I currently spent the last month
in Knysna, South Africa working at a Youth Development Center in the township of
Khayalethu. My experience with both the children and staff of the Center, as well
as the staff from Travellers Worldwide, far exceeded my expectations. My stay ended,
in my eyes, much too soon but the entire journey will always be a part of me.
From the moment I stepped into the Center I was thrown into a world of complete
both culturally and individually. A world I, at first, could not relate to on many
levels. The environmental and cultural distinctions, within the children, were very
apparent but I quickly began to understand the workings of this community and grew
to love it beyond measure. No amount of advice or research could have prepared me
for the impact this place would have on me nor the closeness I would soon feel toward
both staff and kids.
Each day I felt grateful to participate in morning devotion and gathered inspiration
from the Center leaders which helped fortify my motivation for working with the
kids. I happily accepted the task of working with the crèche (preschool) kids and
the close relationships I was able to build with them made my experience all the
In the morning I was able to work through a teaching plan of reciting and writing
the alphabet, counting to 50, animal flashcards, and songs with fluid participation.
Late morning I concentrated on interactive activities and group participation which
I felt the children responded to wonderfully. On many occasions, the other volunteers
and myself, would bring tables, chairs, and the children outside for arts and crafts
activities or games.
During many of these activities I could see the normally frantic minds of these
calm down and focus on the task at hand. This was a unique observation of behavior
and after a month together it was even more evident that the children completely
understood what was being asked of them, and how to produce the desired results
for which we were asking. I believe that many of these children are in dire need
of ways to express themselves and therefore tried to give them as much creative
liberty as I could. I was stunned at the amount of concentration they had developed,
in a short time, and the way they adjusted to a new person offering new routines.
Some of the most memorable times were when I brought in a jewelry kit to make necklaces,
and T-shirts for them to paint on and take home. Even the youngest of the bunch,
Lumco, who is 4 years old, sat in quiet determination getting each small bead through
the thinnest of string.
Small moments like this were monumental in my eyes and the things that will inevitably
leave the greatest impact on my memory.
Around the second week I began to develop an attachment to these children that began
with hugs and kisses in the morning to walking them home in the afternoons. It was
such a unique experience to share the smallest exchange of cultures. By the end
of my stay I had taught many of them what both "butterfly" and "Eskimo" kisses were
and they were ever so eager to give them to me at my arrival each morning. I shared
the simplest of exchanges with one of the youngest girls, Angel, where I would sing
to her "Angel I love you" and she would reiterate "Gina I love you" over and over
again. It was the many small things that happened at Youth Center that made my time
there so powerful.
Sharon, the Travellers Volunteer Liaison, was more than willing to help me fill
days by arranging and allowing me the opportunity to volunteer time at the Orphanage
down the street. After a fulfilling day at the Center, I was able to share my love
for dance with a handful of orphaned children. The enthusiastic response I received
from those kids was just an added treasure to my stay. Helping with bath time, letting
them braid my hair, laughing, and playing were sources of so much reciprocated joy.
I could feel the reaction and see how thrilled they were each time I turned on the
music and it was so worth it! It was evident that this was such an added gift of
excitement to their normal everyday routines. I am very grateful for the opportunity
to have experienced and connected with the children at both the Youth Center and
Monday through Thursday, mid afternoon, I did a dance program for both the kids
the Center, as well as the children of the township. I was overwhelmed by the participation
and enthusiasm I received from the kids.
They responded profoundly to the music and, although I had my reservations, they
caught on quickly to what I was offering them. It was immediately apparent that
most of these children had never been to an organized "Dance Class" therefore it
was inevitably a process of adaptation and flexibility on both our parts. The cultural
and style diversity of our movement made it a learning experience for all of us!
So many of the boys at the Center were naturally blessed with good rhythm and a
passion for music that it wasn't hard to see what our common bond would be. I was
more than thrilled to make and hand out over 30 mixed CDs in hopes they could enjoy
it long after I left.
I can't express the way it made me feel to walk through the township hearing the
kids call my name and see them doing a dance I had taught them.
Because most of the children are fluent in their native language, Afrikaans, their
proficiency in English is minimal. However, music and dance is so universal that
it was definitely the best way we could relate to each other and far more profound
than grammatical technicalities.
I truly believe the Youth Centre is a necessity on so many levels to the people
children of this area. It is a "safe haven" for educational, social, and individual
development that so many of these kids need. The lack of funding is a monumental
disadvantage when there are people willing to spend time and energy mentoring, teaching,
and promoting happier children there.
Personally, my time was short, but there are leaders and long-term volunteers who
possess the capacity to help guide so many of these children who have gotten so
far off course. This Center offers a place of refuge to children who desperately
need physical, mental, and emotional assistance in life. The kids are in far worse
condition than I had ever anticipated, and the circumstances are larger than I had
ever known. But, for every harsh reality they have to endure... there is so much
underlying beauty. The smiles on these children are wider and the love in their
hearts deeper than anything I had ever seen before.
Amidst the confusion of adolescence, and the uncertainty of their day to day lives,
these children find joy in so many unthought of ways. Once we were all comfortable
the affection, love, and respect I felt was unparalleled. It is my deepest hope
that the Youth Center gains the financial backing and support needed to match the
dedication and enthusiasm of the people who lovingly run it.
As for the kids of this township, I can't say how many of them will mention my name
in a few months but that isn't important to me. If only one kid was able to feel
loved and special, for even a second of my time there... it was completely worth
it. If I was able to shed some light on who they are, what they could be, and the
capacity for their lives... than the result far surpasses any monetary value it
actually took to get me there.
I went with the intentions of bringing who I was, and what I love to do, to them
but, who they were enlightened and drastically shifted who i am. It is my greatest
hope that the lasting affect each of them has had on me is felt in return. I expected
the place and the children would change me in some way. I had a preconceived idea
of what I could bring and the rewards I would take away from this experience but,
in reality... it was more than I could have ever imagined.
My heartfelt thank you to those who contributed support on my behalf, the staff
and kids at the Youth Centre and the Orphanage, Travellers Worldwide, Sharon, and
all of the other volunteers. I am forever changed and eternally grateful.