LiA Weekly Log: Week 1

Reflections regarding my first week of volunteering at SOS Children's Villages in Cape Town, South Africa.
LiA Weekly Log: Week 1
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I have had the pleasure of completing my first week of volunteer work at SOS Children’s Villages in Cape Town, South Africa. This NGO houses orphaned, abandoned, and precariously housed youth, and I have had the absolute privilege of getting to know these children throughout my first week.


What went well?

The progress I made; what was achieved and done

I had been virtually meeting my contact at this NGO on a monthly basis since January to assess the centre’s needs to determine how I could best contribute; however, we agreed that it would be important for me to solidify my plan only after I had arrived and met all the staff and children. Therefore, this first week involved many meetings and discussions regarding how I could best create a sustainable impact for this centre.

Throughout these discussions, my contact and I agreed on the following activities:

Comedy-based psychosocial intervention for teenagers

Where the comedic improvisation classes have been taking place!

This was the main purpose of my trip in the first place, and it will take up most of my time during my Leadership-in-Action project. I will be running mental health focused comedic improvisation classes for the teens that live here. My goal will be to help increase key variables that the centre shared with me: self-regulation, resilience, collaboration, kindness, and generosity. So far, the participants have been extremely receptive to the program. My contact shared that it was proposed to them as a voluntary extracurricular program, that there would most likely be all of the teens present on the first day (i.e., 20 teenagers), but that it would most likely drop down to 10–12 participants. However, and I am not entirely sure how, there has been an opposite effect—the number of participants has increased since our first class, which I am very happy about.

Comedy-based psychosocial intervention for preschoolers

This opportunity came about quite randomly. I noticed that there was a preschool on site that was attended by some members of the centre, along with other children from the surrounding community. I asked to meet with the principal there so that I could propose a comedy program for preschoolers that I had been working on in my spare time. I had an extremely positive meeting, and I will now be also helping them out throughout my time here. Briefly, I will be telling the children a story that I will be making up on the spot, but I will be periodically checking with them for suggestions (e.g., “Once upon a time there was an animal—raise your hand if you want to share what animal will be in this part of the story…”). I will then give opportunities for them to come “on stage” (i.e., in front of the class) to perform certain scenes from our improvised story (e.g., “Raise your hand if you want to be the [animal we chose] in the scene that we just described…”). My goal will be for them to gently gain experience being in front of their peers in a performative setting, which will hopefully act as a protective factor for any potential future social anxiety relating to public speaking. Additionally, the inevitable humour that will come about from creating a silly story together should hopefully increase overall feelings of group cohesion. This, in turn, would hopefully reduce the chances of bullying and aggressive acts towards one another.

Soccer-based psychosocial intervention for school-aged and teenage girls

Throughout my discussions in my first week, I also noticed a strong desire for soccer instruction from the girls at the centre. The staff advised me that this has been the case, but that they have not been able to secure an instructor for them for quite some time; therefore, I offered to do it myself. Being a previously competitive soccer player, and having also been a youth soccer instructor in the past, I felt very comfortable taking this on as well. I was able to slightly modify certain parts of my comedy-based psychosocial intervention to apply it within a sports-based setting.

First day of soccer practice!

For instance, in one of our first practices, I noticed that many children were, understandably, accusing one another of not passing the ball to them on purpose. This provided an excellent opportunity to discuss, as a group, the concept of hostile attribution bias, which involves the tendency to interpret others' actions as hostile acts. Specifically, I was able to demonstrate to them how one can have different mental responses to the same situation. By visually acting this out with multiple examples, I showed them the possibility of generating more prosocial solutions to their perceived problem (e.g., I advised that maybe someone who does not pass the ball to you might simply be looking down at the ground because they are still learning how to dribble and are feeling nervous). It has been very fulfilling to apply concepts that I learned about in my psychology courses, such as Crick and Dodge’s (1994) social information processing theory, and I am grateful for this experience. I also included intermittent “inclusion checks” throughout our end-of-practice matches; this is a space where anyone who does not feel included in the game can express it freely, and then, as a group, we discuss how we can support that player. Due to the children being either orphaned, abandoned or precariously housed, a simple game of soccer could be representing much more for them, so I will continue to be mindful of this as I move forward with the soccer program.

Wall art near the field

Skill sharing with the centre’s staff

Lastly, I will be sharing some of my skills to the centre’s staff throughout my stay here. I have organized “drop-in” hours, along with actual classes, where I will be advising them how to incorporate drama/comedy within their work. Some staff have also requested that I teach them about certain psychological concepts that I learned about in school, so I will also be doing this as well. Before my final week, my goal will be for the staff to be able to replicate what I am doing with the children themselves through a curriculum that I will donate to them.

What could have been done differently?

Things that did not get done and/or could be changed

I have been very grateful to have been able to quickly connect with the children under my care. However, early on, I felt a mixture of excess anxiety and sadness due to thoughts about the future. Specifically, I found my mind wandering regarding how challenging it will be to part ways with all these wonderful, loving kids that I have met. Due to this, I reached out to a friend of mine who is a child psychologist and regularly works with youth, and she gave me some excellent advice regarding how I could still maintain appropriate contact with them. To this end, I plan on proposing a potential “pen pal” program where I would send a letter to the centre every month or so, and then, with the guidance of staff, the children could write a collective letter back to me in Canada. I plan on proposing this to the staff to see how they feel about it, but regardless, I plan on staying more present during my time here, not thinking too much about my final week, and enjoying my time with the children as much as possible.

Views of Table Mountain from SOS Children's Villages. I can already tell it will be difficult to leave this place—especially when this is my view everyday.

What did I learn about myself when working with others?

Contributions, behaviours and values I exhibited

The Laidlaw Scholar value of being ambitious was at the forefront for me during my first week in South Africa. As discussed above, I was presented with the opportunity to take on more opportunities than was originally planned (e.g., coaching the girl’s soccer team). I did not feel pressured to do this at all, and my desire to take it on came from a genuine desire to do good—another Laidlaw value—during my time here. In fact, one of the opportunities (i.e., the one involving preschoolers) was directly sought out by myself, which speaks to how important ambition is for me. This desire to challenge myself then led me to being able to successfully pitch an impromptu program to the principal of the preschool. As such, I learned that, overall, ambition and doing good towards others are key motivating factors within my behaviour.

It was quite ambitious to hike down Table Mountain after sunset, but I was able to get this photo out of it!

What did I learn about leadership?

Leadership attributes and insights I developed

During my first week, I was able to focus on leadership abilities while navigating a new space in a new country. Specifically, I was able to lead various programming for children without resorting to harsh and controlling tactics—behaviour that I have unfortunately witnessed within many of my past child care employments in Canada. It may seem “easier” in the sense that, using fear to obtain control of a group of children may indeed get said children to obey the given direction in the moment; however, recent research shows more and more how this may lead to invisible and insidious long-term adjustment problems for children. That being said, it is also important to note the literature that supports the use of harsher behaviour management tactics for the survival of children within certain cultural contexts—especially within low-socioeconomic status neighbourhoods. Nonetheless, my focus on the attribute of leadership abilities last week allowed me to lead with empathy within my interactions with the children under my care.

What do I want to develop or focus on next?

What I still need to develop

As discussed earlier, I want to first and foremost focus on remaining as present as possible—I do not want the fear of an eventual end to my time here impede me from enjoying myself. Relatedly, I want to continue to engage in self-care activities to help balance the emotional heaviness of working with a vulnerable population who has experienced adversity. For instance, when I hiked Table Mountain, it felt like a therapeutic and recharging experience for me. Lastly, I am aware that I will be getting to know these children more and more as the weeks progress; this means that I may be inadvertently exposed to details of their past adversity. In case this happens, I want to make sure that I do not feel the need to take on more than I can handle—I need to ensure that I am cautious about potentially burning out by overexert myself too early during my trip. I will definitely keep this in mind as I excitingly move forward into my second week at SOS Children’s Villages in Cape Town.

Self-care for me is watching the sunset while eating a peanut butter and banana sandwich—am I the only one who feels this strongly about this?!

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