"Friends of St. Martin de Porres" does much good
By founding the "Friends of St. Martin de Porres" project, Ligia da Silva followed the signs she saw and a special call. the "Friends of St. Martin de Porres" has grown over the years and today meets many needs of the local people living in the informal settlement of Barcelona, Daveyton, east of Johannesburg (South Africa).
The project focuses on providing education for pre-school children and youth and assisting the poor in a variety of ways
The project focuses on the one hand on providing education and other services for pre-school children and youth, and on the other hand assisting the poor in a variety of ways.
Two staff members, trained in lay counselling run support groups and provide counseling services in the area to people facing numerous challenges. These include unemployment, defaulting on HIV/AIDS medication, instances of suicide among the youth, high rents, the overall cost of living.
Most of the beneficiaries are women
The counsellors do house visits, and provide services often associated with professional social work and assist people to be open to receiving help. Most of the beneficiaries are women, most of them from Mozambique, others from Zimbabwe, Lesotho and eSwatini.
There are also some older men, and teenage boys who have dropped out of school for one or other reason, asking for food. “No one is chased away.” There are groups for sewing, knitting, vegetable gardening, bible study, literacy.
School holiday programmes offer a haven for children who make use of the equipment and toys
School holiday programmes offer a haven for children who make use of the equipment and toys the “Friends of St Martin de Porres” has acquired over the years.
The two counsellors, themselves beneficiaries of the project, recognize the desperation of people, “and have learnt”, they say, “to be humble in what we can offer.”
They receive a salary from the Catholic Women’s League in the Archdiocese of Johannesburg which has a long history of supporting social workers and counsellors working in grassroots communities.
Three pre-school classes provide education to children in preparation for their admission into grade one in local primary schools
Three pre-school classes, grades RRR, RR and R provide education to children in preparation for their admission into grade one in local primary schools. When the education project began some years ago, many children had not been accepted into local primary schools, often because of not having asylum documents necessary for admission. They were above the age of preschoolers.
That has changed now say the teachers employed by the “Friends of St Martin de Porres”. “Now the 60 pre-school children we work with in three classes are in their correct age groups, and school age children who leave us are admitted to primary schools, in some instances with a clinic card or an affidavit until the parents have been able to regularize documents.”
The teachers love their work, and have gained invaluable experience in the field
The teachers are not professionally trained, but love their work, and have gained invaluable experience in the field. “I love my job,” said one, “I was helped by the “Friends of St Martin de Porres” through numerous short courses including some in Montessori education.
Originally, I wanted to be a social worker, but had to drop out of university because of financial problems. And now I am hoping to be able to train as a teacher. Teaching is my new call. I still have contact with some children who have passed through our pre-school. One child I had in Grade R is now representing her school in Spelling Bees and Maths Competitions.”
"We and teach the mothers sewing, gardening, growing vegetables"
One of the staff members serves as caretaker, living on the property, helping in the kitchen, in the garden, and in the pre-school. She arrived at the “Friends of St Martin de Porres” in 2017, originally looking for help. “I look after everything in the yard, lock up, check that nothing is left behind, also jump into the aftercare when mothers are late in picking up their children.”
On Thursdays and Fridays “we also cook for the adults, and teach the mothers sewing, gardening, growing vegetables.” The children receive breakfast and lunch every day as well as a mid-morning snack. One of the cooks has also been associated with the project for many years. She comes from a poor background herself and is grateful for the help that she has received. Every Friday she goes with Ligia da Silva to fetch bread.
“We have hope in young people who are determined, don’t see limitations, have no fear, can bridge the gaps"
The staff have themselves “grown up here, and we would be like foreigners were we to go to the countries of our parents, we can survive here. Nonetheless sometimes xenophobia is prevalent, and we experience it directly or indirectly; it’s painful. We are connected, and therefore we are affected.” They recognize that unemployment, crime, teenage pregnancy, drug use, lack of water and electricity are real challenges to people. While there are sports fields and some recreational facilities in the area, some of these are also “becoming spaces for bad things.” Even children suffer from stress.
“Yet,” they say, “we have hope in young people who are determined, don’t see limitations, have no fear, can bridge the gaps. We see young people as entrepreneurs rather than in academics; we need skilled workers. The mothers of our children are mostly not working, we want to see them standing up to men and doing what they need to do.
"We’d like to see more equality, especially racially, but also in gender and religion"
There are people around here who are educated, but don’t have jobs. We’d like to see more equality, especially racially, but also in gender and religion.” They all appreciate that Ligia has done for them, seeing her as second mother, helping them and their children with school uniforms, clothes, food, a shack (a basic house), money to go to hospital, funeral costs, transport.
Because the “Friends of St Martin de Porres” occupies land in an informal settlement it does not have municipal permission to erect any permanent structure. The caretaker’s accommodation, the chapel, the kitchen, counselling rooms and classrooms are all housed in containers, modified for their specific use.
That applies too to the new ablution block acquired through the generosity of German donors. Because of the current water shortage in the area, the ablution block is not yet operational. South Africa’s electricity crisis has meant that water pumps cannot operate at full capacity.
“Friends of St Martin de Porres” project has a plan in place to ensure that water is available at the site
But the “Friends of St Martin de Porres”project has a plan in place to ensure that water is available at the site, with people bringing containers of water from elsewhere for daily use in the kitchen and for washing. So-called grey water in turn is used for toilets and people manage.
The classrooms have toys, educational equipment and books, many of them donated by parishioners of the Catholic Church in Benoni whose own children have outgrown them, other bought new to enhance the learning environment. The children who pass through the project are ready for primary school education by the time they leave.
Text Sr Alison Munro OP