Camp Sizani: opening the door to life skills

SOUTH AFRICA: Camp Sizani: opening the door to life skills


? ?IRIN

The boys are vulnerable children from Soweto

MAGALIESBURG, 17 Aug 2005 (PLUSNEWS) - Under a clear blue sky, a snake of young boys holding each other by the waist winds its way around an empty swimming pool, dancing and stamping their feet in unison to the drums.

The boys, ranging in age from about nine to 12, are at Camp Sizani in the Magalies Mountains, about 120 km from South Africa's capital, Pretoria.

They are vulnerable children from Soweto near Johannesburg, the country's largest township, whose parents have died of AIDS-related illnesses, or are sick, unemployed, dysfunctional or just too poor to care for them properly.

At Camp Sizani, based on the United States "summer camp" model and run by HIVSA, the psychosocial support group of the Perinatal HIV Research Unit at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, the children go on a 10-day crash course on how to survive in a world that has thus far brought them mostly pain and disappointment.

Most of the 150 boys here have their first introduction to extramural activities like sports, drama, arts and crafts. More importantly, it's an opportunity for them to eat three meals a day.

"The first day I came here I was very upset," said American Sassy Kohlmeyer, who assists at camps in other parts of the world while her children are in a holiday camp at home. "I've never seen children eat like these kids - they're hungry."

Eight times a year, groups of children - often without money, role models or adults to look after them - are taken into a natural environment where camp counsellors try to boost their self-esteem by teaching them how to take care of themselves. In the words of camp director Michelle Schorn, "What we offer them here is a giant support group."

Every minute of the day is crammed with activities: a few hundred metres from the drumming and dancing, a basketball lesson is in session; further away, a group is learning how to make food gardens, and those who are interested will get help growing vegetables at home.

Another group, sitting in a huge semi-circle in a large warehouse-like building, discusses sexuality with a counsellor or 'vocheli', a made-up word the children like; in the room next door, others are making picture frames from cardboard, decorating the borders with coloured sand and filling them temporarily with pictures of glossy magazine models, which they will later replace with pictures of family members.

It's only day three and most of the children are still too shy to talk, but bespectacled Tebogo Modise, 12, from Dobsonville, musters some courage: "It's nice here because we play games and we exercise, he said. "And you get to make friends. I've made five friends already." Modise, an orphan who says his mother died of asthma, lives with his aunt and cousin.

"When we first started, we had a few children who had lost one parent; a few who were HIV-positive or whose parents were HIV-positive - we were battling to find those from child-headed households. Now, one year later, we could easily take 500 children from child-headed households - they are growing on a daily basis," commented Schorn.

Many children arrive without basics like toothbrushes, clothes and shoes, and there is a run-around to make sure everyone has the necessities.

The initiative is funded by World Camps Inc and the Elton John AIDS Foundation fund. Although Camp Sizani, which HIVSA is hoping to buy, can accommodate 450 children, there are only enough funds available to take 150 children at a time.

It costs US $343 per child for 10 days, which covers counsellor training, equipment, clothes, board and lodging. The children sleep in bunk beds in cabins, along with three 'vochelis' per cabin.

The vochelis are volunteers, either unemployed youth or students, who undergo special training. Schorn said it was easy for the counsellors to play 'good parents', as it was only for a short period.

Children are given a full life-skills programme covering topics such as puberty, sexuality, HIV/AIDS, ARV adherence and pregnancy.

Schorn noted that security at the camp was critical, as many of the children had been molested, either by older boys or adults.

Landy Coleman, 24, a human movement sciences student who has worked in holiday camps in the United States, told PlusNews: "It's important for the kids to get to know themselves better. They don't usually get stimulated in this way. We try in a short time to give them activities to help them learn about themselves and find out what their skills and talents are."

Schorn observed, "On about day eight or nine, the children begin to get upset about going home; many start crying in the bus - they say, 'no-one has shouted at us for 10 days'."

The children are not forgotten once camp is over. A Saturday club called Soul Buddies, at Giyani Primary School in Diepkloof, Soweto, where similar activities take place and skills are refreshed, brings continuity to the programme. According to Schorn, "We started off with two hours on a Saturday, but the children wouldn't go home."

[ENDS]


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