Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the principal of Saxonsea Primary in Atlantis, Loran Klaasen, doesn’t think he’s a hero. “I am a catalyst. All I am doing is inspiring other people,” he shrugs.
“If it is heroic to inspire other people, then fine. But my deeds are seen as heroic by people who have very little. People around here have very little to brag about. There is so much need in Atlantis. And if I can do something to lighten up children’s lives, and my humble deeds are enough to be considered heroic, then I am more than satisfied.”
Klaasen has a lot to feel satisfied about. Since he took over as principal of the school in 1997, the entrance hall has been wallpapered with laminated photographs of achievement and inspiration. There is President Thabo Mbeki’s visit in 2003. The victory at the Eisteddfod folk-dancing contest. Tree planting, athletics, Aids activism, display-cheque hand-overs. And a grinning boy lifting a cabbage that’s almost as big as he is.
The cabbage is a product of Saxonsea Primary’s flagship community project, a small hydroponics farm on the school grounds that grows a variety of crops in sawdust. Although tomatoes are staple, the children also grow chrysanthemums for Mother’s Day.
But the hydroponics project is just the tip of the iceberg. A stroll around the grounds reveals two computer rooms, a recycling shed, rainwater catchments, a hand-built cement podium, a technology room and lots of genuinely happy and disciplined children. The computer rooms are sponsored by a fun walk that raised R8 000 in its first year and R80 000 when it was last held.
“My philosophy in life is that if you give, you shall receive, and it has always worked for me,” says Klaasen. “Adults have difficulty understanding this philosophy, but children know exactly what it is all about. Our kids may be impoverished and have very little. But they have courage. And that is what I try to encourage. One day, they will rise above their circumstances as I once did. I know what it is like to live in hardship. But I don’t hold any grudges. In fact, it probably happened for a reason. It had to be that way. Because now I can empathise with what these children are going through.”
Klaasen’s father died in a freak accident when his mother was nine months pregnant with him. He grew up in Ceres with his three brothers and one sister. Today, all his siblings are teachers. When he attended Hewitt’s College in Cape Town with his brother, they had to share their shirts with each other to give the illusion of a larger wardrobe.
“But it was a good childhood,’ he says. “We grew up outdoors, in the bush, and that made us rich in other ways. You don’t need money to be rich. I got my spiritual wealth when I was a child. Today, it is different. Perhaps one of our biggest problems today is that when you ask a young person what they want, they say, ‘money’. And they say that they can’t do anything because they don’t have money. But one of the examples I want to set with this school is that you don’t need money to make a success out of something. Only courage and determination. If you don’t have the passion for something, then rather leave it. You need passion to teach.”
One of Klaasen’s own heroes is the man who drives the hydroponics project, Frank Thys, “who can’t read or write, but he has the passion. He is an example to me. He shows me that you don’t need a lot to be a good person with the necessary skills to develop and achieve your goals.”
Making something out of nothing is Klaasen’s very special talent. The 1300 learners at Saxonsea pay just R85 a year in school fees, and the school receives an annual R300 000 from the government. That does not leave enough money for a lawnmower for the school’s sports fields, but with two computer rooms already built, perhaps the proceeds from future fun walks will be used to upgrade the weedeater to a mower.
And Klaasen’s generous spirit extends beyond the school grounds – as this story shows:
‘Two weeks ago, a woman whose daughter is in Grade 7 here at Saxonsea came to me. She can’t work any more because she has asthma, and she asked me to write to Solly Philander’s television show. I asked her, ‘What do you want from him?’ She said, ‘A sewing machine.’ So I gave her mine, along with some material that I had. And while she was walking home with the material, a stranger asked her to sew curtains out of the material for her. And these days when I ask her daughter how it is going at home, she says, ‘Much better.’ And that’s all that I want to hear.”
When the Shuttleworth Foundation heard of Klaasen through his deputy, Mario Lamour, they sent someone to investigate. They were so impressed with the hydroponics garden that they gave him a R20 000 donation, of which R5 000 went to Klaasen personally. Klaasen used his portion of the money to further his son’s tertiary education.
Says Klaasen: “When the representative from the Shuttleworth Foundation saw the hydroponics project, her mouth fell open. And we were proud of this. The value that the project adds to the community cannot be measured in money. It goes beyond money.”