Bringing Home Lessons from South Africa Service Learning Trip


For two weeks in January, Professors Lenette Azzi-Lessing and Patty Hnatiuk led seven Wheelock students on a tour of South Africa. Dr. Azzi-Lessing has written a series of posts on their experiences. (Click to read Chapter 1, Chapter 2, and Chapter 3.)

Chapter 4: South Africa’s Holistic Approach to Working with Children and Families

Wheelock South Africa Service Learning Trip
South Africa Partners staff members pose with Wheelock visitors in their Port Elizabeth office.

The last part of our South Africa journey took us to the Eastern Cape and the cities of Port Elizabeth and East London.  Both cities offer sharp contrasts: inviting coastal scenes juxtaposed with townships containing acres of crowded and inadequate housing.  In Port Elizabeth, we toured the family support center operated by Ubuntu Education Fund. As we learned from Ubuntu program directors, the center works with children from “cradle to college,” helping them to get the best possible start in life and continuing to support them toward academic success.  The center is housed in a welcoming, contemporary building that showcases South Africa’s wood, stone and other natural resources. Even more impressive, however, is Ubuntu’s holistic approach, which entails working with children as part of families and families as part of communities.  Every member of the Ubuntu team displays passion and a commitment to providing services in this comprehensive way, which is reflective of the inclusive and holistic culture of the South African people.  The Wheelock service learning students, Patty, and I pondered how much more effective children’s programs in the United States could be if they adopted Ubuntu’s approach.

We next visited South Africa Partners HIV program; a branch of Boston-based South Africa Partners, an organization that works to build human-service capacity throughout South Africa. Thembi Ngubane-Zungu, Director of the East London office, explained the services that she and her colleagues provide to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and to help those already affected to live the highest quality life possible.  As we listened to Thembi and her staff members describe their work, we were inspired by the compassion, humor, and deep commitment they bring to such challenging work.

Wheelock College South Africa Service Learning Trip
Wheelock students work with children in an early childhood development center in East London.

The next morning, we enjoyed a half-day drive through a local game park where we marveled at large herds of elephants, gorgeous zebras and other native animals.  Afterwards, we headed to East London, where we spent three days working in early child development (EDC) centers and meeting with local early childhood professionals.  Patty, the students and I were heartened to learn about the work of ITECH and Masibumbane Development Organization (MDO), two organizations working with South Africa Partners to improve the quality of ECD programs in the East London area.  MDO’s director, Thabile Mhlambo, and staff members, Ntosh and Aletta, oriented us to the seven EDC centers we visited, and introduced us to the directors, teachers, and parents.

We were struck by the contrasts between the centers we visited.  A few had adequate space and a decent supply of books and learning materials; however, most of the centers were cramped and overcrowded and had few tools for stimulating early learning. We noticed that some of the centers had not a single children’s book. Overcrowding is a significant problem in many of the ECD centers, as it is in the local elementary school we visited.  We saw young children wedged against each other as they napped on the hard floor of their center, and the school had as many as 50 children in each classroom. Some of the centers didn’t have plumbing or running water, so the children used buckets outside as toilets. As they woke from their naps, many of the children seemed lethargic from the heat that pressed heavily inside the corrugated metal walls. We learned that some of these very young children had been abused or severely neglected, but didn’t have access to children’s mental health providers who could help them cope with the terrible trauma they had experienced.

Working in the ECD centers was challenging; most of the teachers and children spoke only Xhosa, the local language; none of us were familiar with Xhosa, other than a few words and expressions we had picked up in Lillydale.  Ntosh and Aletta taught us some additional phrases and were invaluable in helping us to converse with the teachers. Our Wheelock students were quick to utilize universal ways of communicating with children: a warm smile, a nod of the head, and high-fives.  Soon, there was singing and laughing, as the children and their teachers enthusiastically engaged with the learning materials we brought. Patty had purchased blocks, chalkboards, word cards and other materials with funds she had raised from her friends and fellow Early Childhood Education faculty members.  We also brought a supply of children’s books, donated by South Africa Partners and another of our faculty colleagues.  Carrie Legeyt, a recent Wheelock graduate with a Masters in Child Life, taught us some interactive songs and games that were a big hit with the children. In return, the ECD teachers led the children in singing some traditional songs in Xhosa for us.

Wheelock College Service Learning Trip to South Africa
Our guide and new friend, Ntosh, leads the students in one last dance.

As we prepared to leave East London, we all felt that the three days we had spent there were not nearly enough.  We had gotten merely a glimpse of the needs of the ECD centers, the children, their families, and their teachers; we had also observed their resourcefulness, resiliency, and the strong bonds between them. However, we were ready to take those observations back to Wheelock and Boston, and to use them to inform the discussion underway about how best to use our faculty’s expertise in early childhood education, early childhood mental health, and family support to contribute to the quality-improvement work being planned by South Africa Partners and other organizations in East London.  Before we left, there was time for one last dance in South Africa, as Ntosh led the students in performing the electric slide in the middle of the township!

Wheelock Prof. Lenette Azzi-LessingLenette Azzi-Lessing, LICSW, PhD, joined the Wheelock faculty in 2006, with more than 25 years experience as a clinical social worker, administrator, and policy advocate. Her work focuses on improving the well being and life chances of vulnerable, young children and their families, particularly those living in poverty and those involved in the child welfare system.