By Dani Kreusch
As soon as she arrives for work the children drop from trees, jungle gyms and swings to encircle her in a group hug. Sarah Williams, at twenty six, is already a mom to the children who form part of the Lebone Centre group, breaking off mid-enthusiastic greeting to tell the boys to right-side the jungle gym they’d toppled to gain extra height.
“That’s not safe. Let’s make good choices, now,” she chides gently as she ties a newly-fallen ribbon back into a little girl’s hair.
Not half an hour later, the camera she’d been recording her requested dance performance on is lying forgotten on the table. Sarah’s twirling children around while a small CD player blares songs everybody sings along to, pulled willingly from audience member to participator by eager hands.
“She’s one of us,” says Auntie Jen Botha, an assistant at the Centre. “The kids really want to teach her Afrikaans because they find it strange she doesn’t know when she’s so much part of their lives. And she wants to learn too. She’s from here with us in her heart.”
Sarah says she fell in love with South Africa quickly and deeply when she first came here from Atlanta, Georgia to do her teaching prac three years ago. Despite returning to America and teaching there for two years, she couldn’t resist the call to come back here to do her part-time Honours at Rhodes. “God called me to this country, and to this city. I miss the States, sometimes, but this is where I need to be. I know that with every bit of myself.” And, as much as she loves the country, she loves “her” children at the Lebone Centre where she volunteers full time even more. “These are my babies. I just love these children. They take up just a huge chunk of my heart,” she says.
If you’d told 16-year-old Sarah where she’d be and what she’d be doing at 26, she maintains she would have run in the opposite direction. But God had other, scarier, more homesick-filled, more astounding plans for her. “Jesus and I are going on many adventures together,” she laughs playfully. These include everything from riding elephants to fighting systems and fears so she can do her Masters in Education at Rhodes next year.
Of course, as with any adventure, there are the heartbreaking parts as well as the dance parties. One of the most recent frustrating, heartsore moments came when the Grahamstown heavens opened and one little boy at the Centre arrived dripping wet and shivering from the cold after having walked from his school at the end of the day. “The very worst part of it all was that the [Lebone Centre] staff were the only ones concerned about this. None of the children saw this as a problem at all. It makes me so sad to think that that’s so much a thing that happens that we as outsiders are the only ones to react to it.”
Those at the Centre are convinced that Sarah is no more an outsider than the average Grahmstonian who doesn’t live in the community of Ward Three. She is, however, from a very different country, and her experiences in the education system of both places allows her a different look at South African education.
“I don’t believe the [education system here] is better [than in America], but I don’t believe that it’s worse,” she says slowly, organising each thought meticulously before expressing it. “The education systems in both the States and South Africa have to go through a huge rehaul, as they’re failing their children. There are problems in both places that are preventing children from getting equitable epistomological access. In South Africa, I believe one of the biggest issues is the language barrier.” Her hands make a box in the air as illustration. “Another thing I’ve seen is that the government is trying, but is putting most of its effort into fighting apartheid. So they’ll say “this is what was done in apartheid, so we’ll do the exact opposite” without seeing whether the exact opposite is actually helpful.”
These children, Sarah says, have blessed her so much she can’t help but love them and want to give back. So much so that she made it her birthday request to all those back home to help her start her campaign to raise $1000 (about R12 700) for the Lebone Centre by the end of the year. She wants to bless the kids by providing things such as pyjamas for the cold winter nights she’s experienced first-hand and cannot comprehend somebody going through without warmth. “I’m completely overwhelmed and humbled and grateful for the response so far. This is the best kind of blessing – where you get to bless others. And I’m so excited to get the support to be able to do this.”
“God called me to be a school teacher. Sometimes that means a day that ends in tears and questions nobody can answer about things nobody can fix. Most of the time it’s a blessing; one I’m more than thankful to receive.”
Sarah and the kids and staff at the Lebone Centre have a dance party.