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‘Here’s the thing,’ explains Mhinti Pato. ‘If you really want to make a difference, you have to move beyond treating something like it’s just a job. It has to be your way of life, the way you do things every day. At the Sakhisizwe Youth Development Program (YDP), we’re trying to instil a set of principles and values in young people, setting them on a trajectory to live full lives.’

It is a bright sunny afternoon as we sit in the grounds of Sakhisizwe YDP in Imizamo Yethu. Founder and director Mhinti Pato explains the space: there are several containers where different activities take place and a large open area for outside activities. They operate adjacent to iKhaya le Temba and it is beautiful, with brightly painted walls, flowers growing in bursts and wide scenic views across the valley.

‘Sakhisizwe YDP is a holistic after-school programme that offers mentorship and academic support, while also promoting healthy living through sports and life skills workshops. We have a strong emphasis on spirituality and creativity, because without focusing on the spirit, there will always be a disconnection.’

Since starting in 2014, Sakhisizwe YDP has played an important role in the community. For school going learners, they offer after-school support classes for Grades 7-12, with a strong focus on maths and English. They use creativity and art to help with learning, making sure the information is relatable and understandable.

For youth aged 18-25 years, they offer other skills development support, such as how to develop CVs, apply for learnerships and scholarships, or make job applications and develop job-readiness skills. They also support youth with accessing the internet, providing data to students to help them with research and support their overall development.

‘We currently have a database of about 110 youth. We run everything by grades and each grade is scheduled at a different time, with only 20 students per class to accommodate for safety and space during the COVID-19 pandemic. We also use the outside space when there’s good weather. We operate six days a week to make sure the youth are kept busy, and we also run a holiday programme when schools are out.’

Mhinti explains that the strength of Sakhisizwe YDP is built on its partnerships – partnerships with the youth, with members of the community, and with other NGOs and institutions.

‘We take a lot of guidance from our youth – we ask how they think things should be done or what we should focus on and we put them in decision-making positions. This is how you help to develop the skills necessary for building a strong community.’

They also partner with local cook and community-builder Mama Miriam who provides nutritious meals to the youth six times a week. With vegetables provided by Love in a Bowl, she cooks three hot meal per week, and supplements this with other key staples on other days. The cooking not only provides nutritious meals for the youth, it also helps to support Mama Miriam’s small business, thus further helping to grow and support the community.

‘There is strength in partnerships,’ continues Mhinti. ‘When you work together, something always comes back to you, whether its direct or in-kind assistance, or even just exposure. Partnerships are fundamental to transforming people and processes. We’re trying to move beyond just this space and into the homes and hearts of our community.’

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Mhinti and the Sakhisizwe YDP team worked with Love in a Bowl to develop a database of NGOs and community institutions working to support the most vulnerable people in Imizamo Yethu. It was through this database that Love in a Bowl was able to provide their locally grown, organic vegetables to support feeding schemes and food distribution, swiftly becoming a critical lifeline to many hard-hit by the pandemic.

‘I’ve never seen such heart put into something,’ recalls Mhinti. ‘You have to understand, community work is messy. There’s always a lot happening, a lot of people involved, and it’s hard to do. It requires constant communication and consultation and you just have to deal with the messiness. But the Love in a Bowl team trusted us and that made all the difference. It showed us what a true partnership can look like and people are still talking about the impact it has had.’

While the partnership with Love in a Bowl continues, Mhinti is constantly thinking of new ways to support the youth. There is a recycling project underway, they do regular clean-ups within the community, and they are even starting a permaculture project. There is a township tourism project, the youth are being trained to do e-bike tours, and there is ongoing sports and activity, including swimming, monthly hikes and yearly camps.

‘The whole experience has made me want to do more. People aren’t perfect, but we can all do something when we are given the space and the trust to do it. It really comes down to respect – respect for each other, for the environment, for the small things around us. That is how you begin to create change in society.’

Words and images by Kiara Worth