AFCA Marketing Director, Jen Panattoni reflects on her experience in Zimbabwe with the Vacation with a Purpose Program.

Do you ever go on a vacation, but feel the need to have another vacation immediately upon your return, because you probably never really fully left the routines of your daily life, and vacation just kind of *happened* to you? I know that feeling. In fact, we rarely call family vacations “vacations”, but family trips, because nobody is really in relaxation mode. The pressure of seeing all the things, doing all the things is enough to run you ragged, and turn anyone into a grouch when pushed past the limit of what vacation time has the capacity for.

I didn’t really know fully what to expect by going on one of AFCA’s Vacation with a Purpose trips. Sure I had read about these trips, created content around them, and heard many of others’ stories about their trips on the AFCA Podcast. I had met Tanya Weaver, Director of AFCA about 7 years or so ago through a company I worked for. We participated with AFCA on a brand sponsor level, donating products for fundraising incentives.  After a few years, Tanya asked that I serve on an open board seat, and I welcomed the new educational opportunity. I dreamed for years about going to Africa to see, hear and experience all the things I had learned about, the incredible and important work AFCA was doing, that I was assisting in happening from afar. I wanted to be closer to the work I was seeing being done. To talk to the people that I was working for and to feel the connection to the place that has become Tanya’s second home. I was ready to GO, and I thought that this too would be an excellent opportunity to travel with my now, 13 year old son, so that he too could experience this with me.

I’m not going to lie, my 13 year old was really hesitant about going in the first place. The pandemic turned my already introverted child into somewhat of a shut-in gamer, who didn’t experience life much outside of his Xbox. I knew that pushing ourselves outside our comfort zone would be rewarding, and as the time to depart grew closer, I wondered if I had made the right decision by leaving my 2 younger ones home with my husband while pushing my reluctant son onto a plane for more than 20 hours each way. We forged on, and the flights proved to be a fun time to bond together and for us to play many hours of Angry Birds on our Royal Dutch Airlines flights. It was Charlie’s first time flying internationally, and he was giddy with every glimpse above the clouds. We got in our last hours of screen time together slaughtering cheeky pigs with electronic birds. He held my hand for every take-off. We continued to soothe each other’s anxieties for the days to come, learning to depend on each other in a new way than we had known at home.


Once we arrived to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe and the official start of our trip began, the team dynamics started to form, and Charlie was no longer just my son, but also a teammate with the common goal of completing various projects, like digging a ditch to run a water line to irrigate a new tree seedling nursery. In some cases, it was best for us to work in separate groups, so that the relationship between mother and son wouldn’t impact the larger group. It’s in these instances where Charlie worked the hardest, and gained more confidence, as well as formed friendships with others on the team. At dinner, I got reports of how hard he worked, and excited he was to try new tools. The Motopos region of Zimbabwe offers landscapes unlike anywhere else in the world, perfect for 13 year olds to climb and use up whatever energy they have left after a day’s worth of work. I saw my son’s energy and outlook improve. He didn’t seem bothered by being disconnected from electronics, but thrived in the daily life of simplicity.

As the days went by, my head and thoughts became clearer. Without the constant distractions from cell phones, computers, texts and news, my stress levels began to dissapate. The constant stress of overbooked schedules was exchanged for the simple act of waking with the sun, working on a project with a team, and in most cases, a labor intensive one, only to return with our lungs full of fresh air, to take a warm bucket bath and appreciate every drop of water. 

Meals were served family style and we sat around a big communal table sharing our daily joys, getting to know each other better with every day. The food was home cooked nightly by our host, Di, who spoiled us with delicious dinners and sweets nightly. It was at these meals where we laughed so hard we cried at times. Both myself, and everyone on the team really enjoyed our hosts at Morningstar. Gary and Dianne Jones are GEMS and some of the nicest people I have ever met. Their care for our team, joyful and fun dispositions and kindness made it very hard to say goodbye.

After a week in Motopos, we traveled back to Bulawayo to stay at Bultop, another property that is solar powered, but closer to the city. The home is kept by Sally and Dionne Green, and the grounds are incredible. Part home, part tree house, the property landscaping winds around with walkways paved with stone leading to private rondavels with decks that are spectacular for stargazing. It was here where we were gifted a clear, cloudless nights to spot the southern cross and scorpio in the southern hemisphere’s dark skies. 

Work days while in Bulawayo included visits to both the Sandra Jones Centre as well as Harvest Family Village. Both long time AFCA partner orphanages in Zimbabwe where funded sustainability projects like greenhouses and more take place. Our volunteer work there included landscaping, working in greenhouses, painting, paving walkways, playing with children and much more. Charlie particularly has a soft spot for babies and toddlers. He spent many hours holding and playing with children here. While there were times, as a mother, that I would have preferred to see him putting in more sweat equity into projects, I also know that connecting with the children there was equally important and beneficial for him and I wanted this experience to be impactful. 

Once our hands were significantly blistered, our nails impacted with enough dirt, and our hearts full, it was time for the last leg of our trip to celebrate together, the work done and to take in the last few bits of Zimbabwe’s sites before we departed for home. We set off from Bulawayo to Victoria Falls, a 6 hour drive by bumpy bus with our fearless driver, Mr. Moyos at the wheel. With our first stop to pickup lunch, spicy samosa to eat between bumps. One stop for roadside for a bag of roadside chips with lots of salt, vinegar and zimbabwe style ketchup kept us full and occupied till we reached our final destination.

There is nothing that will prepare you to see Victoria Falls in person. It’s one of the world’s wonders spanning 1.7 kilometers wide and stretches between Zambia and Zimbabwe. The sheer force of the water roaring can be heard way before you see the falls with your eyes. Once we arrived, we took about an hour and a half to hike the trail around the top of the falls on the Zimbabwe side. Greeted by a massive rainbow and left soaked in mist, smiles could not be washed off our faces. Charlie absolutely loved this part of the trip. It was also so interesting to see the various changes in flora, from dry brush to thick tropical green ferns drinking up the humid air. Dinner out and an art gallery with another lookout for seeing the stars provided a memorable evening.

We woke early the next morning to be greeted by our game drive operator. While we were warned the morning air would be cold, we were grateful to also be provided with fleece lined ponchos as we set off to spot local wildlife in two of Victoria Falls game parks. We were greeted by 5 giraffes, and while the local zoo in Chicago offers a “feed a giraffe” encounter, there is nothing like the giddiness of encountering wild animals like this in their natural habitat. Our evening was a major highlight with a dinner boat ride down the Zambezi river, surrounded by hippo and bathing elephants. I sipped a Victoria Falls Gin and tonic, and pinched myself several times to remind myself where I was, and to burn the moment into my memory.

All of these memories were shared with some of the coolest people on the planet. My son, the AFCA team and hosts. I know that Charlie and I made some lifelong friends, and that we left a little part of our hearts in Zimbabwe this summer. 

If you’re interested in taking a transformative trip like this. You can too! Learn more about our vacation with a purpose program here. 

Learn More about Vacation with a Purpose Zimbabwe