“The children of Westbury have two options when they grow up: they go to prison or they die. Those are the only options left after you spend a lifetime taking drugs.”
These were the words of Rhoda van Buuren from the Together Action Group (TAG) in Westbury‚ Johannesburg‚ on Monday morning as she launched the NPO’s new literacy center.
“The area is not good‚ the joblessness ratio is incredible and for the children here their only source of income is drugs. Children become users from as young as seven. A high percentage of children in the area are unable to read and so can’t work [when they are older]. What hope do you have to make it in this world and to get out [of poverty]?” said Van Buuren.
TAG has been operating for 16 years as a safe haven for the youth to come to after school. The organisation was started by ex-gangsters wanting to give back to the community.
The NPO has around 120 children attending their after-school programme every day. They have a further 40 children attending their restorative justice programme on weekends.
“These are our at-risk children – children taking drugs or with behavioural problems‚” said Van Buuren. “We recognise them while they are still at school and we take them in and help them before it’s too late.”
Children in the after-school programme receive help with their homework‚ while those in the restorative justice programme also receive counselling. They get a meal and are encouraged to play outside.
“During the unrest [in October]‚ this was the only place these children could come and just be children. It was safe for them‚” said Van Buuren.
When helping the children with their homework‚ TAG workers noticed that many of them could not read. “Many children end up dropping out of school because they are too embarrassed to ask for help‚” explained Van Buuren. “They turn to gangs as a way to survive.”
Megan Maynard from The Link Literacy and Numeracy Project joined TAG in May this year and started an after-school literacy programme helping children who are struggling to read.
“Some of these kids come from classes where there are over 80 students. How can any child learn or any teacher teach in that environment? That is why they are weak readers‚” said Maynard‚ whose programme caters to each child’s individual needs. There are eight volunteers who can help up to five children on Tuesdays and Thursdays between 2pm and 4pm.
“It seems like a drop in the ocean‚ but to these children we’ve made a difference to their lives. These children can now progress and become literate adults who are able to become successful members of the community.”
Lameez Jacobs‚ 26‚ is a volunteer for The Link. She first came to TAG when she was in Grade 3. Now an aspiring choreographer‚ she teaches ballroom and Latin dancing to underprivileged children at the center.
“I feel that I needed to give back to the center for the help it gave me‚” she said. “I am the success story and it is my duty to give back to my community.”
Clarisa Smith is not only a volunteer at The Link but also the parent of a child who is currently in the literacy programme. Eight-year-old Leah Smith has only been in the programme for a few months but her mom says the results are already “huge”.
“She is one of the students who was having trouble at school [with reading]. We work with them one-on-one‚” said Smith.
“I really want our community to move with this because it can make a huge difference.”
Lalama Thobejani‚ 68‚ said the literacy programme doesn’t just help children in the community but also the elderly: “I am retired now and this really gives me a purpose. It gives me something to look forward to in the week.”
TAG’s new wooden classroom was opened this week with the help of the Freemasons’ Grand Lodge of South Africa‚ which donated R89‚000 for it to be built.