The boy whose wisdom and empathy was way beyond his years
But this week his memory was brought to life with the launch of his own project, Hugo’s Greenhood – a first-of-its-kind pilot project aimed at uplifting the impoverished lives of suburban refuse recyclers. His goal was also to ensure people got waste management education to spread his project to other parts of the country.
“Hugo’s Greenhood was all set up before his death, we are all fulfilling his plan and making sure it happens,” his mother Nicole said.
Hugo envisioned this project from inception and worked tirelessly on it. He died a few days after he was due to have his first corporate sponsorship meeting. All the groundwork had been laid.
On Tuesday, hundreds of Yeshiva College pupils gathered on the same sports field on which his tragic accident happened, to paint dustbins. These colourful, personalised bins will go home with the pupils on Sunday after the official Hugo’s Greenhood launch. They will be used to collect plastic for recycling.
The Paluch family and the Yeshiva College community in conjunction with HAWT – Holystic Waste Approach Technology – will continue the legacy of Hugo’s waste management initiative. The recyclers will use the plastic collected by the pupils and will in turn receive money from HAWT. Hugo planned to ensure the recyclers had sustainable jobs that would afford them the dignity they deserve.
Hugo’s freak accident on May 26 on the Yeshiva College sports field during break, ripped the community apart. It left his parents Nicole and Dov bereft. Their world was changed forever when the soccer goal posts he was leaning against became dislodged.
But their pain is eased by the community’s support of the Hugo Greenwood project – which aims to uplift the lives of at least 26 refuse recyclers – men Hugo befriended and cared for.
He became interested in their lives last year after seeing them often in his neighbourhood. These are some of the men you see daily lugging impossibly heavy trolleys of waste through the streets of Johannesburg. It takes them up to a week to collect about 400 kilograms of plastics and other recyclables. For this they receive a meagre amount between R400-R750. Their day starts before sunrise after a night sleeping on pavements in all weather conditions.
From a very early age Hugo was a “fanatical fundraiser” said his mother, and a champion of the poor. If Hugo could help a person in need, he would. If he couldn’t, he’d make a plan.
“He was passionate about waste management and about the refuse recyclers in his community,” she said.
He became unstoppable in his quest to help improve their lives, setting up innovative fundraising schemes and making sure they received a hot meal each Wednesday when they were spotted in his neck of the woods.
“Hugo was about kindness; he wanted everyone to be okay and to be happy; he couldn’t bear to see anyone suffer; he needed to fix it,” said Nicole.
The recyclers walk dozens of kilometres a day in search of discarded rubbish from suburban homes all over the city.
According to Hugo’s grandmother, Sharon Sklarchik, or “Mam Thandeka” as she is affectionately known to the recyclers, it broke Hugo’s heart to hear their stories of struggle.
Sharon played a vital role in Hugo’s life, always encouraging him to question and be aware of those less fortunate. He took her words to heart and to another level.
“He did not see them as poor, faceless, nameless rubble removers. He saw them as people with life stories,” she said. He loved them and he embraced them.
This week a few of the 26-odd recyclers who knew Hugo, spoke to the SA Jewish Report about the impact he had on their lives.
“He was a boy but he was my leader,” said Thomas Mbatha, “He showed me so many things, he opened my eyes. He told us never to give up. Every word that came out of his mouth made sense.”
Mlungisi Mabaso agreed: “He made us have hope, he was very motivating. His dream was to change our lives – and he did.”
Sylvester Khumalo: “He was like a brother to us, like family. For Christmas last year he gave each of us R870; we were so happy. He wrote a card with our name. He wanted us to have good things, a good job, a good life. Hugo was a nice guy, he wanted to know about us, everything about our lives, our struggles.”
Didi Makotsane: “We could not believe Hugo was a boy; to us he was an elder. Hugo united us as a group. Now we stick together and make jokes. There is no fighting.”
Hugo turned 14 the day before he passed away, a year to the day of his barmitzvah, this his mother believes is significant. “Nothing about his death was random,” she said,
His untimely death has had a far-reaching impact. There is even a synagogue in Israel that has since been named after him. Dozens of local and international charity drives and community initiatives, all in his name, have been set up.
Some include Hugo’s Heroes, a first-aid youth empowerment programme on school campuses, Hugo’s Warmth, Hugo’s coat drives, Hugo’s blanket drives, Huggies for Hugo, for poor new mothers in need of supplies, the list is long.
In a moving tribute to the memory of Hugo, Rabbi Leron Bernstein, managing director of Yeshiva College Schools said: “People near and far have been touched and moved – inspired to live lives imbued with more meaning, filled with increased kindness, chesed (charity), tolerance, sensitivity, unity and love – the world Hugo was creating through his actions every day on this earth.”
Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein described Hugo as a talented young leader, “an activist for good” who worked on projects to make the world a better place.
Sharon said her grandson was born “with a wide lens on the world.
“He saw things that others didn’t see and he took notice of the unnoticed. A hot lunch was never enough for Hugo; he wanted more. Hugo was a lateral thinker. He threw the box away, never mind thought out of the box,” she said.
“The inspiration is Hugo. I thought I was his tutor, but he was my mentor… All we want to do is to ensure we carry out his dream.”
In memory of Hugo, Yeshiva College in collaboration with the Hamaor Centre, published a Torah journal, titled “One Who Walks With Purity” which contains very moving, spiritual messages and articles of kindness and charity written by renowned Torah scholars and rabbonim, both locally and abroad. The book’s aim is to inspire people to continue Hugo’s legacy and fulfil his ultimate message of “seeing every individual and treating them with respect,” says Hugo’s father, Dov.
In it, Bernstein and the rosh (head) of Yeshiva, Rabbi Avraham Tanzer, write: “Hugo walked this world with a humility, hopeful optimism and tenacity that was undefeatable. His face shone with a purity that was always other-worldly and with this strength, he unapologetically cared for others at every opportunity that he found…
“The next steps he takes in this world are now ours… It is up to us to take those strides to fulfil his unfinished legacy.”