Grace grew up in apartheid South Africa. She was born in 1947 on a white family’s farm in Emjindini, Barberton, where her mother worked as a servant. Grace’s father was a migrant miner who returned to his native Malawi before she ever met him. Her mother died when Grace was four, and she was left on the farm in the care of her mother’s fellow servant.
From the time she was ten, Grace says, “things went wrong.” Her “white father,” the farm’s owner, began to rape her. She ran away, spending three years on the streets until she was caught and returned to her tormentor. When she was 15, her “white father” took her to the doctor. “He told me there was black disease on the farm, and I might have to go to the hospital,” she says. After urine and blood tests, he told her she needed surgery, which was performed the following day. “It took me until I was 28, married, and trying to conceive that I fully understood what happened to me when I was 15. My doctor told me I had been sterilized— it was a terrible shock.” Devastated and disgraced at not being able to bear children, Grace divorced her husband and struck out on her own.
She began working in retail stores, and was soon promoted to a managerial position. This job led to her life’s passion in an unlikely way. She explains, “I was managing the Pep Store when I caught some young boys from the street stealing. I made a deal that I wouldn’t report them to the police if they would clean the shop every day.” Grace’s own traumas gave her tremendous empathy for the suffering that drove them to the streets and she worked to build trust with them by cooking for them. After a year of this, however, Grace saw she wasn’t doing enough. “I would see them during the day, bring them a meal, and then leave them out to sleep on the street,” she recalls, “so I started staying with the children at night to protect them and began looking for a place to house them.”
Soon, Grace quit her job to spend more time helping the children. She cleaned houses for money and worked on farms in exchange for vegetables to feed them. In time, she found a farm where they could sleep. Grace fought for years through government bureaucracy to get a children’s home registered; even then, she received support for only a few children.
Today, Grace runs three facilities—a soup kitchen that feeds 120 children every day, and two homes in Malalane and Johannesburg South that serve 146 children, from babies to young adults. Amazing Grace Children’s Home is a safe haven, where children are part of a real family. “My children don’t fight,” Grace says proudly. “I teach them to share. They don’t have much, but what they do have they share among themselves. It gives me peace.”
On any given day, “I am everywhere,” she laughs. “I go from one home to the other, wherever they need me.” In addition to giving the children a home and a chance to go to school, Grace teaches unemployed teenagers and young sex workers skills that can get them off the streets—beadwork, upholstery, and computer use.
The struggle to give her children what they need is ongoing. “Sometimes I don’t have enough funds to pay my staff, but they continue to work,” she says. “We live by donations from caring people, but it is difficult.” Despite her daily struggles, Grace says she is one of the happiest people in the world. “Joy comes to me when I look out the window and see one of my children running to the kitchen in a school uniform. Then I know I am making a difference.”