Growing greater social connections to inspire others across diverse communities

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Here are the Park Buddies who joined hands and rolled up their sleeves for a cleaner environment the past two Saturdays.
Here are the Park Buddies who joined hands and rolled up their sleeves for a cleaner environment the past two Saturdays.

To build pride, self-respect, personal responsibility, commitment and teamwork.

This is the hope for youngsters who have banded together as eco-warriors, championing the admirable task of maintaining a cleaner environment while cultivating friendships, developing accountability and setting an example by raising community awareness.

More than 20 children, from as young as eight years old, are involved in the Park Buddies programme, a project overseen by the social initiative Out The Box and launched as part of the Little Smarties street school in Macassar.

Dr Bryony May spearheads Out The Box, an initiative which is aimed at growing greater social connections to inspire others across diverse communities never to underestimate their importance or even the smallest of gestures that positively impacts how the future is written, and has partnered with the Gray Swan charitable trust as of this year. Working alongside a valued team of volunteers involved in various projects under the social initiative’s umbrella, May said Park Buddies is aimed at empowering young individuals to take the lead in environmental care.

Every Saturday two volunteer educators armed with the necessary equipment meet up with the children to engage in a community clean-up specifically focused on two areas in Smartie Town, a play park and around the street school container referred to as The Smart Hub.

Pat on the back

Last Saturday (21 January), the Park Buddies were lauded for their efforts, which impacted the spirit and success of teamwork. This past Saturday (28 January) saw a bigger group of eager young volunteers roll up their sleeves and rid the playground of litter and rubbish.

“Despite the blustery Cape morning, we had another excellent turnout. It’s very heart-warming and inspiring to drive into this community being greeted by a large crowd of eager eco-warriors, waiting with whatever equipment they’ve managed to borrow from local elders,” said May in a post shared on Facebook on Sunday.

Altogether 26 Park Buddies filled eight bags of litter including dangerous shards of glass found in the sand and other items that shouldn’t be in a playground – thorns, glass, used condoms and plastic rubbish.

Where it all started

On further enquiry, May recalled the seed for the Park Buddies idea being planted when she partnered with the community and embarked on the Covid-19 health education project Soap4Safety in 2020. While offering hygiene support as part of the volunteer group Together against Covid, she identified a greater need that manifested in the establishment of the street school.

“During lockdown visits to communities in Macassar, I would always enquire ‘How can we help you?’ and in the tight-knit Smartie Town community members responded ‘Please give our children a better future’, which was a profound request. I looked around saw a sad, broken playground and a messy environment empty of nature. People and their environment are closely connected and it’s a very important relationship both for physical and mental health.

“The children, aged two years and older, spend most of their day outdoors, playing in the streets and their small dilapidated play park, and with no early childhood development in the area, they were disadvantaged from foundation-phase learning. The reality is they spend their days among litter and with no interaction with nature or healthy green space. In a region challenged socio-economically, with the multiple complex associations of violence, school drop-out, mental health problems and substance abuse, the benefits of uplifting the environment can truly impact positively on a person’s spirit and provide an inspiring sense of hope.”

This is how the school for more than 100 children found its humble beginnings and has since seen consistent growth of mindset towards valuing the environment and collecting litter.

“In 2021, we arranged an enormous sand sculpture of an octopus in open ground and this was completely untouched for five days until dissolved by rain,” May said. “Last year, a local artist spontaneously painted a beautiful wall mural, where we run our street-school, and that has never been vandalised. These were such tangible signs that this community craved and valued the upliftment of their environment.”

Park Buddies was officially launched as one of a few Saturday programmes after Lisa Starr, founder of the Helderberg Ocean Awareness Movement (Hoam), gave a dynamic and inspiring talk to the children and kick-started environmental clean-ups in 2021. As animal welfare is another vitally important element of the programme, clean-ups were incorporated into their Pet Care project, which entailed children bringing their dogs and cats for free parasite care and pet supplies in exchange for tidying the environment.

“By the end of last year, we felt a strong foundation in the children’s environmental awareness and I was ready to launch the Park Buddies project. This is made up of about 20 young eco-warriors and our local team of volunteers.”

The magic of Park Buddies

Asked how the latest project complements others under the Out of the Box umbrella, the champion for social change through innovation and empowerment, May responded: “The special magic and key to building social change is the partnership with the community and the diverse team that come together. Our educational project is constantly growing as is the children’s commitment and engagement; it’s all about building onto each layer of educational empowerment.

“We have tremendous love and pride for the children and their growth through our project is truly remarkable. Understanding their challenges, knowing their resilience and hearing their dreams always inspires us to empower them to be kind, responsible and collaborative young adults. This project is another example of the innovative concept of Out The Box – collaborating diversity and with minimum resources and a whole lot of Ubuntu empowering hope and a better future.”

Another successful weekend project May boasts is Summit4Purpose, which has been running for a year and considered to be Ubuntu in motion.

“It added a different flavour to outdoor adventures as we bring together a blend of diverse communities,” she said. “Disadvantaged youth, homeless individuals [from Thomas House of Hope] and volunteer students share a day together, appreciating our stunning biodiversity,” she explained.

“These outdoor education outings are always a huge success and everyone goes home happily proud and inspired, having shared interesting conversations. We hope to make this available to 200 more children this year during Saturday school sessions, but we need more support and volunteers.”

Call for support

The Park Buddies project currently has no support and the volunteers undertake cleaning efforts with a few items on loan from the City of Cape Town’s Parks and Recreation Department. However, there is a dire need for gardening gloves for the children, said May who hopes to also reward the youngsters with special Park Buddies badges and T-shirts one day.

“Sponsors to help us take them on educational outings would be pretty amazing,” she said. “Transport is the essential bridge and limitation to empowerment. So, often we cannot get these children accessing wonderful opportunities. We would first like to take them to the Somerset West Village Garden to learn about growing seedlings and how to run such an asset.”

May further called on Helderbergers to show some support to NPOs either as volunteers or through donations, as “this key social development is what we all need for our future.

“If you are feeling a bit despondent, concerned and fed-up that the lights keep going out, keep a lookout for the positive bright moments that are happening all over the country, and imagine how much brighter it would be by adding your tiny spark to it.”

The Little Smarties street school boasts 117 child
The Little Smarties street school boasts 117 children and a diverse team of volunteers.
More on May

How do the initiatives geared towards effecting social change connect with you as a person?
I would call myself an optimistic realist! As a doctor, I see the complexities and connections of socio-economic challenges to physical and mental health, and I am passionate about empowering preventative healthcare and positive actions for upliftment. I think I’m also a bit of an innovative thinker and I live by the ethos that “it takes a village’’.

In a nutshell, what was the journey that led you to promoting change in vulnerable communities?
It’s really at a very personal level?.?.?. As women and mothers we can relate and connect with each other so much. I am always so humbled by the challenges that vulnerable communities have and families trying their best with so many limitations.

What qualifications do you boast that aids your social involvement?
I had the great privilege to be trained as a doctor in this country, working in vulnerable communities and connecting on a very deep and personal level with people, gaining a lot of insight to the importance of respecting individuality and communities’ values.

What is your big dream?
There is scientific theory to the ripple effect, it’s called build and broaden theory of positivity which counters negativity, promotes hope and develops growth. My dream is that more people think “Out The Box” and tap into a way that they can make a positive difference. It is this accumulative effort that has the power to build ourselves a better future. We try our best to empower youth and women in multiple areas as our innovative ideas can copy and paste to any vulnerable area, so to one day have a sustainable large team and a website to access and inspire more people would simply be a dream come true! We also have a very special project Fire Watch, which will empower local residents to reduce devastating house fires, save lives and homes, that I hope to put in action. For the 120 children of Little Smarties, my dream is finally to find a piece of land on which to create a community garden around an educational facility and get help to make their park a lovely safe space to play in.


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