Mothers Create Safe Space for Kids in South African Gangland

Gina Ginsburg
THE BIG ISSUE SOUTH AFRICA

Initially started as a feeding scheme by concerned mothers, the non-profit organisation has branched out and now offers more than 120 children between the ages of three and 18 alternative activities to the social ills that plague their community, such as storytelling, computer literacy, food gardening training, art therapy, educational programmes, sports and play.

While Mothers Unite is a community effort led by local women, director Gerry Gordon has been a major driving force. Compelled to make a difference in the lives of impoverished children through her own experience of growing up in a disadvantaged home, the 48-year-old Capetonian gave up her job in corporate sales to dedicate her full time to the project.

It’s a sacrifice that’s paid off. So impressed with the holistic project was the panel of judges for the Deutsche Bank Urban Age Award for Cape Town, that they chose Mothers Unite as this year’s winner out of 254 entries, earning the project a prize of R750 000. Gordon explains more about the project’s mission to create a safe learning environment for children to develop to their full potential, and to just be children.

“Our core focus is children. We aim to offer children a positive alternative. Kids are treated well here. It is important for them to know that they can be spoken to and loved just for being a child. For the kids who come here, this is their world, their safe space.”

Gordon says it all started in 2008 when a few hungry kids came to the home of Carol Jacobs, the original founder of the programme. When the kids told her they just wanted ‘something to chew’, Carol made a pot of soup. The next day she found double the amount of children on her doorstep. She asked two other mothers to help her, they started a small soup kitchen and it grew from there.

“I got involved and suddenly we were feeding up to 200 children in Carol’s small home,” he continues. “Eventually we decided to create a programme that would incorporate other support mechanisms these kids needed to make a positive change in their lives. We approached the City of Cape Town for land and we started with just one donated shipping container. It was a bottom-up approach within the community…we were able to become a community-based organisation and could grow from there.”

“Our core focus is children. For the kids who come here, this is their world, their safe space.”

Gordon says Mothers Unite works with kids in a holistic way by looking at their nutrition, education, creativity and, to some degree, their healing processes, because “these kids live in a challenging environment – poverty is their daily reality.”

“All our children get a meal every time they come in after school. Mealtime is important; a safe time where kids can just relax, chat and have a meal. It is immensely valuable to just talk and listen to children.

We teach children to plant their own veggies in our organic garden and they reap the benefits. We use the garden produce in our meals. It’s not a lot, and to sustain the project we rely mostly on food donations. But eating the food they have grown teaches them to appreciate nature and the environment. Many take the knowledge home with them and have started their own gardens. We have also planted trees and lavender, some of the only lavender you will find in Lavender Hills.”

A lot of what Mothers Unite do is based on the input they receive from the kids they aim to help, as Gordon puts it: “they guide the process of how we develop the project because they know what they need. They need help with maths, so we get a maths tutor; they need books, we start a library; they don’t know how to use computers, we offer computer assistance; and so on.

“The library we started up is important to get kids to love books and build their vocabulary, because many don’t have books at home. We also read stories to them. Children absolutely love to hear stories and many of the kids who come here just don’t get that in their lives.

“The principals I have spoken to say the biggest problem with kids from this area is literacy and numeracy, so we try and target that. Looking at their school reports, it’s clear they have improved. What is also very clear is that they have high marks in ‘life orientation’. That, I believe, is due to the programme.”

Another service Mothers Unite began providing for the kids, as well as others in the community, is emergency response and first-aid training, which includes everything from CPR to bandaging wounds and burns, even dealing with mental illness. This has reduced the number of calls to ambulances that are often called in for situations which are not that serious, and Gordon believes the training helps empower a community to be self-sufficient.

“When gang-violence escalates we do, sadly, have a drop in attendance,” says Gordon. “That’s because it’s either unsafe for kids to pass through gang areas or they are caught up in it. We take things as they come; it’s just one of those realities we have to deal with. So we make sure we’re here for them, that we listen to what they’re saying and listen to what they need. For them, in the middle of this abnormality, that’s important.”

In July non-profit will open registration to take on more kids for the programme. “It’s difficult; more kids want to participate than we can accommodate because we don’t have enough resources,” admits Gordon.

“We’re using the award money from the Deutsche Bank Urban Age Award to implement our three-year plan. It involves sustaining our current programme and also adding two new projects. We’re being careful not to over-extend ourselves – we’d rather be experts in what we do instead of taking on more projects than we can handle. We have to work smart.

“The passion, the tenacity, the perseverance – everything that happens here is because of the six women who are currently volunteering to run the programme. None of us gets paid a salary. Why do it? This is my life, this is what I love doing – I love serving people. And who better to serve than the children? They can’t pay you back with money, but it is rewarding enough to see change happening over a period of time. That’s my motivation; the more I can do, the happier I am.”

She concludes: “I can’t save all of Lavender Hills but what I can do is have a positive impact on the lives of one or two of the kids here. I would love to see some of the children come out of here and eventually have good careers and a happy life. These children might be a little different but they are by no means less valuable.”

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