Mary: Senior Reservations – started working at The Backpack 9 years ago.
After years of hearing about the Community Project, I finally got to go out out to Woodlands School in Heideveld. Situated in the poorer area of Heideveld where gangs operate openly I guess I should have felt scared. But as I was there for a good cause, the surroundings did not worry me.
It was after school hours and the grounds were quite deserted – except for the admin office and the day care centre. While we waited for Mario to come, we walked around looking at the vegetable garden that was created and tended with much love – which shows in the amount of vegetables that are growing. Then, in the day care centre I found a little girl sitting on the floor reading a book – I sat next to her asked her name and asked about the book she was reading. She was shy at first but then gave me the book to read to her. Soon there were kids coming from all sides – all with books for me to read, introducing themselves, introducing their shyer friends. I must say that I had difficulty in understanding the accent. Growing up in Cape Town, I would have thought that that would not be a problem, but it was!!
Eventually Mario arrived and we walked around the school grounds with . All the prefab classrooms were locked and barred. He took us to on large classroom that had previously been repaired but had the previous days been vandalised by a group of pupils .
The shocking thing was that these vandals were not scared to graffiti their names on the walls of the room they had destroyed. Almost as if they were saying – I destroyed the room. So. What are YOU going to do about this! Where many people – probably including myself, would say ‘We fixed this room so that you and your friends could have a place to learn and improve yourselves – and what to you do you mess it up so now you can without – I give up!’ Mario sees this as something totally different. He sees this as a cry for attention and although unbeknown to the vandals – a cry for help.
Then Mario took us to the library where a volunteer is currently catalogueing the many books that have been donated. This is a great project as books an reading open up a different world for children. Escapism, Knowledge and Entertainment as well as building up a vocabulary as they go along.
After that we went to the soccer field to watch the boys doing their after school sport. Mario arranges at great cost to himself to fetch and bring the kids from various areas to play soccer in the afternoons – keeping them off the streets, and out of trouble. And also encouraging future Bafana players. He talked to us at length about the children, their home lives, what he has done so far and what he aspires to do. I can’t help but admire the patience and staying power of this man. With so many set-backs, so many disappointments, he hangs in there trying again and again with the same child or bringing in new children and ideas to the project.
At the office we always say – Mario never returns his calls, never answers his e-mails. But now I know why. This is not where he wants to be – he wants to be in touch with the kids he is helping. It’s so easy for them to slip into or back into bad habits and bad company that he has to be there. There are temptations for these kids all around them. They are forced out of childhood way before their time! Mario wants to protect this. Fund raising is for other people – he is the Children’s person.
He reminds me a lot of David Wilkinson (Cross and the Switchblade) and his work on the gangs of New York. A book which I read many, many years ago which touched me incredibly. But it seemed so far away then. Now it’s on our doorstep.
I speak mostly about Mario as I did not get to meet the school kids this time. Hopefully next time I will get to meet them and try to give some help where I can. I can see that help is urgently needed by all that can offer their time.