‘It’s our duty to keep them safe’

Leigh Morrison, left, section leader for parent engagement at True North, with Megan McCurragh, the NPO's project leader.

It’s a Monday afternoon and I am sitting in Leigh Morrison’s car, in Vrygrond.

We are in a narrow street, and there are little children playing barefoot in the mud, chasing skinny dogs about; laughing.

“This street is – for some reason – the worst for child abuse in the entire area,” she says. That one sentence drains the sunlight from the scene.

Leigh is the section leader for parent engagement at the NGO True North. The Glencairn resident has answered a calling, doing what she can to stem the tide of abuse, neglect, poverty, and give options and choices to the families of Vrygrond and Overcome Heights.

She is under no illusions: she knows she can’t fix it all. But, she is resolute that it’s not her job to. She knows it takes teamwork – from a lot of people – all doing just their bit.

Her work with True North is specifically geared towards getting children into registered early childhood development (ECD) establishments. And keeping them safe.

At last count, Vrygrond was home to an estimated 42 000 people, with approximately 5 000 children who are five or younger. Only 10 percent of Vrygrond’s preschool children attend a registered facility. The provincial average is 44 percent.

Add to this that child rapists know that the younger their victim is, the less likely it is that a conviction will be obtained, and the picture of life for children in Vryground and Overcome Heights gets even darker.

“For convictions to hold, the victim has to verbally name or point out the attacker,” Leigh explains. So the youngest of children are targeted, those who cannot yet speak. Their only evidence is the severity of their wounds. True North began as a fact-finding effort in 2007 led by director Vicky Kumm, says Kenilworth resident Megan McCurragh, the NGO’s project leader.

However, the project evolved, and the area became the focal point of True North’s work. Why? “Well the findings drew us into a fully fledged, long-term mission to serve the children who live here,” said Megan.

And there is progress being made. Megan stressed that the reason they are thriving in the community is because they are learning alongside the people.

“We have our own idea of what is needed and how to approach the multiple levels of situations here, but if we are wrong we are happy to redirect and take direction from the people who do know: the community themselves.”

True North is working on creating a sustainable ECD strategy for the 5 000 children who live in Vrygrond and adjoining Overcome Heights.

The success of the project is vital not only to the children there. Its success means other children can benefit from the same approach being implemented in communities beyond these two.

“We are very keen to share what is working. Because I live on the other side of the mountain, I know similar situations exist in Masiphumelele and Ocean View,” says Leigh.

In March, she ran a workshop in Masiphumelele, and invited school principals from Ocean View to join in. The course was teaching protective behaviour measures to teachers and parents, so they could teach these to the children.

“The buy-in from Masiphumelele was fantastic. They are absolutely hungry for knowledge. I met Sue Burger there, from Open Doors, and she loved the programme,” Leigh says.

Ms Burger confirmed this, saying the protective behaviours programme was excellent. The programme is designed to teach children how to stay safe, and it involves teaching them to think about, and choose who to go to, if they feel threatened.

“Statistically, we know that 98 percent of rape is committed by somebody the child knows. So stranger danger is only minimally effective. This workshop teaches children what behaviour is suspicious and what to do if an adult – no matter who – is inappropriate with them,” Leigh says.

She says children are taught five things, one of which is to choose somebody they trust, and this has to be somebody who would believe them when they share what has happened”.

Another thing is to give children access to emergency numbers to call and to allow them to keep these numbers in a safe space.

With regards the push for registered ECDs in the area, Leigh and Megan stress that the formative years of a child’s life can never be fully recaptured at a later stage.

“The first five years are where young minds and hearts are shaped. The acquisition of language, problem solving abilities, numeracy, motor skills, reading and writing and the like are measurable in terms of developmental milestones, and have been shown to grow in proportion to the cognitive stimulation that a child receives,” Leigh said.

When Rainbow ECD Centre opened in Masiphumelele, chairman of the centre, Steve Zimri, said that when children from Masiphumelele entered Grade R, many did not even have basic skills – such as how to play catch, or how to hold a pencil.

“We need to fix that and give our children the best start, or they will spend the rest of their lives playing catch-up, or falling further behind,” he said.

This is the same thing that True North wants for the children of Vrygrond and Overcome Heights.

Megan says: “On a practical implementation level, we have taken our definition of ECD initiatives from the definition in the Children’s Act 38 of 2005: the processes of emotional, cognitive, sensory, spiritual, moral, physical, social and communication development of children from birth to school-going age.”

Tobeka Matshingana is the principal of Little Flower Educare in Vrygrond. When we visit, the children are having their afternoon nap. Tobeka says she is being guided by True North on how to better protect and educate her little charges.

“I am so grateful for all that I am learning. These children are our future, it is our duty to keep them safe and give them a chance,” she says. “A good chance.” Kommetjie resident Michelle Schoon runs protective behaviour training courses for children through her Kids Who Can workshops. She is recommended by True North for training in the Far South area. Visit www.true-north.co.za for more information or contact Michelle on michelle@kidswhocan commnity.co.za and 021 783 4192.