The second RAVN Host Organisation Revisited Prize winner, Brad Timms, reflects on his return to Eco Children in South Africa in July.
When my 12-month volunteer assignment with Eco Children in Hoedspruit, Limpopo Province of South Africa finished in July 2016, I left with mixed feelings – happiness that my placement had worked out so well, excitement about what was ahead, and sentimentality about leaving a place that had given me some unforgettable life experiences.
But I promised myself and my colleagues that I would stay connected to them and their work and would return as soon as I could. That proved harder than I’d anticipated as I became consumed with finding a new job and a place to live and re-establishing my life in Sydney.
Just a few months after I came home, the RAVN Host Organisation Revisited Prize was announced and it inspired me to apply and pitch at the Returned Australian Volunteer Network (RAVN) conference in Melbourne in December 2016. Although I dread public speaking, I kept in mind the impact the grant could have and the power of positive thinking got me through the pitch.
The $5,000 grant was used to purchase educational materials for a school library, in an area where less than five per cent of schools have this essential learning resource. Poor literacy is a huge issue in South Africa and there is a strong link between literacy, employment and well-being in later life. In addition to increasing reading literacy, a library has the power to inspire a lifelong love of learning.
In my pitch I committed to raising funds to match the grant, providing learning resources for another school library and thereby doubling the impact, and thanks to my generous friends, family and colleagues I was able to raise the funds within a few weeks.
Returning to Hoedspruit was a strange experience, with my senses attuned to the vast contrast to Sydney, but at the same time finding it so familiar. My former boss, Corné Havenga, welcomed me ‘home’ and treated me as a family member, and many of the bursary students that Eco Children supported greeted me with beaming smiles and warm hugs.
It was incredibly gratifying to see some of the projects that I helped obtain funding for had been completed, including a new kitchen and environmental toilets at Mahlathi Primary, and a refurbished kitchen and environmental toilets at Hloaia. A new school – Mphaku – had just been adopted by Eco Children and a new eco village developed with the help of the Classic Wallabies Indigenous Exchange volunteers. I had the privilege of attending the opening ceremony and witnessing the Mphaku community’s happiness and sincere gratitude for the time, money and passion invested in the school. Once again I realised the true sense of community and was moved by the chaotic joy that these ceremonies elicit.
One of the highlights of the brief trip was going to Hloaia Primary School and meeting the Principal, Shemmy Mashego, to officially handover the books that were purchased with the RAVN grant. Shemmy and the previous Principal, Joy, greeted me as an old friend and were clearly excited to see the much-needed library come to life. The impact on the school will be significant and the wider community will also benefit from the books that they will have access to.
At another of Eco Children’s adopted schools, Mahlathi, I met Patrick. He was around 20 years old and had few job prospects in an area where opportunities are few and far between and youth unemployment is around 50 per cent. Patrick volunteered to work at the school library and was busy cataloguing books when I arrived. He was softly spoken, humble but determined to get ahead, and he exemplified so many of the people that I met in the area – seeking any opportunity to break the cycle of poverty. I’m confident he will succeed.
Being able to return to South Africa was an opportunity to see the progress that had been made, but also to demonstrate to my colleagues and the organisation’s beneficiaries that my commitment went beyond my placement. I hope that other returned volunteers may have the same opportunity through the RAVN Host Organisation Revisited Prize and conversely, that representatives from host organisations may get an opportunity to come to Australia for their professional development and to share their stories about the impact Australian volunteers have had on their organisation.
Brad’s volunteer assignment was part of the Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program, an Australian Government initiative. The RAVN Host Organisation Revisited Prize was open to returned Australian volunteers who attended the inaugural RAVN conference in 2016.