A labour of love and dedication, rich in rewards
“The project, now in its 16th year, is an example of community partnerships,” he said, describing how, in 1998, an Orange Grove Primary School teacher Brenda Solomon, spoke to a Second Innings gathering, about the huge classes and poor literacy of children in her school.
“After that talk, a group of people said: ‘How can we help?’ In this project, we seek to harness the power of volunteers who are retired.
“We trained 12 volunteers to go into three schools to work with children. And it worked. Today there are over 70 volunteers, in active participation in 12 schools, in and around Johannesburg.
“The aim of the programme is to enrich language. We understand that by simply having a conversation with a child in English, even if English is that child’s second or third language, you assist in developing language skills.”
The second programme Wolberg spoke of, faces loss. “In 2005 our volunteers in the schools reported on increased incidence of loss. According to Unicef’s report in 2002, it was estimated that by 2015, 20 per cent of South African children would be orphaned.
“An HSRC study in 2005 estimated that there were over two million orphans in South Africa at the time,” he said, drawing attention to the increase of child-headed households in the country, run by children of 16 or younger.
From 2005, Wolberg began learning of unintended programme outcomes. “Suddenly we started hearing about relationships between participants: the development of life skills; the idea of what being a granny meant to the volunteers, and to the learners. We also learned it was fun for both volunteers and learners.
“We started understanding that the volunteers were not just supplying literacy skills, but emotional support. And the children were responding to that, and sometimes turning to the volunteers as a trusted adult in their lives.
“You’d be surprised as to what the children teach volunteers about giving, about customs; it’s a two way street.”
Of course the project is not without challenges encountered in all kinds of contexts, from school rules to time constraints, he points out. The elderliness of the volunteers points at frailty and inconsistency. The work, particularly insofar as the bereavement programme goes, is not easy. It can be overwhelming.
But the pros outweigh the cons every time. The bereavement programme is also an opporrunity to become involved in the HIV/Aids epidemic, as well as incurring a sense of mastery in life that loss imposes on them.
“The energy from this project is phenomenal,” adds Wolberg. “The children are fascinated with the texture of ageing hair and skin. They love hugs. There is no black and white: just children and gogos.”