Dear Blog-O-Sphere, I spent last month working with the “Street Kids Project” at Sinethemba Youth Development center in the township of Khayalethu, Knysna, South Africa. My experience with the children and staff from the center, as well as Travellers Worldwide Organization, far exceeded my expectations. My stay ended, in my eyes, much too soon! But, the experience will be a part of me, forever. The moment I stepped into the center I was thrown into an unknown world… culturally and independently. Initially, it was challenging for my western mind to adapt to the overall differences in environment and lack of structure. Cultural distinctions were apparent within the children, who quickly taught me a great deal about the profound impact that environment has on a person. But, I soon began to understand the inner workings of this community and grew to love it beyond measure.
There was no amount of advice or research that could have prepared me for the impact this experience would have on me, nor could it have shown me the closeness I would soon feel toward both kids and staff, of this impoverished area. But, once felt… it was overwhelmingly powerful. What an incredibly humbling thing it was to witness (and start participating in) morning devotion with the children, who gathered inspiration from the leaders and volunteers of the center. I eagerly took on the responsibility of working with the cresh (preschool) students and the relationship I would eventually forge with those little ones made my experience all the more rewarding.
Every morning, I was able to work through a teaching plan of reciting and writing the alphabet, counting to 50, animal flashcards, and sing-along-songs which seemed to evoke enthusiastic participation and a lot of learning! Late mornings at the center consisted of interactive group activities which encouraged an atmosphere of teamwork and fun! Something the kids seemed to enjoy! On many occasions we, the volunteers, would set up tables and chairs for the young kids outside to assist with art projects, games or other hands-on activities. And, it was apparent that bringing the learning out doors, into the fresh air, added a positive dimension to their learning. During many of these activities I could see the generally frantic minds of these children calm down and focus on the task at hand. It was evident that these children had little experience learning in a structured environment. And so, as a teacher from the western world I found it a profound learning experiment finding new and innovative approaches to teaching.
Stepping into the center, with the motivation to educate, wasn’t a piece of cake. There was an abundance of defiant nature, that seemed to be the norm, whenever any authority was extended by an adult. This forced me to reconstruct my approach to better set forth my intentions and make the potential for learning, real. That was my goal, in being there. And, I knew it was all a matter of time and trust. The longer I was there the more time I had to make adequate observations of held behavioral and cultural patterns that were negatively affecting our relationship in the classroom. And, while the differences were still present, they were not as prominent and, in fact, with time… began to dissolve. The kids were getting a sense of how structured lessons worked and actually seemed to respond positively to more structure as time progressed.
One might assume the language barrier to be insurmountable. But, in retrospect it was merely a small hurdle for us to overcome and it wasn’t even the most striking obstacle… Once we all moved through the initial shock, the proof of their receptiveness was in how quickly they began learning English, with ease (and fun!) Most of the kids I was working with were only fluent in their native language, Afrikaans. My Afrikaans was limited and, their English was very limited. But, I know firsthand the incredible learning that can be done through music so, I came equipped with lessons and was excited to see how the kids would receive English through music. And, boy did they ever! What i didn’t anticipate was the unspoken language that would begin to formulate over the course of my visit. We began communicating, relating and sharing on a completely different level… through music and dance. And, if this trip taught me anything it is how the universality of the arts far surpasses any linguistic hurdles.
By the second week, I was attached to these children. Our days began with hugs and kisses and ended with me walking them home in the afternoons. There was an overall sense that two distinctly separate worlds, and cultures, were melding together. “Mine” and “theirs” but, what came of it was beautiful. Two very memorable moments were bringing in a jewelry kit to make necklaces and buying t-shirts for them to paint on to take home. I could see they had never done anything like that before and, how something so simple, could bring so much joy to them… warmed my heart. Even the youngest of the bunch, 4 year old Lumco, sat quietly in determination stringing beads with string, precisely and methodically. It was the small details of the trip that ended up leaving the most lasting impression on me as a person.
I even found time to teach them how to exchange “butterfly” and “eskimo” kisses and, by the end of my time at the center, they were all wiggling their little noses and batting their eyelashes. I don’t think I’ll ever forget a daily routine I shared with the youngest girl, Angel. I would sit her on my lap and softly sing into her ear “Angel, I love you” and she would respond “Gina, I love you” and we would do this over and over and over again. These small exchanges (and so much more) are what made my time at Sinethemba so magical. Most of these kids seemed in deep need of ways to express themselves. And, with that understanding I tried to give them as much creative liberty as possible in and out of the classroom. This coincided beautifully with my desire to offer Free Dance Classes. And, that’s exactly what happened…
Every afternoon kids from the center merged with those from the township and joined me in a 4 week dance program. They were receptive to new music, learning dance routines and even eager to practice them outside of class! And, I was overwhelmed by the level of concentration that I saw develop, in such a short time. Initially I was uncertain who would be attending but, they kept returning to learn more and I couldn’t have been more thrilled with the level of participation. It was no surprise they instantly responded to the music and, although I had my reservations on how receptive they would be to learning new dance styles, they seemed intrigued and caught on quickly to what I was offering them! It was apparent that most of them had never been part of an organized “Dance Class” so, inevitably it was a process of adaptation, on both our parts. But, musical and cultural differences made the teaching more fun! They loved playing their favorite tunes for me so, eventually I started using their favorites for the warm up, which they loved. Sometimes, when I taught them new things I got laughed at and other times… they were quick to pick up and for both of those reasons… it was fun and we were all kept on our toes! Many of boys at the center had an innate passion for music and fantastically good rhythm. And, because of this I was able to bond with many of them over music and silly dance games.
I was thrilled at the chance to burn and handout over 30 mixed CD’s for the kids, while I was there, for them to enjoy long after I left. Unfortunately, I knew many of them would probably never own a stereo to play this cd at home but, that was beside the point because… the looks on their faces at being handed their very own CD, with their name on it, was unforgettable. There are no words to adequately express what it felt like to walk through that township and hear kids calling my name or see them practicing a dance I had taught them, barefooted in the streets.
So many of them simply craved a sense of lightheartedness, that most kids should get the chance to feel. Instead of having fun, many of these kids were struggling with issues of hunger, poverty and parental neglect… stuff that no child should have to deal with at any age. With that said, it’s most productive to focus on the positive and Sinethemba Youth Development Center, offers a great deal of hope. It is a “safe haven” for social, individual and educational development. This Center is not a luxury, it is a necessity for these kids. It gets them out of the streets and into a safe environment. Every kid deserves that opportunity. But, still… lack of funding makes it challenging for Sinethemba to keep its doors open. And, it’s a shame… when there are people willing to volunteer their energy (long and short term) to help mentor, educate, support and promote happier children. Personally, my time was short, but there are leaders and long term volunteers who possess the capacity to help guide so many of these children who have gotten so far off course, in a better direction. This center is a place of refuge for young kids who desperately need physical, mental, and emotional support.
The truth is, the kids in this township were living in far worse conditions than I had anticipated witnessing. Their concerns on a daily basis, and overall quality of life, are miles apart from that of a child growing up in the western world. That was no surprise but, certainly, my perspective has changed. To many, these children are “disadvantaged”, and to that I would agree to a certain extent. Yes, in some ways their lives are a lot harder than most but, after spending time with them I see a different picture. Aside from the harsh realities these kids have been faced with… there is an underlying layer of beauty. The smiles on these children are wider, and love in their hearts deeper, than anything I had ever seen before. Amidst the uncertainty of their day to day lives, these children seem to find JOY in so many ways. As a volunteer, It took me gaining their trust before I was able to feel a sense of respect, love and affection. But, once I did… it was unparalleled. My deepest hope is that Sinethemba gains the financial support it needs to thrive. This would enable more volunteers the opportunity to lend their hearts, minds and hands as well as match the dedicated long term staff who lovingly continues running it.
Sharon, the volunteer coordinator from Travellers Worldwide, was more than willing to help fill my days by organizing opportunities for me to volunteer at Dorothy Broster, the local orphanage. After a fulfilling day at the youth center, I was able to walk down the road and share my love for dance with another group of amazing children, and that was touching. Their enthusiastic response to the music was just a rewarding addition to my time in South Africa. Alongside teaching dance, I was able to lend a helping hand during bath time, changing time and playtime. I have to say, it was quite a challenge to move beyond the shock of seeing so many abandoned children. But, once I did… I was able to thoroughly embrace the situation and offer my energy in the most healing and productive way. Letting them braid my hair, laughing with them, and playing together were sources of so much reciprocated joy. During dance time, the excitement was palpable and to witness their faces light up when I turned that music on, was more worth anything I had ever known. It became clear how “out of the norm” this was for them. And, because of that… I continue to be grateful for the opportunity to have connected and shared so much with the children at The Dororthy Broster Orphanage.
As for the kids, I can’t say how many of them will mention my name in a few months but, that isn’t important. If one single kid was positively impacted by my presence, able to feel loved and special, for even a second of my time there… it was worth it. If I was able to shed some light on who they are, or what they could be, than that result far surpasses any monetary value it actually took to get me there. And, with that said, I am overwhelmed with gratitude at the many contributors who made this trip possible. By accessing my blog, reading my story and donating… you made this vision my reality. And, I am forever indebted.
I showed up in South Africa with the intentions of “bringing” who I was, and what I love to do, to these children but, who they were… changed me. This experience brought me a new perspective and that is something I returned home with… and will continue utilizing in my future contributions. I send out a heartfelt thank you to the staff at Sinethemba Youth Center, Dorothy Broster Orphanage, Travellers Worldwide, Sharon, and all the other volunteers… I am eternally grateful. And, to the children… I can only hope the lasting impact each of you had on me was felt in return. Thank you for the experience.
With Love & Sincerity,
Gina Rizzo Bishop