Infinite Family – Bringing hope and opportunity to teens in South Africa
Interview with Amy Conrad Stokes – Founder, President and CEO
Infinite Family is a non-profit organization, based in South African and the US, that uses technology to allow adults from all over the world to share their experience and expertise with teens and pre-teens in South Africa. Volunteers help these children develop their skills, confidence, and a global worldview to create better lives for themselves. Video Mentors help the children build resilience, resourcefulness and responsibility as they endeavor to become self-reliant and economically stable.
More about Infinite Family and what makes Amy passionate about this cause
The idea for video mentoring came to Amy while she was in South Africa with her husband to adopt their baby boy in 2003. She had seen webcams being sold for the first time at a retail level and realized that these new communication technologies would allow adults anywhere in the world to play a direct and influential role in the lives of teens who had already lost so much during their young lives due to the HIV/AIDS crisis – too many parents and family members did not survive to guide them to become successful adults.
Infinite Family is now strong with more than 600 volunteer Video Mentors and many hundreds of other volunteers who share their time, talents, expertise, and resources along the way to help invent this new way to ignite, influence, and inspire teens with few role models to succeed in the Fourth Industrial Revolution workplace. Video Mentors now live in 17 countries and 40 US states. Some have served well beyond 10 years and many of the Board members have served many terms – one has been on the team since 2007. Several of Infinite Family’s corporate partners have also been strong supporters through thick and thin as they have worked through more than 39,000 video conversations so far.
Infinite Family’s full origin story can be found here: https://www.infinitefamily.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/ourstory-2019.pdf.
Leveraging Technology to engage with Beneficiaries
Since the very beginning, in 2006, Infinite Family has used technology to stay efficient and lean in providing their services. They are always adding new applications to their secure Internet platform, the Ezomndeni Net (Ezomndeni is Zulu for “everything related to family”). During the lockdown, they communicated with teens via WhatsApp, sending them content and action messages twice each day. At the same time, they have been testing new technologies and adapting the skills building content to be delivered in new formats and in ways that are easier and less costly to access in the African context. What seems a minimal expense to those of us who are used to operating in corporate environments is quickly prohibitive when all daily wages must be used for food and medical care.
Innovation is a continual process at Infinite Family – they role model the messages that are sent to the teens to continually build resilience, resourcefulness, and responsibility by striving to stay present in the teens’ lives no matter what the challenges are.
How the COVID-19 crisis has changed things, and how Infinite Family has adapted to the new normal
The biggest change that Infinite Family faced, during the initial months of the pandemic, was that the Net Buddies (teen mentees) were not able to come to their LaunchPad computer labs to connect with their Video Mentors and access a range of skills development resources. Amy and her team quickly stretched technologies and began to work with the teens and their families in their homes while they were on strict homebound lockdown for the first several months. They provided Information, Inspiration, and Action items to keep the teens strong mentally, emotionally, and physically. Now that there is some ability to move around, Infinite Family’s LaunchPads are being turned into Internet kiosks so teens can work via multiple devices (not just laptops) while staying outside, socially distanced, in the fresh air.
Significant challenges and areas where they require the most support
One of the biggest challenges for Infinite Family is adapting the skills development content for easier access by more students. However, there are many constraints in Africa, and volunteers have to understand those constraints and troubleshoot along the way. Not all volunteers have the persistence to get the job done, especially when it exceeds the expectations they had when they began, which all new development and innovation inevitably do. Funding to hire experienced professionals is another area where they require support and would help achieve their objectives more quickly.
Learnings from Virtual Volunteering
Infinite Family is built around virtual volunteering – they have been doing this since 2006, when Internet penetration in Sub-Saharan Africa was less than 5%. They have developed deep experience about what works and doesn’t in the most challenging environments via more than 39,000 video conversations. The biggest change they are making right now is to address the increased instability in their Net Buddies lives – school schedules are completely unpredictable and will likely be so through 2021. So, they are adapting the model to also provide one-to-many video mentoring sessions that teens can drop in to and develop skills whenever they are available rather than being tied to just one day and time each week.
Infinite Family requires virtual volunteers who can segment skills to teach within their frameworks of education, technology literacy, career preparation, life skills, and communication. Volunteers would teach individual sessions several times to offer the most opportunity to the maximum number of students.