When Roshan Galvaan first met "Roy" (not his real name) at his primary school in Lavender Hill, one of the poorest coloured neighbourhoods in the Western Cape, the grade six learner was withdrawn and sullen, hardly coping with his schoolwork and not interested in making any friends.
And given his home circumstances, the boy's standoffishness was not surprising. Roy lived with his parents in a dingy shack in the back of a neighbour's yard, and the family often had to resort to grubbing for food off the local rubbish dump.
Roy and some of his young schoolmates were among the first group of learners that Galvaan, a lecturer in the Department of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences' Division of Occupational Therapy, recruited in 1999 for a new "clinic" where her students would get some hands-on experience. Working with around ten kids in that first-year - the group has since grown to about 45 children from Zerilda Park and Levana Primary schools in Lavender Hill - Galvaan and the students developed the Facing Up - Creating Opportunities programme.
Run by volunteer Heather Wonnacott, a qualified occupational therapist, with students assisting with group work, Facing Up tries trying to help learners (some unruly, others about to drop out of school, a few like Roy who preferred to keep to themselves) deal with their environments.
"Some of the children were sometimes described in pathological terms, but it wasn't that - it was just that they didn't know a different way of being," said Galvaan. "So while they were behaving in ways that looked maladaptive, they were actually just trying to cope with the environment they were confronted with.
"When they got cross with someone, they would hit that person because that's what they saw others doing."
Incorporating the children's daily activities at school and home (such as learning and playing), the UCT students would at their weekly sessions sit down with the learners and find alternate ways - other than hitting or fighting, for example - to solve problems. "Occupational therapy is about using the children's 'occupations' to help them improve their physical, mental and social health," explains Galvaan. "In our programmes, we focus on promoting agency - the children's ability to take control of their lives, to make decisions and re-direct what they're doing, rather than relying on outside influences to steer them."
To do this, the children had to be shown that there are behavioural alternatives, and that, noted Galvaan, required resources and money. Investment consultants Abvest Associates came to the programme's aid, footing the bill for a camp arranged by the Division of Occupational Therapy, for one.
The camp, held at a Rotary's Happy Haven Camp in Glencairn for grade six, seven and eight learners, "consolidated the learners' capacity and skills to be able to realise their potential and play a proactive role in their own lives despite their restrictive environment which offers few opportunities", noted Galvaan.
"When you take them out of their usual environment into a different one, they're able to do things and gauge their occupations differently - the way they play, the kind of games they play," she added. "So they learn that they themselves can be someone different, different from the child who usually screams or who swears at others or who beats others up.
"They then begin to get a sense of themselves as being able to be different, and that possibly they can change who they are."
For Roy, as for others, the past years on Facing Up (even though he dropped out of the group for a while) have been a godsend, with his parents and teachers pointing to the change in the learner. At the camp, the erstwhile outsider was transformed into a leader, and where once he was reluctant to talk even on his own behalf, he now speaks up for others. Roy's improved domestic situation had a lot to do with the metamorphosis, but Galvaan would like to think that Facing Up also had a hand in Roy's about-face. "I don't think that change in Roy would have come without our programme.
"He's very positive when he speaks about the programme, and through it he's been able to find a place in his peer group."
Thanks to the sponsors
Facing Up would not have been able to do much of its work without the help of Abvest Associates, who funded their recent camp at Happy Haven. "Abvest wanted to contribute to this initiative because it shows these children that they can chose another way of life by exposing them to other alternatives and the power they have over their own futures," noted CEO John Winship. "Because this project is run by professionals and students who are serious about making a difference on the ground, where it matters, we knew that our contribution would be wisely used to make a meaningful impact in this neglected community." Facing Up extends its heartfelt thanks to Abvest for their support.
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