It’s hard to think that last week at this time I was enjoying a lazy Sunday afternoon with my family. Fortunately, though I’ve only been in Port Elizabeth for two days, it already feels like home. It was hard for me to picture what my experience here would be like. It’s one thing to dream about things and another for them to become reality. I had no idea where I would be staying, who I would be working with, the culture around me, or how successful I would be in making an impact on this community. Those uncertainties have since been filled with a sense of gratitude, confidence, and excitement for the months to come.
I arrived on Saturday afternoon with four other new volunteers (we have dubbed ourselves “The New Kids on the Block”). After a short introduction to our hosts, we were taken to the United Through Sport House in Newton Park, Port Elizabeth. The UTS house is both an office and volunteer accommodation, and has a homey, summer-camp vibe that immediately made me feel welcome. There were about twenty other volunteers there, some who had been here for a few months already. They hailed from so many different countries—Germany, Switzerland, Scotland, and the U.K (out of the group, only four of us were American!). I am really excited that I have the opportunity to not only learn about South African culture, but work alongside others from all around the world. After settling into our rooms, we enjoyed a traditional braii, or South African barbecue, complete with lamb, chicken, and sausages.
The past two days we have spent getting ourselves oriented with each other, United Through Sport, South African culture, and the Port Elizabeth community. United Through Sport was started in South Africa ten years ago with the goal of empowering communities through holistically developing children through both sports coaching and academic mentoring. Each year, over 200 volunteers partner with United Through Sport and reach over 18,000 children. Traditionally, children who are part of UTS come from impoverished communities, with only about 3% ever having the opportunity to obtain a higher education. Through UTS, these children have the opportunity to learn different sports (which are not taught in SA schools) and life skills that go along with them, such as teamwork, leadership, and respect. In addition, they are also paired with academic mentors who help them feel more confident in the classroom.
Through this Mass Participation Programme, children can then further be selected to go through the Junior and Senior School of Excellence, which enable them to attend better quality schools, increasing their potential to go to university by over 80 percent. This could mean everything for a child who has never thought that they would have an opportunity to become more than their surroundings. UTS has partnered with many different schools in the Port Elizabeth community and in just a decade has impacted the lives of so many volunteers, children, and their families. I could not be more excited to help this organization move one more step forward in their mission.
After orientation on Monday, we had the opportunity to stop at Summerstrand, the market alongside the beach. I ended up picking up a few souvenirs (already!) and having a chance to chat with the locals. Port Elizabeth is known as “The Friendly City” and it is well deserving of that name. I found myself laughing and joking with people I had only just met.
Today’s orientation was focused more on developing life skills and coaching ability. I had no idea that the organization that I was volunteering with was so centered on sport, but I can already see the value in it and the opportunities I will have to grow personally. For example, today we had to come up with a coaching lesson plan, and we were able to incorporate different learning opportunities through the different interactions. As someone who has never considered myself athletic, I was a little apprehensive at first, but drew on my experiences of playing soccer at school and remembering when I was a little kid in order to come up with some fun exercises. I will be coaching soccer each Monday and Friday, and I am really excited to grow in that aspect. The middle of the week will be devoted to teaching at various schools, followed by mentorship/life skills/tutoring at the Junior and Senior Schools of Excellence.
We also had the opportunity to tour the townships today (the small communities around Port Elizabeth in which we will be working). To say that it was eye-opening would probably be an understatement. I think that people have so many different ideas of what poverty looks like, especially in Africa. The most surprising thing to me is that poverty was in pockets all over a relatively well-developed city. This reinforced the lesson that I am learning: sometimes an opportunity to help is a lot closer than you think. Whether I’m in South Africa, Nashville, or Wisconsin, there are people who are hurting everywhere. But where people are hurting, there is an opportunity to help. An opportunity to give somebody the chance to take control of their lives. An opportunity to be the change we wish to see in the world.
Tomorrow is our first day on the field...literally. I could not be more excited to get to work. The fear and worry that I initially had has been replaced with joy and confidence.
Thank you for your prayers and love. I am excited to share them tomorrow and the rest of this trip.