It’s a Marist thing…
I will never forget the first time I was driven into Langbos Informal Settlement. I was sitting on the back of Brother Christopher’s bakkie with two of my friends from School. We were driving to the Intsikelelo Care Centre, a temporary safe haven and community centre built by the Sisters of Mercy (Sr Martha, Breda and Mary) and Marist Brothers (Br Christopher, Vincent and Claude) for poor and abused children located in the centre of an informal township where there is no running water or electricity.
For a week, my friends and I were tasked with running a Summer Camp for the disadvantaged children of the Sundays River Valley, Addo, Eastern Cape, South Africa.
My friends and I, alumni of St Henry’s Marist College in Durban were quietly confident. How difficult could running a Summer Camp for children be? How wrong we were!
We were greeted by ninety children ages four to thirteen. None of whom spoke English. All from very poor backgrounds, some living with HIV/Aids, some who had been abused, and many malnourished children.
The playground where we were to play sport and games with the children was a large open field where cows and goats roamed. Mud and tin houses where people lived encroached onto our temporary field. Our soccer balls lasted minutes due to the little “devil thorns” growing in the grass.
As we faced challenges, we soon overcame them with alternative ideas and solutions giving each child an incredible week-long event to remember.
At the end of the week we said goodbye to the Sisters of Mercy, Marist Brothers and our new friends from Addo.
Driving out of Langbos, my friends and I were so inspired that we promised ourselves that we would be back the following year and with the aim of bringing more Marists to share in our experiences. This was in 2009.
Fast forward to 2019, I am still part of this incredible Summer Camp with the Sisters of Mercy and Marist Brothers working under the banner Marist Mercy Care.
But… remember those ninety children I spoke of and handful of Marist volunteers in 2009? We have now grown this project to welcome close to five hundred children, twenty special needs children, newly appointed Marist Student Leaders of the five South African Marist Schools, South African Marist Alumni, German Marist Alumni and volunteers from across the Sundays River Valley.
Our project held annually in December is no longer just a Summer Camp for children. Its an incredibly important week for children and volunteers alike, all who live for this event during the year.
The children, ages four to sixteen are no longer just entertained with Sport. They are given the opportunity to express themselves in our dance classes, arts and crafts, educational Kindle programs and team building. For our older participants, we have classes in career guidance, health care guidance, leadership and most prevalent in the area and in South Africa, an awareness of gender-based violence.
All children are fed. Sometimes their only meal of the day.
A new generation of Student Leaders…
I believe Student Leaders thrive in unpredictable environments and this is achieved by taking them out of their comfort zones. It is a way they will learn how to deal with situations they might be faced with in their respective Schools as Head Student Leaders.
With this in mind, six years ago I created the Sharing Our Call program involving the newly appointed South African Marist Student leaders of the five Marist Schools (St Henry’s Marist College (Durban), St David’s Marist Inanda, Marist Brothers Linmeyer, Sacred Heart Marist College (Johannesburg) and St Joseph’s Marist College (Cape Town)).
These Marist Leaders join us in Addo for the week-long event as volunteers, lead groups of thirty-five children and run activities entertaining and educating all involved. Whilst at the same time, these Leaders are given the opportunity to learn from each other, to discuss challenges they will be faced with in the coming year and how to overcome these in their Schools.
Our Marist Student Leaders work in incredibly tough environments where there is no electricity, running water, caring for children at our Camp who are from child headed households, abused children, children living with HIV/Aids and malnourished children.
Each Student Marist Leader is assigned a mentor, a Marist Alumnus who has previously been part of the Summer Camp program, Sharing Our Call program and who has returned as a facilitator. This allows a chance for the Student Leaders to gather greater knowledge, especially from those that have been in their leadership roles in prior years.
Our Marist Alumni, all current university students (studying notable qualifications such as Medicine, Accounting, Engineering and Computer Sciences) and past participants of the program are past students from each Marist School in South Africa and mentor not only the Marist Leaders but also our local volunteers giving everyone involved a completely all round opportunity to gain valuable insight into leadership and personal growth.
700 Smiles : )
On the final day of the program, after the Summer Camp ends, the Marist Students gather at Marist Mercy Care’s Place of Mercy and Hope to distribute gifts to the children of the Valencia Formal Settlement (a nearby township where some of our participants reside).
When driving the Marists to the Place of Mercy and Hope I always hold my breath when turning down the dirt road to the destination. I never know how many children and babies with their mothers will be anxiously waiting our arrival.
No matter what project you run in South Africa, distributions of donations to children and adults is always incredibly tough logistically and emotionally. There will never be enough donations given the significant number of disadvantaged and poor children and families in South Africa.
Every year without fail we have hundreds of children waiting for us with the hope of receiving a Christmas gift.
With military like precision we commence the distribution of gifts ensuring the utmost dignity, sensitivity and safety for all involved.
We distribute the necessities in parcels. Necessities such as toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, vaseline, hand towel and a sweet. Very often, we come down to the last set of parcels and our Marists are frantically breaking them open to ensure at least a child goes home with something be it only a simple toothbrush.
In 2019, seven hundred children all received a gift. An unbelievable accomplishment for us.
The Sisters, Brothers and I have built this Summer Camp project so much so that we receive requests from past participants and Marist alumni and students from all over the world a year in advance to be part of this program.
When I first stepped into Langbos in 2009 with my two Marist friends all those years ago I never would have imagined the impact it has had on me and the positive influence it has on the Marists, Volunteers and Children who attend year on year.
Marist Mercy Care’s project is not just an annual Summer Camp. It is so much more than that. It is one of the largest Marist and Mercy Projects in South Africa focusing on Health Care, Education and Nutrition. I am privileged to say that I have been part of Sr Martha, Breda and Br Christopher’s journey in the Sundays River Valley building these significant projects that help the poor daily.
The Place of Mercy and Hope is not just a distribution centre of gifts for our Summer Camp in the Valencia Settlement. During the year the facility helps thousands of beneficiaries such as;
a Baby Care and Toddler Centre for infants whilst allowing us to employ and empower local ladies who would otherwise be unemployed;
It is a Creche and Pre School educating one hundred and sixty disadvantaged, malnourished and some abused children whilst employing over ten educators from the area;
It is a Clinic with Home Based Carers and a Medical Doctor caring for many sick and dying, children and adults living with HIV/Aids, tuberculosis, cancers, those malnourished and the elderly;
It assists those families who are without birth certificates, identity documents and social grants;
It is a Soup Kitchen running twice a week feeding on average four hundred children and adults. And
it provides three hundred Adult Education Courses annually such as computer lessons increasing the opportunity for employment.
Marist Mercy Care also manages the Lwazi Educare Centre, a Creche employing three educators from the Dunbrody Settlement and welcoming over forty children. And, provides guidance to principals and teachers of primary schools in the vast Sundays River Valley.
Marist Mercy Care…
Marist, founded by St Marcellin Champagnat in France in 1817 has educational institutions in over 79 countries around the world.
In 2019, South Africa celebrated over one hundred and fifty years of Marist presence with Schools in three provinces namely, St Joseph’s Marist College (Cape Town), St Henry’s Marist College (Durban), Sacred Heart Marist College, Marist Brothers Linmeyer and St David’s Marist Inanda (Johannesburg).
The Sisters of Mercy whose ethos, mission and charism are very similar to Marist was founded by Catherine McAuley in Ireland in 1831. The Sisters also have a strong focus toward Education and Community with Schools around the globe.
Marist Mercy Care was founded in 2006 when Br Christopher Zimmerman (Marist Brother) and three Sisters of Mercy (Sr Martha, Breda and Mary) joined the call to help the disadvantaged families of the Sundays River Valley, Eastern Cape, South Africa.
The Sundays River Valley, although famous for its Citrus Industry and Addo Elephant Park is an incredibly poor area with many disadvantaged families living with HIV/Aids, Tuberculosis, Cancer and other common South African illnesses.
“Just because you are born into poverty does not mean you are DESTINED for poverty”