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Building in South Africa – John and Sarah Turosak

Volunteer in S Africa

My wife Sarah and I are in our early 50s. After working in our corporate careers for thirty years, we felt a strong need to do something that was more personally meaningful and rewarding. So we took a sabbatical from our jobs. Our first volunteer placement with Projects Abroad in South Africa was an important part of this adventure. This is our adult version of a gap year.

We have visited many countries in Europe and Asia, but we had never been to South Africa. We had always heard wonderful things about the city of Cape Town, given its great natural beauty and fascinating cultural heritage. Sarah has a background in social work, and it would have been easy to choose a Care project in Cape Town. But we decided to work instead on the Building project.

Since we both work in an office, there was something appealing about doing manual labour outside in the sun. We knew we would get to play with some of the kids on-site as well, and still get our care experience.

The Building Project

Building project

The Building project is focused on building a crèche, which is a nursery school and day care centre. There are also plans to turn one of the rooms we were building into a women’s shelter. The Lavender Hill township is a very poor area. The work we were doing helps to provide a safe haven for the neighbourhood kids, who don’t always get all of the love and attention they need at home. But the kids certainly lavish affection on the volunteers, and appreciate the love they get in return.

The Building Project Manager is Deen Singh, who has a good background in construction. Deen is a really nice guy, with a warm heart and a genuine concern for the welfare of the volunteers and children. On our first day, Deen explained the challenges of living in the settlements, and told us about the past and future of the project. Deen loves the kids, and vice versa. They call him Uncle Deen.

Berny, who runs the day care centre, is a smart, energetic and likeable lady. She is quick with a smile and a hug, and is great with kids. We enjoyed getting to know Berny, her husband Edward, and the rest of the day care staff.

Daily Activities

Construction project

We had a great volunteer team, which was comprised of three younger volunteers (aged 19 – 22) and ourselves. Most of our fellow volunteers started on the project around the same time that we did. When we left, another younger volunteer and another 50-something volunteer joined the team, so there was a good balance. The energy of the younger volunteers was a nice complement to the experience of the older volunteers, and everyone worked well together. We got into a really good rhythm as the weeks went on.

The pace of work is a little slower than in some Western countries, but it is important to manage the heat and take time to get to know the kids. They are always willing to help out, and you don’t even need to ask!

Loveable Logan is the master of mischief. He frequently needs a timeout after playing with the tools or cement. Gandhi is tiny and adorable. Royston looks like President Obama. Tiara loves to show off. And there is even a child named Dustin Bieber! The kids love to laugh, sing and get lifted up in the air. This is as much fun for the volunteers as it is for the kids!

We spent our first few days learning to spackle. We started each day by gathering sand from the property. We used shovels to blend the sand, cement and water to make the wet cement. This is a pretty good workout, especially in the late summer heat. Spackling builds up the wall in several layers. The outer layer requires the most finesse, since you need to pay attention to the detail and make sure that the wall is as smooth as possible.

Volunteering South Africa

After a few days of spackling, Deen decided to enrich our jobs by teaching us some other skills. We started building the foundation for a new wall, which was exhausting work but also a lot of fun. First we dug a deep trench then we mixed in large rocks from the rubble pile with sand and cement. We built up several layers of sandbags, which are used for support and insulation, covering them each time with cement. Given that we were all novices, we built a surprisingly straight foundation wall. We’ll credit Deen’s supervisory skills, as well as his patience in teaching us new skills.

Our Host Family

Our host family, the Jefthas, were great. Stevan and Lynette are in their 50s, and their daughter Deidre and son Darren are in their 20s. They all have outgoing personalities and great senses of humour. Our housemates Matteo and Tom were working on the same construction project, so we all got to know each other really well. The house was really nice, with a manicured back yard and a small swimming pool. There was an amazing view of Table Mountain from the back patio. It was really easy to take a minibus and train to downtown Cape Town from there.

The evening meals were fantastic, with lots of meat, potatoes, other vegetables and rice. We never had to worry about getting enough to eat. After dinner we either relaxed in the living room or watched TV in the den. We all got addicted to Isidingo, one of the local night time soap operas. On Saturdays, we watched the Cape Town Stormers rugby matches with various relatives and friends of the Jefthas.

Volunteer project

We spent some time with various members of the host family outside of the house. We went to a Stormers rugby match at the beautiful Newlands stadium. We attended a charity fundraiser together and we went out to dinner a couple of times, winning a pub quiz one time. We considered our host family to be friends.

Other Social Activities

The Projects Abroad staff did a nice job in organising various social activities for the volunteers. These included a Cape Peninsula tour, a full moon hike of Lion’s Head mountain, and a barbecue in one of the townships. Many of these activities did not involve any extra costs. The staff also did a great job with helping us with any questions we had during our stay.

We had a fun time in Cape Town on the weekends. We explored the many nice (and inexpensive!) restaurants, hiked Table Mountain, attended sporting events, went to an outdoor concert, visited the nearby wine country and went shopping at the vibrant Old Biscuit Mill. There was no shortage of things to do!

Reflections on our Experience

Host family

We had a wonderful experience working on the Building Project. In addition to the construction and care aspects of the project, we also had an opportunity to use some project management and computer skills. We felt that we made a meaningful contribution in a relatively short period of time. Although we worked hard, it didn't really feel like work, but rather a more culturally fascinating way of spending our holiday time. We pretty much did all of our holiday checklist items anyway, only with a richer perspective on South Africa’s history, personality and challenges.

The project is as much about building memories for the day care children as it is about building walls, which may never be perfect. By the time the project is finished, there will have been several hundred volunteers who have contributed. More importantly, that many people will have made a small difference in the lives of these great kids. That's really what it’s all about.

Our last day on the project was probably the most fun one. I taught the kids to sing “Hail to the Redskins,” the anthem for my favourite American football team. I brought some jerseys for them to wear. Even though their native language is Afrikaans, the kids did a great job with it. Several of the Projects Abroad staff members were there that day and joined in. Our fellow volunteers reported back that the kids still know all of the lyrics months later!

John Turosak

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