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01869 338890

A bespoke gap year program in South Africa

Gina, who is a dance instructor in Los Angles, wanted to use her skills as a volunteer in South Africa.  Travellers representative in Knysna was happy to oblige and set up this placement.

I 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 diversity, 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 more rewarding.

 

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 I, would bring tables, chairs, and the children outside for arts and crafts activities or games.

 

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 jewellery 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 my 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 the Orphanage.

 

Monday through Thursday, mid afternoon, I did a dance program for both the kids at 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 and 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.

 

Gina Rizzo Bishop's placement was arranged with Travellers Worldwide.

 

 

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