Project fills childhood development gap

Gumboots were handed over to children in Masiphumelele at a Valley Development Project workshop, after an American volunteer raised funds for the boots. Seen at the handover are, from left, Nondumiso Mvalo (VDP fieldworker), Ericardo Edwards (World Teach volunteer), Lithemba Ntsunguzi (VDP fieldworker), Bukiwe Mahlati (VDP fieldworker), Sisonke Kaka (VDP fieldworker), Ncumisa Mfokazana (VDP fieldworker), Yandiswa Nohoya (VDP fieldworker) and Sarah Ritten (World Teach volunteer) who started the Soles 4 Souls initiative and donated 227 pairs of rain boots for the young children in this project.

Children’s first teachers are the adults in their homes. They get children ready for pre-school which gets them ready for school.

That’s the theory. But in some areas even this is not available and that’s where Valley Development Project’s (VDP) home-based training programme comes in.

Since1999, VDP has run the Family and Community Motivation Project. And since World Teach volunteers started coming to the far south, VDP’s training programme has been one these university undergraduates have been keen to join.

Project manager Lynne Lamb said many children don’t go to pre-school or crèches as they are too poor, so they have evolved a system of “circles of support” where trained fieldworkers go into homes and make the mothers (or guardians) the child’s teacher. Although the fieldworkers do have some educational materials, the emphasis is on using “household opportunities” for their education.

“We look at the child holistically. We try to build circles of support with the children at the centre, building capacity, at family, household and community level,” said Ms Lamb.

“We strengthen the home, keeping the child clean and safe. We work closely with the clinic, social development and community resources. That means mothers can find some support, such as with neighbours or our monthly workshops.”

The project uses fieldworkers from the community who train and assist parents with essentials such as registering births, ensuring immunisation and health care and early stimulation. There is also a feeding point where caregivers can bring the children for a daily well-balanced meal.

So the circles of support are first early stimulation, then strengthening the capacity of the primary caregiver to give emotional warmth, stimulation, stability and basic care, and the final circle relates to strengthening support networks, helping caregivers access basic services and potential economic opportunities.

So by the time the children are old enough, they can go to VDP’s Grade R classes at Mashekane pre-school in Masiphumelele with a solid basis for their school career.

In 1999 the fieldworkers were volunteers because there was no funding for them, but they were dedicated to their mission. Then VDP managed to raise funds for a stipend. Now they get a bit more funding from the department of social development for their field workers which means that they are all now permanently employed.

“We are trying to get funding for a Community Motivation Project in Ocean View,” said Ms Lamb, but so far this aim remains only a wish.

This year two of the World Teach volunteers were Harvard pre-med student Ericardo Edwards and University of Notre Dame student Sarah Ritten. Besides tutoring with Ikamva Youth at Masi library and at False Bay College, they worked with the VDP fieldworkers in the Masiphumelele wetlands.

Sarah noticed that young children ran around without shoes in the mud, “unaware of the damage that the broken glass and jagged rocks can do to their feet”.

She was told that as they don’t have proper rain boots, they wear no shoes at all.

“I started a gofundme fund-raising page and posted it on my Facebook account. After only 24 hours, I more than tripled my original fund-raising goal. I had 30 donors from across the US donate to the gofundme page. The generosity and support from all of my friends was overwhelming,” she said.

Her Soles 4 Souls project asked for $4 donations. She got enough funding to buy 227 brightly coloured gumboots which were handed over with much happiness at one of the monthly VDP family workshops.

Sarah said she “absolutely loved” her time with the family community workers (FCMs) in Masiphumelele.

“I am thinking about becoming a social worker, and the experience I had with the FCMs has definitely solidified this thought. It was heartbreaking seeing the conditions that some families are forced to live in, but the positive demeanour of the FCMs and their constant drive to improve inspired me to want to do better in my own community,” she said.

“The children I met and played developmental games with probably had the biggest effect on me. They have so much love in their hearts for everyone! I am so glad I had the chance to help some children learn to count to five or spot the difference between a rectangle and a square.

“They inspired me so much, I wanted to give back what I could – their love was the inspiration for the fund-raiser.”