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Teen volunteers to aid needy in South Africa

Carolyn Soares hugging a young student in Mpumalanga, South Africa, during her Round Square service project in the summer (Photograph supplied)

Carolyn Soares didn’t know how lucky she was until she went to South Africa.

She taught English to 10-year-olds without computers or sufficient textbooks in Mpumalanga, eastern South Africa.

Huge numbers of children were jammed into tiny classrooms in the village school.

The Bermuda High School student said the experience was a real eye-opener.

“We take for granted that we have brand new textbooks each year”, the 17-year-old said. “There, textbooks were shared between two or three students.

“Their desks were two planks of wood with these small metal legs.

“There were 80 students stuffed into a classroom, so it was easy for them to lose focus. It was almost impossible to teach that way.”

Miss Soares went to South Africa as part of a Round Square group service project. BHS is part of the Round Square network whose schools are spread over 40 countries and five continents. Twenty students from around the world participated in the two-week programme in July.

While in South Africa, the teenagers also visited Uthando, an orphanage for children rescued from human trafficking or who had been physically or sexually abused.

“They didn’t speak any English,” Miss Soares said. “All they wanted to do was get in your lap and cuddle.

“That was one of the hardest days, to see these children covered in scars. They ranged from babies to teenagers.”

She was surprised to see the children using a hole in the ground as a toilet.

“During the dry season they run really low on water,” she explained. “When this happens they use a single outside bathroom that doesn’t have running water.”

Miss Soares and the other volunteers pooled their money to buy the orphanage six months of water to get through the rest of the season.

The group built a library and part of a classroom for another school in the area.

“I felt really pressured,” Miss Soares said. “But we had local builders that were really helpful. I had never done anything like that before. When they said we would be mixing cement, I imagined a cement mixer, but no, they gave us shovels and stuff to mix.”

The group also went on a two-day safari while there.

“We were sleeping under the stars,” she said. “It was amazing to see the stars in the sky.”

Their camp, in “rhino territory”, allowed them to get within ten feet of animals but also meant they had to keep watch for any wildlife at night.

“There was no light pollution and I’d never seen them like that,” she said.

“We had to be on the lookout for wild animals such as lions and hyenas coming into the camp to eat us. If a wild animal did appear, the guards were armed.

“[Being so close to the animals] was really amazing. Unfortunately, I was in the middle of photographing hippos when my camera died. There was no way to recharge it.”

The experience stayed with her once she returned here.

“I never really thought about having paved roads before”, she said. “We just upgraded our technology at BHS even more, so that was a shock. The contrast was huge. The opportunities and resources we have here are crazy.

“After the trip, I have so much more appreciation for what I have here in Bermuda at BHS. I will always feel proud that I did this.”

Miss Soares said she would go on another service project in a heartbeat.

“I only wish I had done it earlier,” she said. “I loved every second of it. Anyone considering taking an overseas service opportunity shouldn’t hesitate to take it.”

Students from any Round Square school are eligible to apply if they are 16 or older.

Read about the project here: rsissouthafrica2015.wordpress.com.