went, this is what we should be thinking about?

Bob Solis: Yes. It was when we went out to the community, townships, we would call slums, you saw so many children wandering around. You would ask, what is this child's story and the next door neighbor would be taking care of the child. They weren't related. You saw this over and over. It tugged on our hearts and we're blessed to be a part of it.

Ted Simons: What response did you get from folks in the community; the kids obviously are having a great time. They look good. What about folks in the community?

Bob Solis: We were welcomed with open arms. There was such a need for children's homes there. There's an overwhelming need. People really stepped up. Local farmers gave us meat and dairy and people knitted sweaters. They have been very, very kind to us.

Ted Simons: What about here? What about your family, your friends? It's one thing to say I'm going to take a motorcycle trip or have a midlife crisis. I'm going to open a home for orphaned kids in South Africa. What did you hear?

Bob Solis: Well, psychological counseling was a suggestion. But we have a very supportive family. So a big extended family in Arizona. They were all very supportive although scratching their heads a little bit. We started small. Got the first child in 2006 . We have been adding 10 to 12 children a year ever since.

Ted Simons: As far as challenges, what are some of the things you ran into that maybe you didn't expect?

Bob Solis: The distance, of course, is the number one challenge. When you're trying to run an organization on the other side of the world and living in Arizona that becomes very problematic. We have American executive directors, a couple from Virginia, that runs it for us. They are doing a great job. We're pleased about that. So we do the best we can to stay in touch but the distance is probably the hardest thing. Probably the most unexpected blessing thing has been giving people jobs. The unemployment rate around there is about 50%. We have 43 paid staff members at this point and so it's been gait giving them jobs.

Ted Simons: When we saw the kids they were obviously happy, having fun, playing, dancing and being kids. There has to be some emotional need going on there, physical needs. What have you run into?

Bob Solis: No question. We have a master's level play therapist that comes every Thursday and Friday to work through some of the issues. Obviously our children have issues with separation. With wondering about where their family is, et cetera. So we work through those issues as best we can. Then we have a couple children themselves that are HIV positive. So we have to attend to their needs. But they are doing great. On medication, Doing super.

Ted Simons: The first child, how is he seeing the world?

Bob Solis: He's doing great. His name is Sephundo. In his local language Cosa that means a lesson. He's taught us a lot of lessons about resiliency and how to keep moving forward in your life. All our kids are so resilient it's inspirational to know him.

Ted Simons: How big a problem is aids in Africa in general, South Africa in particular?

Bob Solis: It's a big problem in sub-Saharan Africa. Some countries are further ahead in the fight than others. South Africa was one of the last to join the fight. So as a result 18 to 20% of the adult population is HIV positive. In a country 45 million you can imagine toll that takes. Because most of the people passing away are 20 to 40 years old they have a lot of kids, there's a lot of kids with no place to go.

Ted Simons: They have a place to go now. Expansion plans?

Bob Solis: We have beds now for 70 with 53 kids, so we'll get to 70 in a couple of years. At that point we'll catch our breath and see what's going on. We hope if we expand beyond that we build another campus. We want to maintain a family atmosphere. It's very important that it not get too large so it doesn't become an institution.

Ted Simons: A question for you. You work full-time?

Bob Solis: I do.

Ted Simons: Doing something else?

Bob Solis: Yes.

Ted Simons: How do you find the time for this?

Bob Solis: It's turned into my golf hobby. Which is fine because I'm terrible at golf. It's nights and weekend and whatever we can do, speaking at churches and rotary clubs. It's a great privilege, actually. I don't look at it as work. It's one of those things you are doing what you feel like you're supposed to be doing.

Ted Simons: It sounds like you walked across a major part of South Africa to raise money?

Bob Solis: Yes. Next time I'll take the bus. In 2008 we were out of space and funds on a personal basis, so we had a fund-raiser where I walked 720 miles across the country. It was great adventure. We raised about a quarter million dollars to build more cottages.

Ted Simons: Last question. Do you ever sit back, I was joking before saying you must sleep awfully well doing this kind of work, do you ever sit back and look at the ceiling, look outside and just marvel or wonder at what you've done?

Bob Solis: I will tell you my favorite thing at Open Arms without exception is to sit inside even though I love playing with kids and watch the children playing. Because what happens with children who have suffered like this is they lose their childhood. They lose their sense of joy and play. They are begging to stay alive. My favorite thing is to sit and watch them play. I think Open Arms has given them their childhood back.

Ted Simons: That must be a blessing and a half for you and certainly for them. Continued good work and congratulations. This is a fantastic story.

Bob Solis: Thank you.

Ted Simons: Good to have you.

Bob Solis:Owner, Open Arms Home;

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