By Renier Coetzee
She was not herself. She walked in with sagging shoulders and a clouded face. I didn’t know what her weekend had been like, or why she was so sad that Monday. I didn’t know how to cheer her up. But I didn’t have to. As soon as her friends saw her, their faces lit up and they called her to sit with them. In no time, the weight lifted from her shoulders and she was a child again. I realised again that I am surrounded every day by children who can do more than I can – who have more potential than I have. Many of the students at my school – and many children throughout South Africa – face difficulties that I never faced as a child. And that’s why I believe in them – by facing the challenges ahead of them, they can become great men and women who know how to help others. Let me tell you about them.
How can we help?
Trinity Children’s Centre’s story began as a simple question: “How can we help?” A friend and I used to talk about what it would be like to get involved in the lives of children who had the odds stacked against them. As a social worker working with women caught up in prostitution, my friend had witnessed how brutal life can be if you grow up with no one on your side. Similarly, my experiences volunteering in various children’s programmes and getting involved in HIV/Aids orphan1 research forced me to ask the question: if so many children in South Africa are walking on difficult roads, shouldn’t we walk with them?
To get answers, my friend and I started visiting people, places and projects that were already helping – such as clinics, children’s villages, shelters, schools and rehabilitation programmes. What we learned was that real helping needs to be:
• holistic: programmes that focused on only one area of life were far less influential than programmes which recognised that our needs are all interconnected. People need to be healthy, to eat well, to belong to a community, to learn and grow, to have the capacity to make good choices, to be involved in meaningful activity, to be safe – and if any of these needs are compromised, it will affect the others.
• long term: as a general rule, short-term engagement seemed to lead to quick, but short-lived, change. In contrast, thoughtful long-term engagement produced a cumulative change dynamic – each successful intervention can be used as a stepping stone to a new opportunity to contribute to someone’s life.
• developmental: when we are moved by seeing someone in need, our first instinct is often to give them something that will meet that immediate need (such as giving food to someone who is hungry). But true help goes further than this – it strives to develop the person in such a way that they can move out of dependency and instead become a helper of others.
Though neither my friend nor I had a background in education, we could see how a school could meet all three of these criteria, and so truly help children who have a difficult road ahead of them. A school can be a centre where a variety of people and programmes come together for the holistic, longterm development of children. Two churches immediately responded to our vision and supported us as we started the Trinity Children’s Centre (TCC) preschool with 15 three-year olds in 2012, in Mitchells Plain, Cape Town.
A four-piece puzzle
Since 2012, we have stepped up to a new grade every year, as our oldest students have moved up. Our original three-year-olds are now our very first Grade 1 class, and will soon become our pioneer Grade 2s. In addition to our 15 Grade 1s, we have 15 Grade Rs and 15 pre-Grade Rs. Although we have known even our oldest students for only four years at most, we can already see a ‘snowball effect’ in their lives. Day after day, week after week, year after year, we speak to them, guide them, play with them, encourage them, walk with them – and sometimes it feels like nothing is changing. Many educators know this feeling. Yet, when I look back and compare the students who arrived a few years ago to the little ones who run around our little school now, I can scarcely believe they are the same children.
One of the clearest signs that something is happening inside these young students is the feedback I get from the families. One mother told me that whilst she was having a fight with her son, her younger daughter – one of our students – gently challenged her not to shout at her brother, but to speak to him kindly. Several parents have told me how their children, who are students at our school, gladly help their friends from other schools with their homework – even children a grade ahead of them. Every time I hear such a story, it reminds me that these children have something to give. They may not have easy circumstances, and there are many challenges ahead of them. But with every challenge they overcome, they step into a better position to be of help to those around them.
The majority of our students live within walking distance of our school. ‘Home’ is typically with their mother or grandmother, though some also have their fathers at home. Parents participate in the school community in various ways, such as by helping out around the campus, coming to parent meetings and the various performances the children do, and by reinforcing at home what their children are learning in class. About half of our staff team also live within walking distance of the campus, and have children or grandchildren at the school, while the rest of the team commutes from further away. I feel very fortunate to have a team who are of diverse ages, backgrounds and personalities, but who are all committed to the children and to walking with them as best they can.
In addition to our students, their families and our staff, there is a fourth group that plays a vital role in the TCC community – our sponsors. We keep our fees very low, so that our school is accessible to the children who need it most – but this means that we need to fundraise 85% of our budget. Our support network is made up of both individuals and businesses who see the value of our long-term, holistic, developmental approach. Most of our sponsors have committed to donating a fixed amount every month, and receive regular updates on the progress of the children they are sponsoring. For me, seeing the generosity of ‘ordinary’ people – who see the potential in the children at our school and are willing to invest in them – has
been one of the most inspiring aspects of TCC’s story.
Addition and multiplication
Our dream is to walk with children for 10 formative years, because we believe that investing for a decade in their lives will multiply, through them, into the lives of others for many decades to come. We dream of them becoming mothers and fathers, entrepreneurs and scientists, philanthropists and leaders and a hundred other wonderful things. And walking with them on the hard road they face now – in a holistic, long-term, developmental way – is how we can help them get there.
In a few months’ time, our ‘pioneer class’ will enter Grade 2. By adding a grade a year, we hope to walk with them to Grade 7, and thus to have 10 years to walk with each child – from the time they enter our preschool to the time they graduate from our primary school. To do this, we need to expand our campus, double our staff team and widen our sponsor network over the next six years. If what I’ve said so far resonates with you, why not find out more about us and consider making a contribution?
Who are the children in your context who have experienced hardship or who have a challenging road ahead of them? Who are the children around you that you think need a helping hand? Maybe you know children from low-income families. Or perhaps it’s children who live in dysfunctional homes. Perhaps there is a child with no family at all, or you know children who have experienced violence or abuse. Perhaps your school has children who are physically or mentally challenged, or who have particularly poor health. Maybe you know children who are refugees or part of a minority group.
There are many children in our country who are not going to have an easy childhood – what is your response to them? Do you pity them? And does that move you to help them? Or do you look up to them? And does that move you to invest in
Throughout history, the greatest men and women have often arisen from great difficulties. Perhaps you can look back on your own life and see how your times of greatest struggle have also led to your times of greatest growth. My challenge to you, when you look at children facing great obstacles, is to look up to them. See the great men and women they can become. See the difference they can one day make in the world, because of the hard things they face now.
Let me offer you three tips on how you can do that:
1. See yourself in them
Although each person has their own story, we all share some common themes. We all know what it is like to be afraid or overwhelmed, or to make a mistake, or to wish we could be someone else. And we all know the thrill of overcoming an obstacle, the comfort of having a companion in hard times, the joy of realising that we have something to give to others.
Although a child may, at first, appear to have a very different story to yours, get to know them and look for themes in their life that you can relate to. You will quickly find that you grow more patient with them, more committed to them, more impressed by them.
2. Understand them holistically
I am what you might call ‘task-orientated’ rather than ‘people orientated’. I like to think about what I can do. It’s easy to think of children that way – what can I do to fix this or remedy that? But children are people, not machines – they cannot be reduced to their component parts and simply ‘fixed’. Instead, we must try to understand their lives as a whole – as they experience them. What is school like for them? What is home like for them? What do they think about, and what is important to them? If I see unusual behaviour in class, where did it come from? Whatever space you share with children, whether it is a classroom or sports field or counselling room, how can you create opportunities to see the whole child?
3. Make a long-term, developmental investment
In the end, we focus the most on the things in which we are ‘invested’. If you want to learn to look up to children facing challenges, and to see their potential, you must invest something in them. Whether time or energy or money, invest it in a way that is long term and developmental, and you will soon find that you look at the same child in a new light.
Renier Coetzee is the founding director of Trinity Children’s Centre and is currently studying towards a Master of Education degree in integrated curriculum and instruction. Beware of contacting him – he can speak about his school for hours!
1. Worldwide, it is estimated that 25 million children under the age of 18 years have been orphaned by Aids. Around 15.1 million, or 85% of these children, live in sub-Saharan Africa. (Source: http://www.avert.org/children orphaned- hiv-and-aids.htm.)