Friday, 15 October 2010

help2read - Volunteer Literacy Support in South Africa

Books and Adventures continues our world tour of literacy support this week, heading to South Africa to visit the literacy NGO help2read.

help2read founder Alex Moss started visiting South Africa shortly after the introduction of democracy to the country in 1994. A visit to a township with a leading member of the struggle against apartheid inspired Alex to help with the construction of a new society in South Africa.

‘I was struck by the shocking levels of illiteracy arising out of the lack of adequate education during the apartheid years,’ Alex explains. ‘I was convinced that the disadvantaged majority would only ever be able to reach their full potential if they could fully enjoy the benefits of education, benefits which require the prerequisite of literacy.’


Working as a volunteer with Volunteer Reading Help in the UK showed Alex a model of literacy support which could be taken to South Africa at a comparatively low cost, but it took time for the project to get off the ground.


Early in 2005, Alex met Dee Cawcutt, the Principal of Muizenberg Junior School, just outside Cape Town. Dee offered to put her school forward as the first for what would become the help2read programme. The children, aged 5-12, are selected by class teachers as being those, other than children with special needs, perceived as most in need of assistance. They read and play literacy games with their volunteer helper, working in the school library or a quiet place outside the classroom, supported by help2read’s resource boxes full of interesting and beautiful books.

Alex takes up the story:


‘In the summer of 2005 I persuaded my daughter to come back from Washington DC, to be trained at VRH and to go to Cape Town to set up the programme. She arrived in Cape Town in early November 2005 and quickly set about recruiting volunteers wherever she could. On 1 February 2006, six trained volunteers started at Muizenberg Junior School.’


Within weeks the school was reporting unprecedented change in the pupils on the programme, ‘from being completely shut down to becoming happily involved in school life and the excitement of learning.’


The early volunteers for help2read were, like those of VRH in the UK, often middle-class people eager to share the benefits of their education and make a contribution to society. In South Africa, this group continues to provide a significant minority of volunteers – but a great change has come about from 2006, when help2read began recruiting from among the parents of a township school.


This proved very successful and quickly became the model for most help2read volunteer recruitment. Alex explains: ‘The volunteers are the literate parents of children at the same school as the children they are helping and are able to achieve equally impressive results with the children as those we gained at Muizenberg. Volunteers also benefit from the empowerment that they experience in becoming a respected member of the school community and with the success which they achieve with the children they are helping.’


help2read has already helped over 5000 South African primary school children to become literate. ‘In every single case,’ says Alex, ‘these children would have been early drop outs from the education system without the help our volunteers have given them. Now each one of them has the opportunity to go all the way through the system, to university and beyond.’


help2read’s sights for the future are also set high. Having adapted the VRH model, developed in a wealthy Western country, to a South African setting, the help2read team are planning to extend their programme to all African countries where English is the medium for education.


‘We hope to open our first programme outside South Africa by 2012,’ says Alex. ‘In the longer term, we believe that the help2read concept can be replicated in other languages and can be a major part of the solution to the literacy problem that exists in all developing countries.’


To find out more and get involved, visit http://help2read.org/

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