Maria Lenong sits on a chair inside her shack in Sebokeng, her ginger cat on her lap. The shack is constructed of corrugated iron and has three tiny rooms: a miniscule sitting room, a cluttered kitchen and a sleeping area. Her grandson, Thabo, is on his way home from school.
Thabo, currently in grade 10 at the local school, is one of the children being supported by Starfish and Matshidiso is his care-worker.
“He is an orphan and Maria cares for him,” explains Matshidiso. “But they need significant help. Like all 450 children who visit the centre, he is given a daily hot meal after school, but my job is to see to his real needs, which are his education outside school and issues related to being a teenage orphan in an environment where crime, drugs and negative peer pressure are rife. He is one of 32 kids currently under my care.”
That sounds like a lot for a young girl. “It’s OK. I manage. I have received training through Starfish which taught me to be a care-giver. Now I am able to help these children properly. It is very rewarding and I am able to earn a small stipend at the same time. I can really relate to these kids as I had similar problems growing up. Empathy is essential.”
How has Thabo progressed under her care? “It’s been great. Initially, as you would expect, he was very withdrawn, being an orphan. Stigma in these communities is still a big problem, but we have worked through all his issues over the years and now he is far better adjusted and confident. The important thing is that he is able to resist the temptations out there: peer pressure to engage in drugs and crime. Together we are getting there.”
A short while later, Thabo arrives. He is wearing a smart black T-shirt and black shorts. Soccer seems to be on the agenda for later today. That is normal for a township boy whose heroes are drawn from the ranks of Bafana Bafana and Kaiser Chiefs. But, for now, it’s homework time.
“We look after 450 Thabos,” says Thandi. “Each one of them has special needs. Thanks to Starfish, we are offering a real service, a place of hope where there was previously just desperation. Every day has its challenges, but we move forward. I just wish we had more money and more resources to look after more children.”
Matshidiso and Thabo go into a room to do some homework. Soccer in the street will come later. Another day is coming to an end.