This past week we said goodbye to the teachers and children of our crèches. While I knew that leaving wouldn’t be easy, I was underprepared for how much it would hit my heart.
One of the first things I noticed upon my initial arrival at my crèches was the selection of books available. Of the minimal books featuring humans, almost all of the characters were white. For a school where all of the children and staff are of color in a community in which one rarely sees white people. As a parting gift, I brought various books featuring black characters. Immediately upon bringing out the first book, one of the girls gasped, “Look! It’s me!” as she pointed to a picture of two black children on the cover. Another boy came up. She exclaimed, “It’s me and you!” They smiled and touched the picture and were excited to go through the pages before I read to the class. After reading the book, I gave the children a chance to look through the pages. They all gathered in a circle around the book and pointed to each picture exclaiming, “This one’s me!” as they turned through the pages over and over again.
While I know that representation is important, it really put into perspective how much more engaged a child can be in their learning when they feel seen and valued. I had never before seen the children so interested in books until that day.
As I leave, I hope that I’ve made a lasting positive impact on not only the children, but also the teachers here in Vrygrond. Being an early childhood educator can be grueling, even at home in the U.S. This is the case even moreso here in Vrygrond, where the teacher:child ratio is lower. One of the teachers mentioned to me while we were saying our goodbyes that she had been feeling overwhelmed and burnt out as a teacher lately, but that my presence in the classroom brought a new energy and recentered her. Some days it felt like I wasn’t able to do enough, but it is so fulfilling to know that sometimes even just bringing fresh perspective and positivity can make a world of difference. Even though I can’t stay in the classroom with the kids, I know that I can be there for them, in some sense, by leaving the teachers feeling rejuvenated.
When I first started at the little sunshine crèche teacher Megan was a bit intimidating. She was very shy and had a serious demeanor. But as the weeks went on she and I started to get to know each other more and more. She started to ask to collaborate together on coming up with new ideas for classroom activities.She has surprised me in so many ways and is always open to new things.
In my time at little sunshine I’ve also have gotten really close to teacher annita. She is the teacher for the 2-3 year old class. There have been times where we all have shared ideas and came up with fun stories to tell both classrooms. I feel so fortunate have gotten to know these two amazing women. They became more than just people I work with, they became my friends.
Dear Vrygrond, The teachers, The children and True North,
My deepest gratitude to every experience I have had during my stay here. I have watched myself grow through my reestablished relationships, my new friends, and the hard work we have all displayed in our service to others. I am walking away with a full heart knowing that seeds have been planted. The growth that may come from these last two months may not be seen but they are felt. Sometimes, I find myself walking into life with expectations. It’s my time spent here that helps me realize that living in the moment and being present with people you love creates unimaginable and authentic experiences that surpass my expectations. Watching the growth of both of my creches has shown me that taking small steps can lead to the future that you want to see. What’s different about Vrygrond is that through struggle, resilience, and perseverance creates the most beautiful type of happiness…which comes from within yourself. The magic and beauty I have seen and felt cannot be put into words but just know that a piece of each person I have met here is coming home with me. I know upon my return one day, I will see greater things for Vrygrond.
This year I worked in the classroom with teacher Wendy. She has a class of about 30 3-4 year olds. She has managed to teach lessons with her class, maintain attention from her class, and follow the schedule so they get enough outdoor play before nap. I spent the first few weeks sitting back and observing her and I just want to salute her. She goes to college once a week and also has two kids at home. She shows up everyday and does a wonderful job educating her class. I can resonate with her having just finished school and working full time. She is an inspiration to me. I am so humbled watching her navigate the dynamics of her classroom and doing so with ease. I am going to miss her so much but I am so glad I had the opportunity to learn from her.
Candice, the principal at In His Footsteps, and I had a great conversation about the universal light in children. Just watching children’s minds work though challenges that are HUGE in their world. It is amazing to see them overcome those things and continue on without holding a grudge or animosity towards another, as if it never happened. We were talking about how important it is to study the children we work with. They give us the knowledge on how to interact with them and understand their strengths. Their strengths that actually help us in the classroom. She mentioned one student who was very good about reminding her about the routine. Or another student who was ready to help her bring the bowls back to the kitchen after breakfast. Children are the glimpse into our most pure state of humanity. They hold the same organic qualities regardless if you are in a classroom in San Francisco or in a community in South Africa. It really is simple: express your feelings, work though them, and continue on with love.
As I was standing back and observing the children during outside free play, I had a little bit of an “ah-ha” moment where I really felt the beauty of the work we do, myself and all teachers in the world. It is that wonderful curiosity and pure expression of love that happens during learning. When a child is simply engaging with their environment, they are unknowingly gaining context for the world. When the teacher steps in with intention, there can be opportunities to piece the child’s context together.
I spent one morning outside with a group of children in a sand pit. It was decided we were in a taxi (with 3 drivers), driving to the grocery store. When we got to the store they told me to get out to “fetch another taxi” because I wanted to go to the beach. When my new taxi arrived we drove to the beach and all of the drivers were yelling at me to get out of the taxi. I asked them if they wanted to tell me about the beach because I had never been there before. All at once they began naming the things they have seen at their trips to the beach (Vrygrond is very close to the beach). I heard them telling me about the seagulls, and the colorful changing rooms on the sand. They gave me a demonstration of how sharks like to use their teeth to eat fish. The beauty in this taxi ride was that there were children who are normally in their own space of play, sometimes due to language barriers, joining the conversation. After I got out of the taxi, the children who were keeping to themselves were inside the taxi! (This time heading back to the grocery store)
It’s safe to say that these two months have flown by so quick! My time at the crèches has been incredible and I cannot begin to describe how full my heart has felt from this experience. My Come One Come All family and Little Lambs family have welcomed me into their learning communities with open arms and love which has been the greatest pleasure.
As I leave South Africa I am taking many memories, learning experiences, and life lessons back to the states with me. But the most impactful being the relationships I have made with the teachers, and children of the township. I have learned the most from the people I have interacted with and I cannot be more grateful for their wisdom, positivity and faith as they go through life. I am forever changed from this amazing opportunity 🙂 – Courtney Ockershausen
In honor of Nelson Mandela, the community is asked to provide 67 minutes of service on the 18th of July for the 67 years Mandela dedicated to fighting for social justice. In honor of such an incredible man, I dedicated my day of service to sharing my knowledge of Mandela’s work in the crèche and painting the community center in Vrygrond.
While in the crèches we discussed who Mandela was and how he fought for equal rights. Students learned the history of South Africa, the importance of fairness and explored art by creating a South African Flag with cotton balls and paint. Throughout the day, the children continued to “Make the circle bigger, Mandela is the winner!”
Later I joined members from the Sozo organization in creating a mural in the Vrygrond community center. The teams worked together to create an image that represented the life in the township by incorporating images of the diversity, the Ubuntu ship and houses. Together we shared this experience of laughter, happiness, dancing, singing and painting. We hope the mural brings the community just as much joy as we had creating it.