By SEAN SCULLY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

When Cami Rencken first visited the townships around Durban, South Africa, what she saw astounded her.

“They were so inspiring; they were so happy,” the 17-year-old Maria Carrillo High School senior said, “But they had nothing. It made me so grateful for what I had.”

Cami Rencken, 17, raised funds for and helped build a house in the South African township of Amaoti. She now is collecting Christmas presents to ship to the family that lives in the house. (JOHN BURGESS / The Press Democrat)

So Rencken, then just 13, decided to do something. She started collecting money and used soccer equipment for the kids in South Africa, where her father was born and where she had visited often to see family. She collected from friends, family, and members of her church, St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Kenwood.

“When I realized people wanted to help out so much more than I had expected, I wanted to do a bigger project,” she said. “That’s when I decided to build the house.”

Through her family’s church back in Durban, Rencken learned of a woman named Angela Dube, a 50-ish HIV-positive widow struggling to raise her three children while taking care of more than a dozen lost, abandoned, abused or handicapped kids that had drifted into her orbit in the extremely poor township of Amaoti.

She set out to raise a few thousand dollars to help upgrade Dube’s house. She wound up raising $14,000, enough to build a small but tidy 1,300-square-foot house with a fenced yard. Rencken went to live in Durban for a year, where she and friends and family helped build the house and furnish it during her junior year.

“What she accomplished was an extraordinary achievement for a high-schooler — or for anybody else for that matter,” said the Rev. Hugh Stevenson, pastor at St. Patrick’s. “Her last presentation to the parish was very moving. Her love for the people is very obvious, as well as their love for her.”

Rencken is back in the United States now, but she remains in touch with Dube and her extended family. She’s in the process of collecting and shipping Christmas gifts for the kids.

In the months since the house was built, she said, it has become home to about 22 people and is functioning as a de facto community center for the poverty-stricken neighborhood, which lacks such basic amenities as parks and libraries where people can meet.

Cramming 22 people into such a modest space might seem outlandish to Americans, but Cami says Angela and her kids value the safe, clean surroundings, a vast improvement over their previous house.

“I wanted to help them, do anything I could to give them the positive futures they deserve,” Rencken said.

While living in South Africa, Rencken indulged in her other great passion, playing soccer. She was, however, the only white girl on her team and she was taken aback at the level of suspicion, even outright hostility, she encountered from her teammates and rivals. Although her skill on the field eventually won over her teammates, officials of the league remained hostile and prevented her from playing in a championship game.

The experience made her more grateful for the life she has in the United States, she said, but it did nothing to dim her love of South Africa, where she holds citizenship, along with her American citizenship, and where she has extensive family.

Rencken hopes eventually to become an orthopedic surgeon, or join some other similar branch of sports medicine. She also continues her passion for helping young people in trouble, volunteering at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital in the neonatal intensive-care unit.

She said she doesn’t know why she is so driven to help others, but “I just love it. It makes me so happy.”

(You can reach Staff Writer SeanScully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BeerCountry.)

Name: Camrin “Cami” Rencken

Age: 17

Birthplace: Marin County

What’s in her iPod: “Story of My Life,” One Direction

Favorite hobby: Soccer

Dream job: Orthopedic surgeon

Favorite TV show: “How I Met Your Mother”

Favorite food: Hot fudge sundae from Ghirardelli Square

Quote: “Don’t let the world change your smile; let your smile change the world.” — Unknown