Help for homeless children

Janine Erasmus

Street children in South Africa face an uncertain future. With no more shelter than a cardboard box and a newspaper, and with the danger of exploitation, disease, hunger and thirst, injury and even death never far away, these youngsters often have to resort to a life of crime just to survive – and in our crime-ridden society there is not much sympathy for their plight.

Fortunately there are several agencies and organisations working towards giving street kids a better life, one of which is the UK-based Pegasus Children’s Trust (PCT). It is run by Judy Westwater who was herself once a homeless child living on the streets of South Africa, so she understands better than most what children such as these endure, and what they need.

Motivated by her own harrowing experiences and determined to extract meaning out of them and apply it to her life today, Westwater set up the PCT in 1991 with the vision of improving the lot of street kids, giving them a better quality of life, and helping to restore their sense of self-worth. Now resident in Inverness, Scotland, she is a frequent visitor to South Africa and to date seven centres have been opened across the country to provide homeless children with essential facilities that most people take for granted – shelter, food, and clothes.

In a previous interview with a Scottish newspaper, she said, “We have taken 4 000 children off the streets since 1991, but there are so many more that need help. Without our help, they will just die. We are trying very hard to open the world’s eyes to what the problems are. These kids are looked at by many and seen by no one. People believe that street kids are a problem for someone else, but when they are just children, they are a problem for us all.”

Not only does the PCT care for homeless children but it also schools them and helps them train for jobs and find work, encouraging and equipping them to ultimately move into their own accommodation and stand on their own feet in the world. Children of all ages are taken in, and the project has a 90% success rate.

“We have many successful stories,” Westwater says. “It can be something as small as a child totally insular and terrified on first contact, after much care running to hug me with a huge smile on their face. Or it could be a struggling youngster trying desperately to fulfil potentials and goals and becoming downhearted at the response from blinkered individuals – but never losing faith and still working hard.

“One example is my student Puleng Mabaya, a vulnerable child from Soweto who wants so badly to be a special lighting and theatre technician. I have been working alongside Puleng and now, to cut a long story short, she is in Glasgow and is attending Glasgow’s prestigious Drama College for three years on a scholarship. My charity is paying all her other expenses. So success comes in a variety of ways.”

Music and drama

One of Westwater’s weapons in the fight to help homeless children is arts and culture. Art forms such as music and drama can cut through barriers put up by even the most deeply wounded souls, and for children who are unable to respond to conventional forms of communication she has used the principles of drama to develop a method of reaching out to them and penetrating their suffering. Drama is an extremely valuable form of self-expression and can be a powerful outlet for pain and strong emotion, while at the same time offering a therapeutic and creative way for children to have fun, work together, act out their fears and sorrows, and explore their individuality.

Another of her current projects is the creation of a “junk orchestra” for the children. This will see them playing on instruments made with their own hands from discarded rubbish, proving to them that even out of rubbish, beauty can be created – an analogy that can be applied to their own rough existences. It is her dream to see the orchestra perform at two of the greatest sporting events in the world – the 2010 Fifa World Cup, hosted by South Africa, and the 2012 Olympics in London.

She says, “Our plans for the junk orchestra are firstly for the kids to have fun. These kids will be chosen from the street child projects I am involved with in Hillbrow and also Langa in Cape Town. My mission is to help keep burning bright the flame of love and hope within each street child; and to help open the world’s eyes to the plight of its forgotten street children.

“Street kids believe they are rubbish – easily used, easily discarded. I want to show them and the rest of the world that rubbish can be looked at in another way. As I say to the kids, if you can make music out of rubbish, there is nothing in this world you cannot achieve.”

The children will obtain their materials from scrapyards and will be looking for the likes of hubcaps, tyres, exhaust pipes, washing machine parts – in fact, anything that makes a sound.

“We will teach them how to make the musical instruments,” explains Westwater. “The kids then will make their own music along with lessons from our music teacher. We have 10 of our most vulnerable kids taking music lessons with the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra (JPO) and it is hoped that these kids will eventually form the backbone of the junk orchestra. Plans are that the orchestra will play at the 2010 opening ceremony, and then we will take them over to London and share the stage with our vulnerable London kids for the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics.”

She hopes the JPO and the Royal Philharmonic will join forces and give the young musicians professional support during their musical journey.

Years of neglect

Westwater’s own story began in Manchester, England, when at the age of three she was taken to live with her deranged father – ironically, he was a preacher – and his girlfriend. For the next two years he seriously neglected her, often locking the child in the back garden for extended periods and leaving her with no choice but to scavenge for sustenance, although the façade he presented to the community was that of a loving family man. Barely out of toddlerhood, she was put into an orphanage that was unimaginably strict and presented her with just as dismal a life – and it wasn’t long before she found herself back with her father.

Later the family moved to South Africa but the situation did not improve and the unhappy child even ran away to join the circus and spent several weeks with them before her father tracked her down and dragged her away.

She had to wait until she was 12 before an opportunity came to escape her father’s cruelty. In the early 60s in apartheid South Africa it was unthinkable that a little white girl should be homeless, but the streets of Hillbrow, Johannesburg, were to be her home for the next few years. She found some employment in cafes and this enabled her to scrape together enough money to take her back to England. In the meantime she had made a promise to herself that was to bear fruit in years to come.

“I made a pledge at the age of 12, as a street child, that one day I would go back and help change things for kids like me. This has been my lifelong passion, the very existence of my soul. I will do anything to aid the desperate plight of as many street children I can.

“I am fully aware of the physical, material and spiritual trauma each child faces on a daily basis. And who better to help them find the tiniest flickers of positive lights and then to hold their hands as they find the right keys to open their own doors, than someone who has been there alone?”

After her return to the country of her birth she married and raised a family, and became a teacher of drama and theatre arts, opening a group of drama schools in England. Her husband died in 1991 – without knowing anything about her ordeal as a child – and left her a small legacy, which she used without hesitation to take a step towards fulfilling her pledge and opening the first Pegasus Trust Centre in South Africa’s largest township, Soweto, west of Johannesburg.

Revealing the secret

Wanting to protect her family from her past, she had kept the truth of her abysmal upbringing from everyone in her life until a friend persuaded her to reveal her secret, which she did on national radio in 2004. Since then her heart-wrenching story and her work have come to the attention of millions around the world. In 2006 her memoir, titled Street Kid, was published. The book reveals her traumatic childhood years and was a bestseller across the globe.

Her new book, titled Street Kid Fights on: She Thought the Nightmare Was Over, is due for release in early 2008. “This book really covers my life from where Street Kid left off – the difficult times I had and the way I finally found myself and was able to work on the projects in South Africa.”

In 2002 there were 250 000 children living on the streets of South Africa, according to a document published by South African representatives attending the Civil Society Forum for East and Southern Africa on Promoting and Protecting the Rights of Street Children – organised by the UK-based Consortium for Street Children.

Ongoing factors such as poverty, overcrowding at home, and the increasing scourge of AIDS, which leaves children orphaned and having to fend for themselves, continue to push up the numbers. Through Westwater’s work many of these children who may otherwise have been doomed to an unthinkable way of life or even an early death have been given a chance to make something of their lives.

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