In South Africa, access to early education services is desperately needed, particularly in rural areas affected by both the generalized HIV epidemic and the long-term challenges of poverty and inequality. As much research has shown, the care and attention a child receives in the first eight years of life – particularly during the first three years – are critical and influence the child’s possibilities for life. Community members near the town of Mtubatuba recognized this need and mobilized together to try to make a change. These community leaders, many of whom were deprived of educational opportunities by the Apartheid government’s racist policies, understood the importance of education for their children’s future and knew that early educational support is critical for children and families. In the summer of 2011, they approached Lindsey Reynolds, an Even Ground volunteer and director of Thembanathi, a project operating under the umbrella of Even Ground, and asked for her assistance. Though the leaders recognized the critical need for services for young children in the area and were motivated to give their time and energy, they lacked the resources and networks necessary to get such an initiative going. Inspired by their dedication, we at Even Ground decided to help this community make their dream a reality by assisting them to get a new program on its feet.
In January 2012, we provided funding to remodel and equip a small building for temporary use as an early childhood education program. As many as 38 children attended each day, where they received meals, participated in developmental activities, and had a safe place to play and learn. Over the next two years, we raised the funds to construct a new building. On January 15, 2014, we opened a new early childhood education and community center nearby. The center is currently at capacity, with 80 children, two to five year of age, attending the early childhood education program.
Even Ground/Thembanathi has provided a significant portion of the funding for the operation of Siyabonga. We recognize that, particularly in areas that have been hard hit by the HIV epidemic, in addition to extreme poverty and high unemployment, early childhood education and care programs are an important means of supporting children and families for several reasons. First, programs help to offset the effects of disease and poverty by providing educational and emotional support, as well as nutritious meals, for young children. This support not only meets the critical immediate needs of the children but also helps prepare them for continuing their education. Second, the center helps relieve the burden of care of young children on families, allowing older sibling to remain in school and caregivers to seek work. Third, child development centers serve as community centers around which other services can be organized.
Even Ground has also provided guidance and training to the leadership of Siyabonga to assist them in becoming more independent and to ensure the organization is sustainable.