Matrics leaving home

2012-12-04 00:00

“IT feels so unreal,” says Denise*, a resident at the Greytown Child and Youth Centre. “I am so used to the routine, the place and the people here. But excitement overrules the sadness when thinking of starting a new phase of my life somewhere.”

This week, Denise and two other matrics at the centre will leave and embark on a new life.

The Greytown CYC tries to organise bursaries and work opportunities for its school leavers, but there are no guarantees and the Child Care Act says it is the state’s obligation to look after children only until they have finished their schooling.

The young adults leave with a suitcase of basic necessities and they are on their own. Some of them keep in touch with the Greytown CYC, but others vanish.

“I am sad because when I leave it is like leaving my family behind,” said Lou*, one of the matrics leaving. “I learnt that being someone who grew up in a children’s home doesn’t mean you should be ashamed.

Wiseman* said he is also feeling sad about leaving. “My best experiences were the weekend outings and the treats. I liked to play touch rugby or soccer in the afternoon before dinner. I don’t wish to have children because they say history repeats itself — so it’s better just to be me, myself and I.”

At Pietermaritzburg Children’s Home (PCH), the oldest children’s home in the city, manager Fiona Balgobind said they look after the children until they finish school and then they try to find bursaries or jobs for their school leavers.

The home currently looks after 74 orphaned and vulnerable children between the ages of six and 20, who are placed with it under the Child Care Act.

“It is a battle because some of our children battle to get through school and they are not always top achievers — they have been strugglers. They need extra support and now they face the choice of being on the streets.

“We try very hard to make a plan for them, but it is stressful. Jobs for matrics are not a reality and many of them have no family — we are their extended family. We try to give some of them meals and toiletries for the next year even if we do not have the funds to do so,” she admitted.

Balgobind said that they had communicated the need for the government to make a plan through the district liaison committee, but this has been dissolved.

SOS Pietermaritzburg Children’s village co-ordinator Dumile Goba said SOS villages pay their matrics to study through bursary programmes and other methods, but often these school leavers have their studies paid for through private donations.

“We are finding it very tough to keep these donations coming in, as the economy is getting tough.”

She said that it is unrealistic for the government to expect the school leavers to be independent after school when they have no support system. “The children have grown up in a semi-sheltered environment and then they are forced into the real world with no safety net.”

Goodness Mnikathi was once one of the kids living with her siblings at the Greytown CYC and when she left she got a job in town. A few years later, she heard there was an opening for a house mother at the Greytown CYC and she applied.

“I was happy to get the job. It is like coming home. I am working with Auntie Petro Smith, who was looking after me when I was at the home. Now I have a chance to give advice to the younger girls.”

Two full-time social workers try to make sure the children maintain contact with their communities and with their relatives, but this does not always ensure that the children return to where they came from.

Bert Nel, fundraiser for the Greytown CYC, has appealed to the Social Welfare Department for more life-skills interventions to help the children.

He says a changing society and overwhelming challenges are making it hard for the home to do its job.

“I think all child-care facilities must be in the same boat. We are just not coping.”

“Our children are very vulnerable to bad influences and we have little resources to help them. Some have tried drugs, others are failing school and at the end of the day we are the last chance they have. When they leave here it is the end of the road.”


* Names withheld.

EVERY day is a day filled with new challenges at the Greytown Child and Youth Centre.

On the table behind Bert Nel’s desk is a sign that says “Strength” and this is what drives him. Emergencies are always cropping up and he has to appeal to the broader community to help out.

Last month when their giant industrial washing machine packed up, Nel had to make a plan to replace it. It was a crisis.

This month, the swimming pool is murky green from the rain and there is no money for chemicals.

But sometimes there is an upside too and a grant from the Lotto a year ago paid for a new, refurbished sick room, which is the pride and joy of the Greytown CYC. Some of the children have tried to stay away from school to enjoy the television and the comfortable beds, but medical manager Adri Biddulph can spot a “scammer” a mile away.

Around the corner in the clothing storeroom, Sue Bornman is stitching school uniforms for next year. They order school shoes in bulk from a local manufacturer so they can get discount. They also recycle clothes, with the bigger children handing down their clothes to the smaller ones, and they get donations of last season’s stock from a few local stores too.

Wearing normal clothes is a huge issue: the children want to feel normal and fit in. They get to pick out their clothes twice a term from the clothing storeroom. The children sleep in neat dormitory-style bedrooms in homes divided by age and gender, and they keep their personal belongings in their cupboards.

The centre was founded in 1919 after the “Big Flu” epidemic, when hundreds of thousands of people died in SA and the local Dutch Reformed Church offered to accommodate orphaned children. It believed that Greytown, a farming community, was a healthy environment for orphans. In those days, farmers in the area were thriving and were generous and supportive of the children’s home.

The first four children were placed at the Greytown Children’s Home and the first house was officially opened on October 7, 1919, by Mr and Mrs Van Rooyen.

Over the last nine decades, the institution has expanded and it is now a well-equipped institution with seven houses accommodating up to 150 children in total.

There is a long list of children waiting for a place in the home, which is still run by the KZN Christian Social Services, the social welfare branch of the Dutch Reformed Church. The home survives on a state social welfare subsidy and it also does additional fund raising. As society has changed, so have the challenges it faces. It houses children from all races and religions, and from all sectors of society. In the old days, all the girls attending the childrens’ home would have to wear white dresses, and the boys dressed in grey trousers and white shirts. This would identify them as “orphans” and some felt ostracised by normal society. Nowadays, the centre tries to make sure that its children have many opportunities to mingle with “ordinary” children. The children attend local schools, and are encouraged to participate in sports and clubs at schools.

While some will go home in the Christmas holidays to relatives or to volunteer families, there are those who prefer to stay at the centre because it is nicer than their own homes.

Trish Beaver


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