Written by: Katie Panagopoulos – USA
Cape Town – Orphan and Vulnerable care project
*All names listed below have been changed to respect the privacy of the children.
For the past nine weeks I have been provided the opportunity to work with the most dynamic group of people I’ve ever come into contact with. Lihle is tireless, he never stops. His curiosity fuels his engagement in any situation. Xolile is timid, but extremely inquisitive. Siphenathi is bold. His outer shell is hard to break, but once broken his love is unconditional. Happiness exists in her own world, she is incredibly expressive and creative. Buntu is an old soul. He finds enjoyment in nearly everything, even the simplest of things. Thulani is resilient, he doesn’t allow his circumstances to hold him back, or stifle his overflowing joy. Mivuyo is nurturing and imaginative. Inga is constantly observing and learning. Her sympathetic nature is made clear through her treatment of others. These characteristics are strikingly visible in these individuals whom range from age zero to three.
These children reside in Fikelela Childrens’ Centre located in Khayelitsha, Cape Town in South Africa. Fikelela (meaning ‘to reach out’ in the local language) is an emergency foster care home. These children were removed from dire home situations; whether this be neglect or abuse or more complex family circumstances. The end goal of Fikelela is to place children back into their original, family home. Sometimes though, this is not possible. Whether a child is taken back to their family, placed into another home, or fostered they will always have a home at Fikelela.
Since September, Monday through Friday, nine to twelve, I am with this group of eighteen unique children. I can honestly say I’ve never faced something as challenging as this. It is incredibly draining, both physically and emotionally. Half of the time I leave Fikelela, head pounding, depleted of all energy, questioning my role, wondering if I am making any minuscule impact. To be completely honest, some days I wake up and dread the thought of having to face a room of unpredictable toddlers. But I love it. Every second, good or bad, I love it.
I originally decided to take a gap year in hopes of gaining a better sense of what I wanted to pursue in my future. Now, nearly halfway through this year, I realize I am gaining so much more than that simple clarity. As time passes, its clear to me that the work my colleagues and I are doing is having a major impact on the development of these children. We plan fun and interactive activities to improve their gross motor skills, develop their fine motor skills, enhance their language ability, and begin to prepare them for their education. Being part of regular child assessments has not only given me a sense of ownership over the program, but highlighted the substantial progress these children are making. Whether it’s Mivuyo successfully recognising primary colours or Thulani taking his first steps, all accomplishments are celebrated, regardless of how insignificant they may seem. With the presence of volunteers, they are gaining knowledge and exposure that they wouldn’t normally receive in their current situations and environment. Although I know these children are gaining vast amounts due to our work, I am gaining more.
Throughout my life thus far, specifically during high school, I struggled with my identity. Who am I? These children have made me realize who I am and who I am striving to become. At age three they have such distinct personalities; they have been untainted by the worlds’ influence, they are truly themselves. Every day they unknowingly inspire me to be true to myself and my innate values. They test my patience, strengthen my compassion, spark my creativity, and increase my mindfulness. I realize the opportunities I have been given are immense, and will no longer let them slip through my grasp.
I set out this year in an attempt to better the world, even on the smallest scale. I will return a better person, thanks to eighteen pure souls.
To find out more or to volunteer on this program in Cape Town visit the program page by using the magnifying glass icon in the top right corner.