Countown to Vegas – Story #2 – South Africa

May 19, 2009

Here’s the next sneak preview story of a program scaled up in honor of Amway’s 50th anniversary. It covers two projects in Cape Town, South Africa. One is led by the company and the other is lead by local distributors.

Chapel Street School Nutrition Program

The sun begins to rise in earnest as students form lines in anticipation of the beginning of school. It is June and winter is approaching. The 570 children, ranging from ages 6 to 15, wear vests and sweaters with their blue and yellow uniforms, and striped ties. A banner bears the school motto: “To learn is to serve.”

They are soon warmed by singing songs and then praying, first Christian prayers, then Muslim prayers, and then native chants that most are still learning. It is Friday, a half-day of school, and there is an air of excitement because there are guests from Amway, some who have come all the way from the United States to visit the school.

Representatives from Amway headquarters in the United States, along with other Amway helpers, hand out Amway hats – beanies – to each of the students, who welcome them against the chilled air that the sun has not yet chased away. Principal Jamiel Alexander stands up to welcome the students and declare these beanies “official” dress for Chapel Street School. The students cheer. He explains that it is Amway that provides support for the breakfast and lunch served every day at the school.

Despite the fanfare of the day, Amway has been a very quiet supporter of Chapel Street School since 2003. That year, an executive at the company read a newspaper article about a child who lived with her family in a public restroom because they could not afford a proper home. Amway employees inquired about the needs of the school and found that this was not the only challenge.

Chapel Street School can be found in a working class neighborhood outside Cape Town. It is located in District 6, an area known for being bulldozed down during the height of South Africa’s Apartheid years, with non-white residents forced from their homes and lands. It was a failed experiment, and soon turned into a diverse area once again. Today the government continues to work towards restoring land to the many that were displaced. Chapel Street School escaped the destruction of the bulldozers and has been a cornerstone of District 6 for nearly 100 years.

Today, the demographics of District 6 show an economic level at the middle class, with families able to afford school fees and care for their children. Yet many Chapel Street students come from broken families, and many parents transport their children from poor outlying areas to give their children access to the quality instruction and individual attention that the school is known for. As a result, public funding is grossly inadequate for the acute needs of most students.

The story of the homeless family is not unique. Many of the students’ families struggle to make ends meet. When Amway began talking to the school administration, they learned of students who were not getting enough to eat.

They saw high absenteeism and poor concentration levels. Students would faint or get sick at school. They were unable to participate in athletics or extramural activities. This deeply affected academic performance and adverse behavior. And the slice of bread provided by the government feeding program was not adequate to compensate for this lack of nutrition.

“Our learners were falling asleep in class, they were ill” says Mr. Sulaiman Jacobs, Senior Teacher at Chapel Street School. “It was difficult to maintain performance excellence.”

Amway began funding a feeding program that had just been launched to provide meals for students. They first focused on breakfast, then added lunch. The kitchen facilities were upgraded. Each year Amway continues to invest in new or expanded equipment.

According to Principal Alexander, “We the educators can not only see the benefits of the nutrition program, but also how Amway has enhanced the lives of our children. They have improved concentration levels in class, their overall health has improved, and our academic results show a steady improvement. Our attendance levels have drastically improved.”

Ms. Shahieda Abrams is the school cook. She began helping out when her child was a student at Chapel Street. The child has since graduated, but she continues her work for just a small stipend. Every morning, she begins preparing more than 1,000 meals – enough for a small army. Walking through the hallways, you can smell what is for lunch that day. Curry chicken with vegetables and sauce, poured over steamed rice. The plates are all lined up on a gleaming, stainless steel counter.

At lunch time, the students file in one class at a time. There is no pushing and shoving, just smiling faces and chatter. And when the plates are returned, they are empty. No food has been wasted.

If you stand in the back of the classrooms and watch, you can catch some of the students sneaking some of their lunch into plastic bags and tucking them away into their backpacks. Upon asking the principal, he smiles sadly and tells us that these children are bringing some home to share with their siblings, or to have for the weekend. For some, this Friday meal will be all that they have to eat until they return to school on Monday.

Attendance increased at Chapel Street School once the meal program was established. But the teachers say that student performance all around is clearly better. Chapel Street is now a contender among other schools in sports competition.

“Word has spread that we give a hot meal,” says Principal Alexander. “Now more and more children are coming to our school.”

Principal Alexander already talks of plans to expand the nutrition program. He would like to offer small meals to athletes who participate in after-school programs. The administration is looking into the installation of an awning over two of the patios, so they can use it as an eating and assembly area. They plan to monitor the students and make provisions for those who do not have food over the weekends and holidays. And they hope to develop programs to teach good nutrition. They are even discussing a program to make hot soup to send to homeless shelters in the area.

“We truly appreciate the Amway partnership,” says Principal Alexander. “It is unique because unlike other sponsors, Amway asks for nothing in return. In terms of humility, that says a lot about the company.”

Cape Town SOS Children’s Village

On the other side of Cape Town, a different Amway partnership has taken place. This one is not driven by Amway’s employees, but by its Distributors.

Nestled in the Thornton suburb is a children’s community, a special haven from the world framed by the nearby mountains that drop into the ocean. The place is called SOS Children’s Village, and our host is Imraan Choonara, who has been a Distributor for ten years and now is recognized at the “Ruby” achievement level. He began working full-time for his Amway business four years ago, leaving behind a career in real estate to own his own business with his wife, Shahana. Even with a full schedule and a successful business, they frequently find time to spend at the Village.

SOS Children’s Village could be called an orphanage, or a foster care home. But it is much more than either. It is made up of 15 houses, a dental clinic, kindergarten classrooms, playgrounds and plenty of open space. In each of the houses is a “mother” who raises 6 to 8 children as her own. They range from age 2 to age 18, and those with special needs may stay longer. The children in the home become brothers and sisters, and they soon call their home mother “Mom.”

As we walk through the Village in search of home of Gadiga, Imraan and Shahana greet some of the 141 children from the village they see walking in groups or playing in the playground. They are called “Uncle” and “Aunt.” Neither one seem to be unfamiliar faces to the children.

The SOS Children’s Village is bright and cheerful, and the eyes of the children express the love that they experience there. Yet none take it for granted. Most come from broken homes, and many have stories of alcoholic and abusive families. Many lost one or both of their parents to HIV/AIDS. What the Village provides is a family structure, which is the primary focus of its mission.

According to Paul Senosi, who works for the Cape Town Village, each house might look the same from the outside, but inside each one, the feeling is very unique.

“It’s a real family environment,” says Paul. That’s what makes SOS so special. The model works because it touches on the roots of what we need as a society: families. Children need to be loved. They need to have a safe environment, and that is what SOS Children’s Village provides – a place where they can grow up with love, respect, dignity and security, that warmth that every child needs and deserves.”

There are warm greetings when we visit the house of Gadiga, the home mother. Imraan talks with a teenage boy named Shiraj, who is excited about an upcoming trip to Singapore, which he will take with the local rugby team for a multinational tournament. The children of the Village have the same opportunities as children in traditional families. And the same challenges. Shiraj comes up against constant pressure to join gangs. The mentoring Imraan gives is very important in instilling confidence – and accountability – in the young man.

Along with the Choonaras, other Distributor families have “adopted” SOS Children’s Village houses. They visit regularly, discuss needs, celebrate birthdays and holidays, and become an extended part of the family.

These Distributors in South Africa were introduced to the SOS Children’s Village, a multinational organization working in 132 countries, by Beverly Salee, a Crown Ambassador-level Distributor from the United States who has been involved in relief work in South Africa for many years.

“I was never inclined this way before I joined Amway,” says Imraan. “But you can see the growth. You can see the difference you make.”

In addition to the one-on-one relationships, the Distributors provide monetary and in-kind support to the larger Village. They donate Glister toothpaste and toothbrushes to the local dental clinic that Beverly started with a local dentist and a member of the German Consulate. They have also begun to install eSpring water filters in each of the homes. And they help to raise funds for operational support. Later this month, Distributors will volunteer for a village program that will assemble and deliver 100 wheelchairs to disabled people in the local community. For most, it will be a new freedom and mobility that they lacked since birth.

“Children say ‘Where’s Uncle Imraan? We haven’t seen him for awhile,’” says Paul. Once you have started to build your relationship to that point, then you are making an impact on the lives of children. And that is ultimately what we want. We cannot do this alone. Yes, we have expertise. We have social workers. We have psychologists coming in from time to time, but it’s that relationship with the children. This person from Amway is a father figure, that person is an auntie … this is what they have missed out on.”
“They say it takes a village to raise a child. And we would like others to be a part of this village in helping us to raise these children. It’s about a lot more than the money. It’s about the personal involvement. It’s about taking part and taking action for the children.”

An SOS Children’s Village Success Story: Elaine Johnson

At the center of the Village, in a quiet landscaped garden where the children’s laughing voices are muted shadows, we meet 20-year-old Elaine Johnson, a “graduate” of the program who now lives in one of the Village’s special youth houses for those who have transitioned out of their home mother’s house and are setting off on their own.

Elaine came to the Village when she was only 7. She remembers only bits and pieces of her childhood before that time. Her mother was poor and could no longer care for her. The Village welcomed her and soon melted the fear she felt from moving in with a strange family and new siblings.

“I was scared, shy, didn’t want to eat. But eventually I started feeling comfortable, settling in. My home mother used to talk to me a lot, stayed close and spent a lot of time with me. She accepted me from the beginning,” says Elaine.

Within a few days, she began opening up to her home mother. And in a few weeks, she felt right at home. Her home mother has now moved on from the Village, but Elaine still sees her every weekend and talks during the week, like a good daughter should.

Elaine recalls, “Some of my greatest memories are on Saturdays, when everybody would come out from their houses and we would all play together. I am close to my brothers and sisters. We have had our fights, but we stood up for each other like real brothers and sisters. Some are still here.”

Elaine is now a student at Varsity College in Cape Town, studying marketing and brand management. She performed very well on her college entrance exams, and gets good grades on her course work. She clearly has a sharp mind and a focus on her future. Perhaps one day she will run the marketing division for Amway, or become a Distributor herself.

She takes us back to her dorm room, and shows us pictures from an old photo album. There are many happy times in the photos, with her sisters and her mother. There are pictures of sporting events, academic teams and vacations. It is clear that her life she was given support and encouragement at the SOS Children’s Village. And that support is paying off through her success.

Out by the playground, the other children stop her to ask questions. How old are you? Do you go to university? Which house did you live in? Where do you live now? She smiles and answers each question patiently. She was one of these children once.

“SOS is a great organization that really helps, especially when you come from a broken home and you feel empty and lost. It builds children up to become confident, go into the world and do their best. I can honestly say that the person I am today is because of my mother, and because of this place.”

Chapel Street School Boys

Chapel Street School Meal Program

Chapel Street School Students

SOS Children's Village

Elaine from SOS Children's Village

  • 1 Comment

    • Guest says:

      Thanks for doing great work in a country that I love!

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