I was born in Westbury, South Africa, to parents who always taught me the importance of living according to a strong set of values. My father always encouraged me to embrace what made me different. He used to tell me that when a school of fish swims one way, I should swim in the opposite direction, in many ways my father always reminded me that I have a divine purpose to lead and influence great change. But at the time, as my country was still divided by apartheid, it wasn’t always clear where my independent thinking could take me one day but my mother always instilled in me to believe in myself and never give up, so with such a strong foundation at an early age, I was excited to start my journey, to fulfill my greater purpose.
Then in 1994, as Nelson Mandela was released from prison and led South Africa out of apartheid and into democracy, my world changed – literally and figuratively. I became the first in my family and one of the first-ever black learners to attend Vorentoe High School as it became a multi-racial school. It was not always easy being in a different environment but I loved every minute, it exposed me to diverse cultural experiences, cultivated my talents, and taught me to celebrate differences.
After graduating from high school, I felt a strong call to action towards community service, inspired by great change makers like President Mandela and my father, I started a path into community development. I volunteered with non-profit called Together Action Group (TAG) which was started on the principle of Ubuntu and forgiveness. TAG was formed by former gang members who wanted to rebuild their communities and create a better future for the next seven generations. While at TAG, I helped launch an afterschool programme that focused on teaching children ways to resist peer pressure. While working in this program, I met Nadine. She was three years old when she started attending, and over the years I taught her how to dance, mentored her, and helped her navigate her difficult teenage years. Today, she’s finishing her final year at university, and is giving back through her own community service. I am so proud of her and her achievements and she and many others inspires me to continue to serve.
Nadine also helped me see how critical support systems are for children as they grow, and that young people can change the world, if they’re given the tools and the opportunity to do so. So when in 2006 I was introduced to City Year South Africa, which had launched in 2005 with the support of then President Mandela and President Clinton from the US, I was deeply inspired by what they were trying to do. City Year was founded in the US by two college-roommates, who wanted to bring together diverse young people to address the nation’s most pressing problems through community service. They wore iconic red jackets and Timberland boots, and worked in schools and communities around Johannesburg, running afterschool programs, service events to improve community facilities, and much more.
We needed City Year in South Africa. As we worked to move past the legacy of apartheid, the red jacket united us on the common ground of service, where we broke down long standing barriers– social, racial, tribal, and economic. We learned from each other, and from the children we worked with every day. I served as a corps member at Berea Primary School, helping learners with their school work and social-emotional learning. That year, one of my learners gave me a card that said, “I love you, because you love me.” Those simple words made me realize the meaning of “Ubuntu” - that my humanity is tied to yours. In that moment, he felt worthy and loved, simply because I had supported and cared for him, but he didn’t know that he meant more to me, that he allowed me into his space and to be a part of his journey.
After my service year finished, I stayed on to become a staff member at City Year South Africa, developing my own leadership skills as I focused on the development of the corps and staff on my team. Last year, I was appointed Executive Director. As the first ever alumni in this role, I was humbled and honored to have the opportunity to lead the organization that had such a deep and meaningful impact on my life, and more importantly, I am able to make a “City Year” possible for other young people.
As we mark City Year South Africa’s 10th anniversary this year, I am proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish since 2005 – nearly 1,700 alumni and more than a million hours of service to South Africa. And yet, I feel overwhelmed at times by the growing challenges our young people continue to face. Nearly one-third of the 10 million South African youth between 15 and 24 are not in education, employment or training, with black and coloured youth disproportionately affected. But like the service leaders who wear their jackets into schools every day, I believe that City Year is part of the solution to change those statistics.
Every day, our service leaders wake up early and head to schools all across Gauteng. There they run after-school programmes and serve as tutors and mentors to learners in school – but, as I know from my own experience with Nadine, they’re also doing much more. They’re building powerful near-peer relationships with learners that can help get them to school, and keep them coming back. They see learners who are struggling and help them find ways to succeed, working in partnership with their teachers and schools.
Throughout their year, service leaders receive invaluable leadership development and training opportunities that leave them better prepared for the world of work. This double bottom line impact – changing the lives of students and service leaders simultaneously through service – is how we can begin to move the needle on South Africa’s education challenge.
As we move past this milestone and into the work of our next 10 years, I find myself again thinking of the heroes I have known in our community and country and the amazing donors and sponsors that make a “City Year” possible for young people. I want, and have always wanted, to do my part to make South Africa better for those who come after me. I see that same desire in each and every young person who puts on their City Year red jacket. Together, we are inspiring new heroes, unlocking the potential of our youth, and working to build a stronger South Africa for us all.