Given my job and background in development work, I frequently get to participate in intellectualised thinking and discussion of South Africa’s social problems. While this type of analysis is both necessary and stimulating, it also tends to distance you from the problem. I am often left with the feeling that although all our complicated discussions are valid and interesting, what we are really trying to do, in simple terms, is figure out how we can get people to care better for other people. Sometimes this feeling is accompanied by a disconcerting little voice suggesting that my life could be dedicated to doing some of this caring. I normally deal with this voice by promptly telling myself to be practical and to think of the future. Falling back into ‘distancing’ mode- I also cleverly remind myself that the problems in South Africa are so enormous that only systemic change, growth in the economy, etc. etc. can really make a difference. Given my own ‘hesitation’ to completely give myself to a cause, over the years of working in and with PBOs I have developed a deep appreciation for the enormous dedication and sacrifice it often takes from the people who start and lead these organisations. Although I by now have a rather large collection of inspirational stories about PBOs, when I interviewed Claudia Crowster from New Beginnings Development Centre, an employment mediation and training organisation in Belhar, something about her story really took ‘inspiring’ to a whole new level for me.
Before starting New Beginnings, Claudia Crowster was a Human Resources (HR) practitioner married to a Baptist Pastor. She told me, “I was employed in my dream job working for a dynamic company, I was earning more money than anyone in my family and many of the people in my community could dream of and I had all the perks and status that went with it”. As a pastor’s wife, Claudia was also very involved in the church: “I always felt that the church needed to do more than just look after people’s spiritual needs. One Sunday we drove from our church and there was a homeless girl sitting in the park. She had just been in church with me. It was raining quite heavily and she was just sitting there, looking so lost. Again I strongly felt that it was not enough to only talk to people about eternal salvation while their desperate life circumstances remain unchanged in the present. I thought to myself, if only the church could assist in providing skills that would enable people to earn a living… I saw something that could be done, but possibly by someone else”.
Claudia describes how she slowly became convinced that in fact, she was supposed to be doing this work, but at the time this seemed inconceivable. “…After all, my husband was not earning much money and I was the breadwinner, it was going to impact my children, who were in model C high schools, and I knew I would be taking a risk in terms of my house, car and everything else”. Besides for the loss of her family’s main livelihood, another obstacle for Claudia were the fact that she had no start-up funding for a skills-training organisation, nor did she at the time feel she had specific experience and skills in this field to fall back on.
In an act that some of us might admire and call amazing courage and faith and others might judge and describe as foolish risk taking, Claudia and her family decided to entrust their wellbeing in Claudia’s calling and with that she resigned from her position as HR manager and started pursuing her vision of a church that is empowering people in more ways than one. “Once I knew what it was that I was supposed to do, I remembered an organisation I had visited years ago as part of our company’s social responsibility committee when I was still employed. This organisation was Bergzicht Training in Stellenbosch and they offered skills training and a job placement service for the unemployed, covering household management, frail/home based care and early childhood development.
As part of their outreach programme Bergzicht offers training and the use of their training materials to individuals and organisations who would like to start a similar service. Having established a relationship with Bergzicht, Claudia’s next challenge was to get the equipment together to start. “I was given an eleven page inventory of what I would need to start. It included a stove, a microwave, crockery, cutlery, printed manuals etc. etc. etc. I looked at this list and thought, what do I do now? So I started bringing things from my home and from friends and family’s homes. I approached people and asked for donations, I shared the vision with retail organisations and asked for their assistance and slowly got going this way. Luckily the church building was empty during the week making it a convenient venue which was also free of charge”.
The final challenge was recruiting good facilitators who would be willing to volunteer, given that there was no funding. “It was especially important for the frail care course that I find a qualified nurse to oversee the training because I did not have any medical training myself. Amazingly I was able to recruit two excellent volunteers, one of them resigning from her position at a rehabilitation centre to become part of this project. Initially I was not sure for how long they would volunteer, but almost six years later, despite the fact that none of us received a stipend for five years, they are still with me and New Beginnings”.
With these initial hurdles behind them New Beginnings Development Centre was launched in June 2006. The training was advertised on community radio stations and newspapers and also through the church networks in the area. Claudia does not hide the fact that it was very difficult in the beginning. “I came very close to losing my house and my car. Our lifestyle changed dramatically. Just keep on going and trusting was my motto….just keep on going, eventually things will fall into place- and it did”. While participating in a leadership conference in Ecuador her husband met with a man who later felt compelled to settle the payment on their car which the bank was in the process of repossessing. An American funder/supporter of their church offered to pay for her children’s secondary and tertiary education and her volunteers have similar stories to share of how their needs have been met through the kindness of others.
Six years later, New Beginnings is a registered NPO, and a DGMT grantee. They have trained more than 300 people in house hold management and frail care and the majority of their graduates have been linked to employment at hospitals, private homes, guest houses, hotels and cleaning companies. They no longer advertise their training because knowledge of the programme is spreading by word of mouth – they currently have a waiting list of almost 50 students for the next course. In the future they would like to expand their skills training to include office administration, call centre and hairdressing courses.
“I remember the days when my small HP printer worked overtime printing one manual after the other. It was hard in the beginning, but we made it happen. Today we are able to have our manuals printed, but we will never forget our humble beginnings”, Claudia tells me. However, when visiting the New Beginnings Development Centre one is struck by the spirit of humility in which everything is done. Many organisations are not willing to learn from or share with other organisations, believing staunchly that they have found the best possible solution to the problem, worrying that there is not enough funding to go around. The first advice that Claudia gives to other organisations though is not to reinvent the wheel, but to be humble enough to learn from others. To share and to be willing to accept what is being shared – a principle without which New Beginnings would never have existed.
But perhaps what made the deepest impression on me about Claudia and New Beginnings, is her courage to let go of self-interest and to trust in Life in such a dramatic way. In today’s society it is completely counter-cultural and intuitive, even though people have, ironically, always known that self-sacrifice is the only way in which the world can possibly become a better place. I used to work with young people in HIV prevention and although we had many strategies to get the youth to make responsible choices, I always knew that not one of those strategies would be as effective as people giving some of their time, knowledge and experience to young people – really listening, caring for and guiding them in a non-judgmental way. Only people can really help and nurture people – behind all the systems and structures that are impacting our lives, are people making decisions – either guided by self-interest or by real concern for others. History have shown us that the greatest among us have had the courage to make the dramatic leaps in terms of letting go of self-interest, but what makes their contribution so special is that they not only make the leap for themselves, they make the leap for many of us who are lacking some of their courage, creating opportunities for us to give what we can give. Claudia Crowster is one of the great and courageous opportunity creators among us – it is more than a little humbling to meet her.
New Beginnings Development Centre, P.O Box 10101 Ext 7, Belhar, 7493, Cape Town