By Alyssa Carrel
At the end of the first term of the school year, Victor* was failing math.
He has continually struggled in school. When Victor was in first grade, his mother lost her leg in a train accident. Victor’s grandparents have been raising him and his sister. During the chaos of so much change, Victor’s grades suffered and he had to repeat first grade.
To experience incredible tragedy at a young age, it’s not hard to see why Victor has struggled in school. Since his mother’s accident, she has been in and out of their lives.
Victor had an especially difficult time transitioning from third to fourth grade as his schooling had not prepared him properly. This put him at a great disadvantage, but he was prepared to work. He stayed after school to work on math with his teacher and he brought his homework to the Dream Centre (an after-school program run by Extreme Response) where he received one-on-one attention.
Victor persevered through extra tutoring and assignments, but it was still unclear if all of his work would translate when taking exams. These challenging exams were new for Victor. For three straight weeks, Victor put his all into studying.
The results were…incredible.
His grades were outstanding! Victor raised his scores by a full grade level in each subject thanks to his diligent work. He even earned a special merit badge for his improvement, making Victor the first Dream Centre child to receive the badge so far. They are usually awarded only to older children.
This was a huge accomplishment, especially considering the chaos going on in his home.
For the last six months, Victor’s mother has been back in their lives, back in their home. She has come and gone many times over the years, leaving a mess of emotions in each wake. During the weeks leading up to Victor’s exams — when he was working so very hard to prepare — his mother left. Again.
Victor faced more change and heartbreak as he was fighting so hard to succeed. Despite all the turmoil, Victor overcame. He entered those exams prepared, completely ready to demonstrate his knowledge.
Amy Townsend, Dream Centre co-director, said, “When donors support these Overcomers, they are supporting kids who remain steadfast, endure and work hard to move beyond their circumstances.”
It’s kids just like Victor who daily prove that the next generation is fierce and ready to succeed.
*Name changed to protect privacy.
Surf’s Up: Why Toby is an Overcomer
By Amy Townsend, Dream Centre Co-Director
(June 1, 2019)
“Toby” is a grade 4 learner at Star of the Sea. He is Congolese and his family speaks French in the home. Both parents work very long hours in the tourist industry. He faces many life challenges beyond school.
Toby is one of the first kids at the Dream Centre. We met Toby in 2015 on the first day we went to a nearby pre-school. He was in the grade R class (kindergarten). He was quiet and didn’t interact much with the other kids. But he always had this big smile. He loved arts and crafts time but struggled with learning basic reading and math skills.
Toby was accepted into grade 1 at Star of the Sea despite his pre-school instructor telling his parents he wasn’t ready. Within three months of being in grade 1, we met with his teacher who quickly informed us that Toby wasn’t ready for school and WOULD NOT pass grade 1.
Her words were, “He’s too far behind already and doesn’t have the focus to catch up.” He worked so hard that year. Ron (Townsend – Dream Centre co-director) got a call from his teacher during the last term of the year. She wanted to know what had happened…what had we done to make such a difference. She said “it just clicked with him and he is doing well.”
At the end of grade 1, Toby received an award for Most Improvement with a special designation from his teacher for his diligence and sweet spirit. His parents were overjoyed. With tears in his eyes, his father hugged Ron after the end of the year program and said he didn’t think Toby could do it.
Each school year has brought different challenges for Toby, but year after year his diligence and sweet spirit shines through. Toby still loves to draw and do any type of art. He still struggles with reading and math skills. But he is overcoming and learning how to learn in his own way.
Through different opportunities such as the Swim Like a Shark program and the surf day we had, Toby is learning he can overcome hard things.
Today, Toby is an Overcomer!
*Name changed for privacy.
Writing Club Helps Kids Think Creatively
By Alyssa Carrel
“I have to write it again?”
Rocco* kissed his lips and rolled his eyes, clearly not a fan of this new process called editing.
At the beginning of the school year, I had the incredible privilege of starting the first writing club at The Dream Centre. Fourteen of our students joined and they have impressed me at every step.
Some schools focus on creative writing, but most do not, putting these 3rd and 4th graders at a 1st and 2nd writing level. They never had to complete multi-step assignments and were definitely not a fan of my assignment!
“This is too hard!”
“I already wrote it out twice!”
“My hand hurts.”
“This is too much work.”
For all of their complaining, they worked harder and with more diligence than they had ever shown before. Rocco probably more than most.
“I’ve already written it here!” he whined.
“I want you to write it again and make it really nice.”
“Aagh.” He laid his head in the crook of his elbow, pen poised but staring off into Neverland.
After about thirty minutes of prodding, he finally hit the zone and got to work. The only problem was there were twenty-one other kids in the room and, as you can imagine, it’s not exactly a quiet space.
“Hey, stop making noise! I’m working!” he shouted at anyone who uttered a peep.
After yelling at many of his classmates, he picked up his notebook and pencil and walked outside.
“Where are you going?” I asked as I ran after him.
“I’m going to sit outside, where it’s quiet.”
History told me that he was never going to finish his project if he was left to his own devices, but I saw a glimpse of something in his eyes: determination. Since I could keep an eye on him through the window, I let him go.
I peered out multiple times and he never once deviated from his objective. That boy worked with more focus and tenacity than ever.
Ocean View, the community in which Rocco lives, is known for its numerous gangs and constant violence. While dropping a friend off in this community she told me, “When kids hear gunshots, they can name the weapon. That was a 9-millimeter.” Along with his dangerous surrounding, Rocco struggles academically, possibly because of dyslexia.
His struggles in penmanship, spelling, and grammar made it very difficult for him to get his story on paper but what an incredible story. It was one of the few that had a solid beginning, middle, and end but one of only two that had a twist.
At the end of the school term, I chose four students to read their stories to the class. I wanted Rocco to read, but I knew he’d put up a fight.
“I don’t want to read my story; they’ll laugh.”
It took a lot of convincing, but he finally agreed and the class listened intently.
It took many weeks of hard work but each child has now each authored a book of his or her own design. They desperately hate the editing process (as do I), but they’ve learned they possess a fierceness inside of them to accomplish great goals.
Here is Rocco’s creative writing story.
“The Three Bee’s” By Rocco
Ben flies around a tree in Fish Hoek. It’s 4 o’clock.
He sees an apple with his small eyes. It was lying on the ground.
When it got dark, he went home to sleep. The next morning when he woke up, Ben went on an adventure.
He met up with his friends Cairo, Rieaaz and Miayo. As they were flying around they got caught by angry people.
The bee’s were very sad and angry. The people wanted to eat the bees so the bees made a plan.
They all hid away. When the people came they didn’t see the bees so they opened the trap door. The bees tricked them!
They flew away fast. When they got home they were happy and played.
* Name changed for privacy.
Dream Centre Brightens His World
By Alyssa Carrel
(Nov. 19, 2018)
JoJo’s* world is very dim. He is one of our Grade 1 learners and among all his struggles, on this day his biggest challenge is that he battles to see because he needs to wear sunglasses to protect his eyes.
JoJo comes into the Dream Centre with a smile of mischief and a warm hug. He is quite a character.
The Dream Centre has a reading challenge for the kids: 100 books in a school year. Many surpass this challenge and go on to read 200 and 300 books, but JoJo was falling behind in his 100-book quest.
We sat together for hours one afternoon, working hard to reach the 100-book mark that promised pizza. JoJo needed to wear sunglasses to protect his eyes but they made his work all that more difficult. He’d lift his glasses to squint at the page and I’d have to tell him to put them back down.
“It’s too dark. I cannot see,” he would say as he put them back in place.
We tried sitting outside where there was more light but that proved fruitless. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t help him. And yet, he never complained.
He never threw a fit or told me it was too hard. He just sat there, eyes glued to the page, trying to make out the letters.
JoJo read over 50 books in 3 days. He reached his 100-book goal which awarded him a bar of chocolate and a ticket to the pizza party.
JoJo persevered through the darkness to proudly reach his goal. He may be little, but he is fierce.
Each Dream Centre child battles with obstacles like hunger, poor schooling and dangerous environments. They’re up against more then we could know and yet they face these obstacles head on, daring them to try and stand in their way.
*Named changed for privacy.
First Impressions From South Africa
By Mary Veltman
Mary Veltman is a short-term volunteer from Michigan who recently arrived in South Africa where she is serving at ER’s South Africa Dream Centre near Cape Town. Read her blog titled “New Friends”.
I can’t believe it’s already been a full week since landing in South Africa. I have met so many amazing people and learned so much!
My first day at the Dream Centre was Tuesday. This week looked a little different at the Dream Centre because it was the last week of term 3.
South Africa’s school calendar is very different from the one in the U.S. Their school year is January-December and is divided into four terms. There is a 1-2 week break in between each term and a 4-5 week break between the school years.
Because it was almost the end of the term, most of the kids did not have much homework. For the ones who did have homework, I was able to sit with them as they read their vocabulary lists, play sentence making games, read aloud, and work on simple math (multiplication, division, addition and subtraction). It’s a big difference compared with the preschool age group that I’m used to, but I know I’ll catch on soon.
Because Friday was the last day of the term, we had a little pizza party and walked down to False Bay. There we played with bubble gloves and spent nearly an hour on the playground.
It was mind blowing to hear how some of the children have grown in the last nine months of the school year. Children who could hardly say the alphabet in January now have completed the 100- book reading challenge! Children who were withdrawn are now bubbly and full of laughter. I can’t wait to see the growth this next term brings.
These children are so full of life. This doesn’t always connect in my brain because, at the tender ages of 6-9, they have experienced so much hardship and yet can be so full of joy. As I learn more about each child, my heart is torn between aching for the things they have experienced and rejoicing for the healing that is taking place.
These children are inspiring. They are in the beginning stages of changing their futures. They are fighting for a better world. They are growing and learning and, even though they may not see it yet, they are developing in amazing ways.
These children push. They challenge everything, pushing boundaries and testing limits as they explore the world and community around them.
These children love. Deeply. I’m always greeted with hugs and kisses. They make pictures for every adult at the Dream Centre. They ask so many questions and randomly come hold your hand. They’re searching for someone to give their love to and for someone to love them back.
These children are beautiful. Their eyes sparkle as their laughter fills the room. It’s breathtaking. It’s magical. It’s beautiful.
I hope these children never stop dreaming, never stop challenging, never stop loving, never stop laughing.
Scholarship Fund Delivers Priceless Payoffs
By Amy Townsend, ER Dream Centre
(July 28, 2017)
Three years ago, Olivia Hoppen from Hope College in Holland, Michigan, traveled to South Africa with a team to serve ER’s South African partners.
God’s Little Lighthouse greatly benefited from their work, which included painting and spending time with the children. As the team left, Olivia remembers thinking she would one day return. She did just that, as a short-term volunteer, each of the past two years.
And Olivia’s commitment to God’s Little Lighthouse, the adjacent Dream Centre and the children of South Africa is not limited to her time on the ground in South Africa. It’s demonstrated throughout the year as she, her friends and her family provides monthly scholarships for two children at the Dream Centre.
In fact, Olivia and her family were the first to fund such a scholarship.
She writes: “I cared deeply for Chris the first time I saw his beaming smile and bright eyes on my first trip to South Africa. Every morning when my team would arrive at God’s Little Lighthouse, he was the first one to run up and give me the biggest hug. As the week went on, I got to know slivers of his story and all that he has been through, yet he remained to be so joyful.
“My connection to Chris has grown through subsequent trips to South Africa. My family started sponsoring him after the first trip because I could not stop thinking about this little boy. He is also one of the only kids who has remembered me from year to year, and I am sure that is because I try to spend intentional time with him while I am there.
This past year I had the amazing opportunity to work with him one on one each day at the Dream Centre. He had fallen behind in school, particularly in reading. When we first started he could only recognize about half the letters of the alphabet, but by the end of our month together he was reading three and four letter words. Seeing the pride he had in how far he came made every minute so worth it.”
The scholarship program helps provide a hot meal, homework help, tutoring, snacks, character training and a safe place every afternoon after school. Olivia has seen first hand the day-to-day workings of God’s Little Lighthouse and the Dream Centre.
More than 50 percent of the scholarships are provided by people who have been to the Dream Centre and met the children.
“While we set up the scholarships as a way to fund the program, we are actually seeing benefits that outweigh those financial benefits,” says Dream Centre Director Ron Townsend. “We are seeing relationships being built and continued even once the team or short-term volunteer returns to their home country.”
After serving in 2016, Olivia continued to look for ways to serve. We were simply amazed to receive an email from her around Christmas time. She and her boyfriend had decided that instead of giving each other Christmas gifts, they wanted to use the money to provide another scholarship.
Olivia puts it into perspective: “The choice to sponsor both Chris and Krisalyn was easy for me. The Dream Centre kids are truly amazing and deserve every possible opportunity that Extreme Response tries to provide to them through the Dream Centre. Unlike many other sponsorship programs, I know exactly where our money is going and all of the good that is being done with it.
“It is also so cool to receive updates about them, whether through the Facebook page or ER staff members. I have seen these kids grow and flourish over my three years. When I think about it, I waste way more money than the cost of a sponsorship on things that I don’t need. Giving up some of those things to be able to provide opportunities for these kids is beyond worth it.”
Swimming Like Sharks in South Africa
By Amy Townsend
(May 25, 2017)
“The next world renowned oceanographer or a world champion swimmer might be in this group,” said Amy Townsend.
It’s a little ironic that many kids who grow up in South Africa, which boasts some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, have never swum in the ocean. But when you consider that children from impoverished communities struggle just to stay in school, get good nourishment and advance in life, it makes sense that beach vacations are out of reach.
So when a generous ER supporter offered to sponsor 13 Dream Centre kids in the 10-week Swim Like A Shark program, it was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up. The program meets once a week and serves Grade 2 kids who are seven to eight years old.
The program is operated by AfriOceans Conservation Alliance. The organization’s purpose is “Saving lives while nurturing the next generation of ocean guardians”.
Earlier this year, ER intern Madison Drescher sparked interest in swimming by providing basic lessons to some of the the Dream Centre children. The Swim Like A Shark program takes swimming to the next level. The program teaches kids about the ocean, ocean animals and conservation, as well as how to swim in water with waves, currents and tides.
“We’re excited by the opportunity this presents for the kids,” said ER’s Amy Townsend. Our donor wants to get others involved in sponsoring all the grade 2 children. So this isn’t a one time thing, but something we hope will be part of the Dream Centre for many years.”
Extracurricular Activities Help Shape Our Young “Sharks”
During the course of two years of the Dream Centre programs, ER staff has learned that building young minds and bodies through sports, recreation and arts helps the kids become more confident, well-rounded and socially adept.
“We hope all of the children will be safe in the water and understand the ocean. As with all the extracurricular programs that the Dream Centre children participate in, we hope that we will see some natural gifts and abilities come out of this program. The next world renowned oceanographer or a world champion swimmer might be in this group,” said Amy Townsend.
“One of the greatest joys of serving at the Dream Centre is seeing the eyes light up when these kids find something that they are good at or realize that they can accomplish something they thought impossible,” said Ron Townsend.
“This program will help them be safe in the water. But more importantly it will help them grow into confident people who know that anything is possible. It helps break them out of their surroundings and dream big dreams.”
Big Dreams Require Hard Work
(March 16, 2017)
We’ve learned something while launching the South Africa Dream Centre: It takes incredible effort to change the course of a child’s life. Sure, we knew tutoring, homework help and nutrition would be foundational to giving these kids a good chance of succeeding in their lives.
But we’ve seen that engaging them in activities is equally powerful for creating well-rounded, confident kids. We recently shared about Madison Drescher, an ER intern who is teaching. Now we want to share how sisters Hannah and Emily Townsend are using running and music to help more kids thrive.
Many of these kids are from local squatter settlements where learning to play music or joining a running club would be considered a luxury activity. Some are from refugee families who are learning a new language and culture.
Running Club Demonstrates the Value of Hard Work
Demonstrating wisdom beyond her years, 17-year-old Hannah Townsend shares why she started a running club for the Dream Center girls.
“The purpose of the running club is to help girls learn about taking care of their bodies and learning to push through situations that are hard” she said. “Big dreams require hard work. The girls are learning that they can work hard and succeed.”
The kids have been running twice a week at Fish Hoek Sports Fields since January. Hannah leads them in doing different types of activities at each club meeting. They do sprints, long runs and relays along with stretching and conditioning. ER’s Lindsey Fisher assists in working with the girls.
The club includes eight girls, four in grade 2 and four in grade 1. Their goal is to run a 5K at the end of term 2, which is at the end of June.
“We see the a lot of the girls getting stronger physically, but more importantly they are beginning to believe more in themselves,” Hannah said. “They know if they work hard they can do whatever they set their minds to.
“They also are learning how to work in teams and with each other. Some of the girls have a lot of natural ability and talent that they are beginning to recognize.”
Music Club Helps DC Kids Blossom
Music is proving to be another great tool to help the kids develop.
“Some of the kids who are shy and quiet are really coming out of their shells,” 19-year-old Emily Townsend said. “Some of them are very talented and I am seeing their self-confidence grow as they learn music. The music lessons also help reinforce their alphabet learning.”
Emily is teaching the kids music theory and the basics on a keyboard. Six kids have been attending the club since January.
Teaching kids with little musical skill and diverse backgrounds has been a rewarding challenge.
“So far they have learned Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”, Emily said. “We would like to have a recital at the end of the year and invite parents to attend.”
Dream Centre No Longer a Dream
By Amy Townsend, ER South Africa
(Nov. 10, 2105)
When you visit a squatter settlement in South Africa, you immediately realize how devastatingly unfair the world can be, especially for kids. These communities can stretch on for miles and contain thousands of children — all of them at risk for HIV/AIDS, TB, abuse, malnutrition, poverty and hopelessness.
It would be easy for ER’s South Africa staff, volunteers and partners to be overwhelmed by the scale of the need. Yet the size of the challenge has instead driven our team to think more creatively and strategically.
Could we give these kids a real chance to break out of the vicious cycle in which they tumble? Could we provide enough nutrition, security and structured early- and after-school learning opportunities to allow them to prosper? Do we dare dream that their lives will be filled with hope and tangible opportunities for a better life?
Yes, Yes, and Yes!
We are pleased to announce that our dreams are turning into reality with the launch of the ER South Africa Dream Centre near Cape Town. The Dream Centre will serve alongside God’s Little Lighthouse (GLL), with support from ER partner ATAIM, to provide a safe early and primary learning environment for children at risk for falling behind academically. We want to help children learn to dream big dreams and reach their potential.
“The Dream Centre is a dream come true for ER as well, as for the parents and kids we serve,” said ER President and CEO Jerry Carnill. Although the need is great, we have the right staff in place and a strong legacy to follow. This will be life changing for everyone involved.”
Currently, kids fall behind as they leave GLL to attend a local public school. Now the Dream Centre will provide a safe after-school tutoring and homework help program to enable these kids to succeed academically. The Dream Centre also will partner with schools and parents to ensure the children remain on course with his or her academic studies and provide opportunities for them to develop their talents.
The Little Things Matter
Take the example of Mbali* a very quiet and shy little girl. The youngest of four children, her parents have struggled recently with the loss of a job and had to move into Masiphumelele. At the beginning of the school year, it was obvious that Mbali needed glasses. During story time, she would squint and eventually lose interest in the story. She could not color in the lines or print her name. Teachers sent several notes home, but there just wasn’t money to have her eyes checked.
That’s when ATAIM, GLLH teachers and ER worked together to get her an eye exam. Now Mbali has some wonderful glasses that help her see things more clearly. Her school work improved immediately and she no longer struggles to see. Caring teamwork gave Mabil a chance for a better future.
To get started, the Dream Center will focus on meeting the needs of 15 children from the nearby settlement of Masiphumelele. The kids are mostly older children who attended God’s Little Lighthouse, so they are familiar with ER staff and volunteers. They are primed and ready to learn.
Funding the Dream Centre After-School Program
A new report from researchers at the University of San Francisco reveals that sponsored children are more likely to graduate both secondary school and college, have salaried employment and be leaders in their communities. Sponsorship makes children 27%-40% more likely to complete secondary school and 50%-80% more likely to complete a university education.
This is why the Dream Centre name is so appropriate. You see, poverty causes children to have low self-esteem and aspirations. But a scholarship helps expand children’s views about their own possibilities. With education, we help each child realize he or she is a special gift that can benefit their community, and we encourage them to develop aspirations for their future.
*Mbali’s name was changed in this article as a matter of privacy.
Amy and Ron Townsend oversee the South Africa Dream Centre. The Townsends and their three daughters, Emily, Hannah and Sarah, moved to South Africa to help Extreme Response establish a regional presence.