Johnny* is a regular dope smoker and tik user, and he dabbles with mandrax. Johnny is nine-years-old.
He lives in Ocean View and is one of nine boys aged nine to 11 who are the first intake in a pilot drug-prevention programme at Living Hope.
According to Living Hope’s Reverend John Thomas, the organisation established the Early Intervention Programme, with the help of ward-allocation funding, after Kleinberg Primary School principal Zafrulah Oppelt drug-tested 34 children at risk and found 32 tested positive for regular use of three or more drugs.
“Mr Oppelt called us and asked for our help,” Reverend Thomas says.
Except, he adds, there was no drug prevention or awareness curriculum for children that he knew of.
So Reverend Thomas sought out a clinical psychologist, an occupational therapist and added a social worker to the mix.
All the boys are in the programme with signed permission from their parents, he says, and each gets individual therapy.
The Living Hope bus fetches them from school at 2pm, and they get a sandwich when they arrive.
After some playtime, they have structured time between 3pm and 5.30pm. Individual therapy is with an occupational therapist who specialises in dealing with children, a social worker with drug-counselling experience and a clinical psychologist who specialises in children’s work.
Then volunteers read to the children and ask them to read aloud. The children’s literacy levels are quite low.
“We are not helping them only with their psycho-social conditions and their drug use, but we are helping them educationally as well,” says Reverend Thomas.
The boys then get a cooked meal for supper, and do some work on the Living Hope farm, learning to grow vegetables, before being taken home at 7.30pm, when their parents are home.
Reverend Thomas says the children’s parents have all attended the parent evenings and reported improvement in their children’s behaviour.
All the boys are being tested randomly for drugs, he says, and most are clean.
Reverend Thomas praised Mr Oppelt for his approach.
“He tested the kids, he reached out for help, and, even though he is perfectly entitled to evict the children from school, he has instead committed to keeping these boys inside his school between 8am and 2pm.”
This unified approach, says Reverend Thomas, is keeping the boys safe from gangsters.
But there are many more boys, and girls, just like Johnny, says Reverend Thomas – Living Hope’s phone lines lit up, he says, when news of the programme spread.
“Schools from beyond the valley called, asking if we could help their children. The need is currently unrecognised; everyone has programmes for teens or adults. But children?”
They’re grateful for the R200 000 from the ward budget, he says, but much more money will be needed to make a real impact.
“This programme is about giving boys dignity and hope; it’s about giving these boys a future.”
Mr Oppelt says he won’t sit by and watch his children slip through the cracks in a neighbourhood plagued by drugs, gangs, crime and poverty. He believes in being proactive.
“You can’t solve a problem you don’t know about, so I make it my business to know. And I also know I can’t do everything myself, but there are so many people who have skills and vital experience to share with my children, so I bring them into the fold. They give classes or teach what they know.”
One organisation, he says, is already working with parents and children on drug awareness, and he called Living Hope after hearing about their work with drug addiction.
Ten children were selected for the pilot programme. One has dropped out, but the others remain.
“These children are directly benefiting, but, beyond this, they will learn coping skills and resilience, and they will return to school stronger and become positive leaders for the others.
“They are not bad children, they are – like all children in this community – vulnerable. And I am proud that their parents are in full support of their journey back to the health. Family involvement and support are key.”