Ons Plek: Helping Female Street Children Find Their Place
In April we celebrated International Day for Street Children, and its occurrence got me thinking: Why do we need a special day to remind us to recognise the potential in every street child – to see their humanity and to do what we can to help? Especially in a South Africa where we encounter homeless youth daily, at robots, on street corners, hanging outside bars and shopping malls. Surely we don’t need reminding? Surely we all think about our destitute youngsters every single day?
But the truth is, we don’t. We don’t because it’s too painful, too uncomfortable to let our minds go there.
It’s just easier to switch that part of us off, to turn a blind eye and opt for ignorance, to mask guilt and despair as irritation. We do so because if we didn’t, we wouldn’t make the drive from home to work without breaking down. To save ourselves, we stop seeing them – the little ones who so desperately need us – and if we do see them, we try to soften our own shame by shoving a few coins in their hands.
It’s an understandable approach, but it’s not even vaguely helpful.
A Place of Belonging
Thank goodness, then, for the people out there who’ve kept their eyes open. People like the folk behind Cape Town-based NPO Ons Plek, which is named as such because it gives a place of belonging – “our place” – to young girls who’ve lived, worked or begged on the streets of the Mother City.
Established in 1988, the organisation runs several different projects, one aimed at therapeutic intake, stabilisation and assessment, another aimed at long-term treatment and support, and yet another aimed at early intervention and prevention in at-risk communities. The programme’s residential care model does wonders for the lives of the young resident ladies by giving them not only food, shelter, clothing, structure and routine but also love, time, guidance and a space for emotional and psychological healing through weekly counselling.
Ons Plek runs a bridging school for those girls who are not yet ready for formal schooling and is committed to finding suitable educational and vocational options for residents, based on their developmental level. It also focuses heavily on skills development and nurturing confidence and self-reliance. In the words of the NPO staff:
“We empower the girls for life by instilling a sense of responsibility for themselves.”
Community reintegration and family reunification (where appropriate) are top priorities for the initiative. To help in this department, the centre teaches the children how to better listen and express themselves, to manage anger and practice tolerance. It also helps them to gain a better understanding of family dynamics and problems so that they can manage their own roles and responses more effectively.
The Story of Yoliswa
The question that rises in many of our minds when we read about NPOs like Ons Plek is, how sustainable is the change? Do initiatives like this save lives in the long-run? The answer in this case is a resounding yes.
The NPO has a reputation for re-placing 95% of the children back in their communities on a long-term basis.
The impact of the organisation, however, is best communicated and made most tangible through its various individual success stories.
Take Yoliswa, for example. This young lady was 12 years old when she fled her home in Atlantis to get away from a life of poverty and a mother who drank too heavily. She and two friends hitchhiked to Cape Town and ended up staying with a young boy that they met in Philippi and his father. That didn’t last long, though, and before they knew it, they were back on the streets. “We strolled around for about three months and stole and begged for food,” she recalls.
Yoliswa’s life changed when she heard about Ons Plek. She headed there with her friends, and although she subsequently lost touch with them, she remained at the centre into adulthood, thriving thanks to the support and care she received. Soon after arriving, she was persuaded to write her Grade 6 exams and went on to matriculate seven years later. By 21, Yoliswa was a successful, functioning member of society, having earned a diploma in nursing.
How Can You Help?
If you’re eager to support a child like Yoliswa, where do you start? How do you assist in a way that’s actually sustainable? Not by giving children money, or even goods, says the Western Cape Street Children’s Forum.
“Encouraging begging, by giving directly to children, brings children onto the street, encourages substance abuse and places vulnerable children at risk. It also undermines all efforts to help high-risk children. We must not give anything to children that supports them being on the street.”
Ons Plek shares the tragic story of another young girl who resisted help and refused to go back to school because she found it easier to beg and make money on the streets than to do homework and sit behind books all day. As begging was a lucrative activity for her, she struggled to grasp how or why an education could help her. Today, she’s still on the streets, but as she’s no longer a sweet little child, she finds it harder to get people to give.
The point is, while many of us need to learn to give more, we also need to learn to give in ways that don’t perpetuate unhealthy behaviours. The best way to assist homeless children in need is to support the NPOs that support them. In the case of Ons Plek, you can help by offering funding, volunteering your time or donating items (like school clothes and toiletries) that the centre needs – you’ll find a comprehensive wish list on its website.
Otherwise, you can always contact us at Brownie Points to find out more about how you can help South Africa’s street children and other little ones in need.
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