For so long they were waiting, way before the gates had opened and been locked again. They were so near. I could see details on their clothes. I could hear their conversations but they remained outside. Their faces, some you remember, and some unfamiliar were pressed between the bars. They beckoned to us, as we walked across the carpark towards the programme centre. Their eyes pleaded, their palms spread upward and wide, asking for anything that we could give. Inside the centre were kids just like themselves, their neighbours, their friends even, and they were hungry for whatever was behind those gates. They knew we couldn’t open the gate to let them in though it was all I wanted to do.
House of Wells had been expanding in these areas. The programme was phenomenal in providing a safe haven for those that were enrolled at the cost of being acknowledged as some of Port Elizabeth’s ‘disadvantaged.’ Not everyone qualified for that description either. Only those who were the ‘poorest of the poor.’
Each child that had been enrolled was invited into a community that counted their wellbeing as a priority. The House of Wells programme employed tutors to help with their studies. There was a budget to ensure the children were fed daily, a simple right that was often denied at home.
In a sense, the programme is exceptional and I believe in everything that House of Wells do but they're limited due to their size. They've grown from 10 - 1000 beneficiaries in a really short amount of time, and we are their partner, playing our part and acknowledging the privilege to contribute practically with school uniforms but there was still so much work to do.
What about those children outside those gates?
The boys and girls of these townships who would never understand why they couldn’t enter. We need to reach those children. We need to reach more nations. We need be present in the lives of the children we’re already involved in. The thought was daunting but we needed to figure out a way to sustain and prepare them for life. I was stuck in the tension I felt as I walked towards the classroom and took one last look at the kids standing outside the gate. I was proud of the work we’d been doing but knew that there was still a world we had to impact.
When I met Lihle I had my preconceptions. I imagined she’d be quite shy and reserved and that the interview process could take longer than planned. In fact, when Lihle spoke we all listened. She demanded our attention with her intelligence and sensitivity. And when she sang, she captured the moment, luring us in as she poured her heart out. We were invited into her home that day, but also her life, her fears for her community, her hatred for the vices that were taking the lives of those close to her, and her dreams to be a singer. She was confident that her songs could change things, set a new wave in motion, a catalyst that would see her land start to heal. She is the reason. She put our work into perspective. She was the why. I wanted to do all I could to help this precious jewel, born into such ugly circumstances. I listened to her sing a song about freedom and faith that she wrote herself. She let it fill the four walls of her home, and trail into the street outside. I just watched her, as frail as the community around her but with a mindset of courage that could change her world.
The girls linked arms and frollicked around the school yard. Their laughter seemed unfamiliar and almost out of place. Lihle lead her group of friends from activity to activity, that just might lighten the load of their everyday worries. One minute, they gathered in a circle playing hand games, the next they strutted around the patio singing songs in their local Xhosa dialect.
In some moments, I found myself feeling sorry for them; concerned about how their environment might be dictating their stress. But mostly I marvelled at the present, how ‘right here and now’ was not dominated by issues of poverty and lack but instead fuelled with silly interaction and childlikeness and engagement. I said a quiet prayer then, that her circumstances would never affect her potential.
The teachers called out the names of those children receiving uniforms on this particular visit. I had the honour to personally present them. Most of the kids were shy but said ‘thank you’. For a few of them, those were some of the only English words they knew. I watched them approach one by one, coy and with their reservations but each one left back to their seat with pride and a smile, holding onto the uniforms as if they were gold dust, more aware than ever, that it was one step in the right direction for the futures they dreamed of. At the end of the presentation, of course there was a song. I was getting used to letting the music speak. Their collective voice filled the classroom as they clapped in perfect rhythm. They all participated, lacing their song with colourful harmonies, their own way of saying ‘Thanks’.
It was truly humbling. I thought of our Vitae family - every customer that had become a part of their stories. I wished they could have been there to witness the scene. I wanted them to know the ripple effect they were having on the lives of these children.