by Mitchell Shaun Parker
The first thing that will hit you when walking into a JJH tutoring session will quite literally be the children. Taps on knees from little hands asking to be lifted up into a hug, high-fives and laughter from all the excitement created by your arrival will crash into you like an affectionate, albeit loud, wave. The kids are immaculate hosts when it comes to making you feel welcome.
And too right they do. The Jehovah Jireh Haven (shortened to JJH) is home to dozens of children who – while not orphans – have found themselves living in dire circumstances and are therefore in care. I’ve heard some horror stories about what some of the horde of smiling faces have been through. Foetal Alcohol Syndrome is common. Many have parents that have abused them and thus this is the first safe place – first real home – that they have ever known. So, it is no surprise that when you arrive they are excited to be as tactile and loving as they possibly can be.
I joined the society because a few friends of mine are on the committee, and having heard how rewarding they found the experience I thought I’d try my hand at it too. The tutoring project – separate from the actual Haven itself – is run by a group of dynamic 4th year students at Rhodes University who saw the apparent gap in these kids’ lives and decided to act.
On my first day at JJH a boy, no older than 5 or 6, found himself on the outside end of a glass door – too shy to come inside and see what exciting educational fun we were having. I caught his eye and smiled. He smiled back. A wide, toothy smile that usually precedes a giggle. I waved. He replied. I slowly reached up and placed my hand on the thin sheet of glass that separated us. Without fail, he followed suit and we played a game where I would move my hand and he would follow it – laughing all the while.
This boy has more than likely suffered great trauma in his life. His tiny black arms were mottled with long-healed scars and he was definitely too small for his age. But despite the pain in his life, pain that I’ll thankfully never know, we shared a human moment. It’s these kind of moments that are often lost in rhetoric about issues of poor education and lack of infrastructure and support for children inside the social welfare system.
Let me not be misleading: this boy’s living conditions are poor. The Haven, as nobly as they try, struggles monthly to make enough money to feed, bathe, clothe and take care of these children. This boy will attend a school in Alexandria, an Eastern Cape township, that will not equip him for a future in big business or as a doctor. In fact, the local comprehensive only teaches up to Grade 9 at which point those who are still interested in further study are offered the chance to learn basic labour skills. Surrounding him is the toxic cloud of HIV and Aids.
Empirically, the future is not particularly bright for him.
But think for a moment on the impact that a moment like ours will have. Despite coming from a place where love is handed out just as sparingly as food, he will always have the time I spent cheekily making him smile through the glass door of a Wendy house.
Love is important when it comes to education. Learners who are attended to and who are given the opportunity to be heard do better than those who are forced to fight the poor standard of education this province has on their own.
That’s where the mission of JJH comes in, however. Through small group engagement, tutors get to help these children with any educational hurdles they are facing. It gives them a chance to get time with someone who is genuinely interested in making them succeed. And, ultimately, to give these kids, who have already been forced to battle against what in some cases are seen to be insurmountable odds, a chance at a life that is happier… if even for a moment.