One of the most important gifts you can give to a child, is the gift of being known. I have watched people say they love a child, but when they do not really know the circumstances of their life, their needs, and their dreams- the impact of that love is questionable. When you know a child, your response to their need can be rooted in their reality instead of in your own desires. This is where real change happens.
I saw this type of engagement while spending time at Life Community Services in George, South Africa. This relatively small local NGO starts with providing the most basic need – food and then continues to engage the children intellectually and emotionally while getting to know their individual situations.
Each morning, dedicated staff sort through food donated by local grocers, and begin to prepare meals for 3,000 children. The meals are not elaborate, but are often the only nourishment the children receive during the week. In a country where 57% of the population lives below the poverty line, basic amenities are frequently scarce and food not taken for granted. The meals are distributed to the children at centers (often houses or shacks similar to the surrounding buildings) in the neighborhoods where the kids live. The only rules are that the children must show up on time and bring a utensil and a receptacle from which to eat their food.
These decentralized distribution centers allow for more personal interaction with the kids. It is easier for the teachers to know when a child has been missing for a few days. They know which children live in child-headed homes due to the high prevalence of HIV/AIDS. They know where and with whom the children live. This knowledge is powerful- it means that the staff at Life can walk with the children through difficult times, and lift them up whenever possible.
I have seen this dedication first hand. My aunt Sally, who helps run the Life Community Center, has poured her time and energy into all the children, including a young girl named Nissi whom she adopted a few years ago. Nissi’s mother, who lives in the neighboring township, struggles with many of the vices of poverty including alcoholism and substance abuse. When these issues led to Nissi being locked in their shack without food or water for days, and to violent abuse, the staff of LIFE stepped in to help. Unable to find Nissi an adequate safe home, my aunt made the decision to become her legal guardian. Nissi has been part of the family for several years now, and she is an utter joy. It has been amazing to see her learn and grow and become a star athlete at school.
Not every child faces the types of challenges that Nissi did but the hurdles that poverty creates are immense. Without really knowing the circumstances in which a child lives, we will never be able to resolve the root of the problems or provide timely help in an emergency. This is why the dedicated staff at Life make a huge difference.