By Lauren Merkel, Samuel Waserman & Melanie Walsh
In February 2012, 37 students from the Desautels Faculty of Management travelled to South Africa to learn about business in the country. Not only did the group meet with executives and business leaders, but they also gave back to the community by partnering with the Ubuntu Education Fund in Port Elizabeth, an organization that provides world-class health and educational support to orphaned and vulnerable children, to ensure their access to higher education and employment. This is the last week of a fund-raising campaign looking to raise $20,000 for the Ubuntu Educational Fund. Visit the official website http://payitforward.mcgill.ca to donate to this worthy cause.
5:00 a.m. – Wake-up call. It is still dark outside. Our eyes heavy from lack of sleep, we escape the cool air-conditioning into a steamy shower in an attempt to wake up. By 5:45 a.m., we are in the lobby of our upscale, downtown Cape Town hotel enjoying our complimentary morning espresso, chocolate croissant, fresh fruit and eggs. Around the corner from our hotel, down a narrow, cobblestone street, we board our luxury bus and greet Faisal, our smiling driver.
“One, two, three, four…” We count to 38 to make sure all are on board, and drive to the Cape Town airport to take a one hour flight to Port Elizabeth.
9:00 a.m. – Touch down: Port Elizabeth. We are greeted by the directors of Ubuntu Education Fund, pile into two vans and head to their facility in the Ibhayi Township.
9:30 a.m. – Our van driver chooses a CD he knows by heart, and we do, too. We sing Barry White while looking out the window, and as the song fades away, so do our voices. Outside, we begin to see a very different portrait; “the Detroit of South Africa.” Car manufacturers line the highway, the likes of Mercedes, GM and Toyota.
10:00 a.m. – Entering the Township, we notice a dramatic change in the quality of housing and immediate surroundings. Pregnant, yet emaciated, dogs roam the dirt roads and children play barefoot. As we pull up to Ubuntu, we notice a burning pile of garbage being picked through by goats, situated next to a large, yellow and white circus tent (which we later learn is the local church).
10:15 a.m. – The hot sun beats down on the angled, modern structure of the multi-million dollar Ubuntu facility. Locals stare at the strange crowd of newcomers as we make our way into the building.
“So what do you think of when you hear the words South Africa?” asks Jordan Levy, managing director of Ubuntu. Answers of “soccer,” “lions,” and “hope” ring through the room.
After a short briefing, we are assigned official Ubuntu passports identical to those given to new clients. We are taken through the facility following the footsteps of hypothetical family that includes an HIV positive, five-month-pregnant widow; a daughter who has just been raped; a son with vision issues who is being bullied and failing in school; and another son who has not yet been tested for HIV and has missed numerous vaccinations. This case is typical for Ubuntu.
We are introduced to the many services Ubuntu would offer this family upon being accepted into the program: family planner, nurse, doctor, pharmacist, psychologist, educator, nutritionist and specialized social worker.
Ubuntu is redefining non-profit work through its own comprehensive and in-depth model. Its goal is to take a child from “cradle to career,” ensuring this child has every possible opportunity at successful, gainful employment.
Education is obviously a critical component along this pathway. However, Ubuntu officials have realized that in order to do well in school, one also needs the environment in which to learn and thrive. Therefore, when Ubuntu takes on a new client, it also takes on his or her entire family, offering equal comprehensive, long-term support. In addition to its expert staff, Ubuntu succeeds by being resourceful and using everything it has.
2:30 p.m. – We reassemble for lunch in a common area, which five minutes before was being used as a classroom. With a plate of food on our laps, we sit in circles with Ubuntu clients to exchange experiences and life stories.
“Are you enjoying your time with Ubuntu?”
“Yes. When Ubuntu found me, I was a victim,” says one 18-year-old woman. “I had no confidence and was going nowhere. Because of my time here, now I am a strong, confident girl. I love public speaking and I want to go into international law or motivational speaking so I can give the support back to others.”
And she is not alone. The second client we speak with tells us of his two offers of college admission, one in the U.K. and one in the U.S. He has been with Ubuntu since its inception, when it was just a computer education facility. Now, at 21, he tells us that had he not been taken in by Ubuntu, he would have resorted to theft and violence as his childhood friends have done. His eyes fill with tears as he tells us how thankful he is for the change Ubuntu has made in his life.
4:30 p.m. – Filled by emotion, we head back to the airport and our comfortable hotel. It will take several days to fully internalize the value of our experience.
So what do you think of when you hear the words South Africa? Be it the World Cup, be it breathtaking wilderness, or be it hope…South Africa is all these things and can be much more. Ubuntu is unleashing the potential. This is your opportunity to be a part of real change. Donate and be the difference.
Melanie Walsh and Lauren Merkel are both MBA students. Sam Waserman is pursing his MD and MBA.