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Community Keepers: Supporting our youth’s Mental Health and Well-being

I arrive at P. C. Peterson Primary School during break. A group of boys is playing a raucous game of soccer and a gaggle of girls is giggling mischievously on a bench. Set amidst towering mountains and lush vineyards, at first glance this scene seems idyllic.

This school is located in Kylemore, a small farming village outside Stellenbosch. Unemployment is high, deprivation is everywhere, boredom is endemic and resources are scarce. Not the ideal environment in which children can thrive.

However, in 2008 Dr Philip Geldenhuys and a team of his friends got together out of a common concern for the Stellenbosch youth and felt compelled to make an impact in this area and so Community Keepers was born. While completing his internship for a Masters degree in Social Development, he worked in the local prisons and was concerned about the cycle of violence and substance abuse. He felt that in order to prevent children from being sucked into this vicious cycle, intervention was needed at an early age. Philip saw the need to do more than just supply food and clothing to needy children so he brought together a group of Christian professionals from the social and corporate sectors and researched how and where they could make a meaningful difference in these communities.

Schools were identified as centres where children could be served. The team recognised that by caring for the social and emotional well-being of learners, they could free up these children to gain a comprehensive education and improve their potential with workable life skills.

They divide their service into four categories: counselling of learners; personal development programmes; parenting initiatives; and professional support to educators. These services are currently provided through 17 schools in and around Stellenbosch and Cape Town.

So for example, P.C.Petersen opened their Community Keepers office in March this year. Stefanie Dippenaar is the resident Community Keepers Office Manager and is a qualified Social Worker with a Social Science degree. She, along with all the other 31 staff members, is employed by Community Keepers, whose operations are 100% dependent on funding. Staff are made up of full time counsellors and social workers, and part time clinical and educational psychologists. Schools also contribute to this funding, having to raise 5% of the total operational costs for the Community Keepers office in their second year, and 10% of costs in the third and subsequent years. This creates a good working relationship between the school and Community Keepers, as well as providing some form of accountability and ‘buy-in’ from the school.

Learners can refer themselves to these counsellors, or teachers and parents can request intervention. “But everyone wants to come here,” says Stephanie, showing me around the cosy consulting room lined with toys and colourful activities, so it’s not hard to see why.

Stefanie is currently counselling a Gr.2 learner who suffers from extreme anxiety. “She is terrified of heights,” explains Stefanie, “which means she is even too scared to step off the kerb, let alone climb the stairs at school.” Stefanie’s approach was to meet her in the school playground and read a story. Then she brought down one of the toys from her counselling room on the first floor. She also took a video of the therapy room and showed it to the little girl. This little girl was eventually enticed to climb the stairs to play with all the other toys and so slowly Stefanie was able to break through the phobia and start to deal with the underlying cause of her anxiety.

But the Community Keepers Office Managers, all qualified and registered Mental Health professionals, deal with a lot more. From problems at home, anti-social behaviour on the playground and poor academic performance in the classroom, to rape, substance abuse and chronic illness such as TB and HIV, these counsellors help the learner cope with their individual circumstances and navigate their way through them. When an issue is too serious, a professional clinical or educational psychologist is called in, or the matter is reported to SAPS or external social workers for intervention at home level.

Teachers and parents are empowered by workshops on topical issues such as discipline, tips on how to handle a child with ADHD and so much more. As the schools must raise money to support the Community Keepers office, both the school and the parents buy into the idea and so a partnership is developed.

Community Keepers staff regularly meet to discuss difficult cases as a way of making sure that they also receive the support that they need. They also undergo regular training to ensure that their professional development is continuous and that they are properly equipped for the task at hand.

Community Keepers is growing fast. New schools keep climbing on board. Last year almost 1 500 children were served with individual counselling in 17 schools, of which over 40% referred themselves. In the same period almost 4 000 parents attended 48 parenting events while 250 teachers participated in 27 development sessions.

“Fundraising is an ongoing concern,” says Community Keepers Fundraiser Bridgette Wirth. The Cape Wine Auction has generously contributed a significant amount of their 2018 funding goal, while companies and individuals also invest in the organisation. Their annual fundraising events, The Most Expensive Burger in Town’ has become a popular event held both in Stellenbosch and in Cape Town to raise funds. Celebrity chefs donate their time to create mouth-watering burgers for patrons keen to give to a good cause.

To find out more info about Community Keepers or to donate time or money to a worthy cause visit www.communitykeepers.org.
For more information on their fundraising events, visit www.themostexpensiveburgerintown.co.za or www.themostmeaningfulteaintown.co.za

The next fundraising event will be held at Boschendal on 20 September 2017 so visit the website for details on how to get your ticket.

-Julia Moore