It all began in a classroom at the Mfuleni ECD in September 2012. Meeting with the Early Childhood Development Forum was daunting for me and for them. I asked for volunteers to join our Starting Chance Project. I told them I could promise them nothing but my passion and heart for children. Four plucky principals put up their hands to join us and so started our journey with Poulina, principal of Little Stars.
Her school was also her home – a ramshackle RDP house with severe leaks, asbestos roof, damp walls. She had started with 4 children driven by a desire to help get the children off the streets and provide shelter, food and an education. She herself had to had to leave school in Grade 7, was forced by the economy and politics of the time to work in the fields on a farm near Phillipi. Undaunted and driven by her passion for children, she begged the college to allow her to study even though she didn’t have the school leavers certificate. By the time we met Poulina, she already had Level 4 – in itself a remarkable feat. But more than that she had passion, faith and a determination that things would change for these children. We watched in horror as her school filled up with winter rain in June 2013, how children sat in damp cold conditions, suffering from pneumonia and bronchitis. But despite this – there was a ready smile when we visited and beaming little faces touched our hands and invited us to play with them.
And then … along came Gill Smith from Home Choice and we saw a glimmer of hope. Gill saw the plight Poulina and her children were in and together with the trustees of Home Choice Development Trust, pledged the money to build her a new school. The excitement was tangible but the heartache was far from over. The process was long and tortuous as we found our way through rezoning, building plans, community accreditation and the rest. At last in December 2014, we opened Little Stars amidst tears of joy and the belief that finally these children were indeed on their Starting Chance journey towards a better education.
The process to ensure that the school was registered with the Department of Social Development was tedious, long winded and required an inordinate amount of tenacity. It was extremely fortuitous that Lo Dagerman, our Swedish volunteer undertook to hold Poulina’s hand. We couldn’t have done it without her. Almost a year later, the registration was successful and Little Stars was now in a position to apply for subsidies from the Department. This is a game changer for these little schools – the process requires patience, staying power and dogged determination. Lo devoted her time and in Feb 2016, we submitted the application.
At last Poulina got notification that the official DSD visit to evaluate her school and decide whether it was eligible was set for 25th and 26th July 2016. It was hugely stressful for her. Our field worker stayed with her the entire day on 25th July and well into the evening. Frantic phone calls came our way: “We have to have organogram of the staff in colour – what is an organogram?” “We need financials for 2012 but they have been stolen in the move.” Finally it seemed all was set for the final day. Ian was there to meet Sipho, the DSD representative – he was delightful. All was going well.But we had underestimated the Cape winter and unhelpful neighbours. It was one of the wettest days we have had in Cape Town for years. Suddenly I got a whispered desperate call from Noms, our field worker, “Ali – it’s a disaster – you have to come.” We dropped everything and rushed to Little Stars. Water was everywhere – it had flooded the room where the babies were and the kitchen and it was seeping to the other classrooms. Ian checked outside. The neighbours had shored the water away from their property and the drains could not cope with the volume of rain water. In the freezing cold and rain, Ian and our Swiss intern, cleared the drains and got the water to flow away from the building. Poulina’s teachers mopped and cleaned. Poulina, bare footed and in tears tried to calm the children. Our hearts sank. Would this jeopardize her chances of the subsidy. Was all lost? We could do nothing but wait.
At 3 o’clock on Thursday 28 July 2016, I got the phone call I had been waiting and praying for since Jan 2013. “Ali – my lovey, They gave me the ok for my subsidy.” Her voice was shaking with emotion and joy. At last Little Stars is on its way to give the children and staff a better start for a better future.