/ 21 April 2005

A second chance and a real future

Clayton Sherry was having a jol with his friends, smoking dagga and sniffing glue at their usual corner, when suddenly a police van stopped in front of them.

Fearing arrest, they fled in different directions, but the uniformed men caught up with them. This was the day that Clayton’s life changed forever. It was the first day in his life that he slept in his own bed at the Thakaneng Shelter for street children and had pap and soup instead of glue for supper.

Situated at Ikageng, the shelter accommodates about 60 children who hang out on the streets of Potchefstroom. It was started in 1994 by Potchefstroom University students working with the community and the municipal council to tackle the problem of a growing number of children on the streets.

In 1996, 30 children were removed from the streets and accommodated in a former government building donated to Thakaneng. The children were registered in neighbouring schools and each was supported with life skills programmes.

Clayton was among the first group to be brought to the shelter. Although it is not paradise, he agrees it is far better than the electrical substation he had been sleeping in with a cardboard box for blankets, better even than the house he had run away from when he was 12.

He ran away after the death of his grandfather, who had been the main breadwinner for the family. The family started to fall to pieces: ‘My parents came back late at night, always drunk and fighting. When I asked them to keep their voices down because my siblings were sleeping, my stepfather hit me,” says Clayton.

He says the abuse forced him to seek asylum in the streets. There he was introduced to all sorts of drugs. ‘We snorted anything that was available to us. It was the only way to survive the cold and hunger.” He rapidly mastered the art of begging: ‘We targeted white people – especially women – because they have money. I would follow them to their cars begging until they gave me something – even if it’s just to get rid of me.”

Although he got a meal three times a day, clean clothes and a warm place to sleep at Thakaneng, he still preferred the street. ‘I went back to the streets every chance I got. There I could do as I please, there were no rules,” he says.

One of the most difficult changes was to quit drugs. ‘I thought it would be easy to smoke dagga at school I couldn’t at the shelter, because we were being watched all the time.” Clayton could not have been more wrong – the relationship between his educators and the staff at Thakaneng made it difficult for him to be unruly at school.

‘We communicate with the educators at schools. We attend school meetings and follow up on their progress regularly,” says Corrie Engelbrecht, who manages the shelter. The role played by schools in the rehabilitation of the children is vital. Engelbrecht says the schools have been ‘understanding” and sensitive to the children. ‘Sometimes a child runs away and drops out of school; they never give us problems when we return such children to school. Our children also don’t pay school fees.”

The staff of Thakaneng are not only concerned about the educational needs of a child; they also recognise the importance of family. They work with the Family and Marriage Society of South Africa (Famsa) to find the families of the children and then offer them counselling before they reunite them. ‘We make sure that the reasons for the child running away are solved before they are reunited. The children remain in our care until we are convinced they will be better off with their families,” says Engelbrecht.

In cases where children run away because of poverty, they assist the family to apply for grants where possible and provide food packages. Close contact is maintained with children and families even when they have been reunited.

It is not, however, always possible to reunite the children with families, and in such cases the children remain in the care of Thakaneng until they are 18 years old, when they are transferred to a shelter for older children. There they receive skills training in woodwork, welding, building, painting and other areas.

When Clayton first came to Thakaneng seven years ago, he could neither read nor write. Now he has a matric certificate and can build a house to completion.