Soaring at City Year

May 3, 2015 — 1 Comment

A few years ago, in a Cape Town karaoke cafe with Mtuseni, a guy sang I Believe I Can Fly, a powerful, uplifting anthem. He had an amazing voice. The place seemed to be a popular hangout for college kids, and as the song built to its crescendo, everyone was standing and shouting the refrain “I can fly!” like in a church revival. I looked around the room and at Mtuseni, watching all these bright faces full of hope and promise — and my tears just started flowing. Knowing the difficult challenges and harsh realities that exist in the country, I wanted Mtuseni and all young South Africans to be able to succeed. To thrive. To fly. Whenever I hear the song now, I’m taken back to that night — and it still gets to me.

Mtuseni has totally embraced his City Year experience since the program began in February, and in April he started working with students at a school in Tembisa township. From the beginning, I was just pleased and relieved that he is engaged and happy; since graduating from college last July, he never got one job interview.

I was impressed and a bit surprised when Mtuseni was elected co-captain of his City Year team a couple months ago. I couldn’t have been more proud … but then it got better. Six weeks ago he was selected as one of two corps members to represent South Africa at the City Year National Leadership Summit! He just returned from three days in Washington, DC, where he attended meetings and receptions with executives, staff, dignitaries, members of Congress — and most importantly, other City Year corps members from across the United States. I couldn’t be in DC, but thanks to Twitter at #cysummit, I was able to follow Mtuseni’s activities in real-time. To see his bright eyes and ecstatic grin in photos, hanging out with peers from across the country, all sharing his commitment to public service — I was beaming and walking on air.

His schedule was packed and he would only text me little snippets, but on Thursday morning he said “I’m speaking tonight, and I’m nervous.” I had no idea he was expected to speak, so I gave him a little text pep talk and then he was gone. The summit was hosting a gala reception at the Newseum that evening, in part to honor the 10th anniversary of City Year South Africa and the fifth anniversary of City Year London. On Twitter, I saw photos of the South African CEO and the other corps representative speaking at a small podium, then the tweets switched to members of the UK corps. I figured the social media team didn’t get a picture of Mtuseni, or, worse, that nerves got the best of him and he bailed. “Too bad,” I thought.

And then I saw this come across the Twitter wire…

cy summit newseum mtu8

To see him up on that stage, speaking to a crowd in the soaring lobby of the Newseum, has to be the proudest moment of my life. He texted me quickly afterwards and said “Well, I did it.” I congratulated him and told him to go enjoy his night. He said “I’m gonna have a blast!”

Then moments later, City Year SoA tweeted this:

cy summit mtuseni speech

I never anticipated that Mtuseni would talk about me in his speech. I figured he would discuss his work in Johannesburg and the program’s value to the city. Needless to say, the tears flowed freely when I saw that.

I was pretty naive when I offered to support Mtuseni and put him through school; it was infinitely more than I anticipated. The journey has been pretty rough at times, but it’s also been the best decision of my life. My work’s not over with him, but these images were the first time I’ve been able to step back for a moment and think, “I did it.” I look at the picture of a teenage Mtuseni in his school uniform hanging over my desk, the first image I ever had of him, and I can’t believe how far “my little yellow polo shirt boy” has come.

At minimum, I’ve always wanted Mtuseni to be happy and safe and secure. But knowing what a special person he is, I really want him to fly. This week, he took wing … and is soaring.

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Source: City Year

 

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Source: City Year

 

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Source: City Year

 


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Help support Mtuseni’s expenses during his tenure as a City Year service leader. His stipend barely covers commute costs from his remote settlement to a township school where he works with young children. Help me give him a robust allowance so he can buy breakfast and lunch — and maybe treat himself to a movie now and then — as this young man with so little already begins to pay it forward. Click the GoFundMe campaign icon to learn more, donate, and share. Thanks!

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Cookie Power

April 26, 2015 — 3 Comments

Valtentine's-Day-heart-cookiesWhen Mtuseni and I decided to continue our relationship when the nonprofit that connected us folded, I envisioned frequent connection via numerous paths, including the mail. Because he lives in a settlement with limited, insecure mail service, I rented him a PO box at a chain of copy shops so I could send him cards and letters and small gifts. I soon learned about the corruption of South Africa’s postal service, as some cards and small parcels sent by first class mail never made it to him; they just vanished. One properly addressed card came back to me via boat, bent and tattered, eight weeks later.

I learned that the only safe option was US express mail. This is not only crazy expensive, but a logistical obstacle course. Express mail (which becomes South African service in-country) doesn’t deliver to Mtuseni’s area, so packages must be addressed to him care-of someone in Johannesburg proper. They get a slip, Mtuseni takes it to the post office, he pays a tariff, and they give him the package. If they can find it. They’ve never lost a package, but sometimes I need to call and email to figure out where the box is being held and, one time, what shelf it was on. The package usually gets to South Africa in three days — and then can float in limbo for a couple weeks. The word “express” seems to have a different meaning in there.

It’s a hassle, but worth hearing his reaction and offering something more tangible than text bytes. South African law only allows him to receive two packages from me per year, so I make the most of it … following a loose interpretation of the ridiculously low allowable rand value for items sent. The mainstay is clothes, since he has so little and can’t look like a poor shack boy out in the world. I also include cards, letters, sometimes toiletries or vitamins. Not only does this help him, but it frees up money for his mom to spend on the household or the other kids. I’ve also sent stacks of photos from his visits here, because pictures on a laptop aren’t the same as ones hung on his wall.

A few years ago, I sent him a batch of cookies. He was surprised that I had “bought so many,” and more surprised — and impressed — when I said I had baked them myself. As they have no oven in the shack, Mtuseni doesn’t get homemade cookies very often. Given that he had about six dozen cookies, I was surprised he didn’t share them with the family. I’ve learned over the years how life in the settlement is pretty much every man for himself.

Each time I get ready to send a package, Mtuseni gets very excited. But the last couple times he seemed more concerned about the cookies than the clothes. I laughed to myself and thought, “Hell, next time I’ll save a ton of money and just send cookies.”

IMG_1908A few weeks ago I sent a box with photos from last year’s trip, drawings from my nieces, pants, sweaters, and the required black belt and hats for his City Year uniform — and a big batch of his favorite oatmeal cookies with raisins, cranberries, and walnuts. He’s been so busy — and tired — with City Year that we only talked a bit about the box when he received it. It made me sad when he said that he wanted to save his cookies for “hard times.” His money has been tight with long commutes and having to buy meals, but I told him to just eat them and know I’d keep him safe from hard times, at least in terms of food. He said he would and fell asleep mid-chat, as he often does.

So the other day I asked him how the cookies were. He said, “They help me to relax and be happy.” And then I finally understood why the cookies seem to be the most important part of the package for him, and why he doesn’t share them. They’re not just sweet treats, but something I made made especially for him. Despite having real pride for and commitment to South Africa as his home, life there weighs heavily on Mtuseni — from the personal challenges of poverty to the lack of jobs for young people. With the recent xenophobia attacks and a teachers strike that has affected his City Year school, Mtuseni said last week “It’s bad in this town.” But he keeps forging on, for his future and for the country.

And when he gets home to his small bed in the unheated, wallboard shack with the dirt floor, it makes me glad to know that a few simple cookies can give him some solace and strength — and help him feel loved.

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A Red Letter Day

April 11, 2015 — Leave a comment

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Mtuseni has been in nonstop training at City Year Johannesburg since the first week of February. I’ve been impressed by the broad range of ideas and people and organizations he’s been exposed to. More importantly, I’ve been a little amazed at how much Mtuseni has embraced the experience. He was on the fence his first week, and I just held back and let him find his way. Now he says that he’s learning more than he did in college and wants to work for the organization for years. He was even elected captain of his team!

Friday’s Red Jacket Ceremony marked the culmination of the training, where service leaders are officially inducted into the City Year family, which includes programs in 37 US cities and London. Mtuseni said it was one of the best moments of his life; he seemed to appreciate it even more than his college graduation. He told me it was “a beautiful thing, seriously” that gave him “a feeling of belonging.” For a settlement “shack boy” who is low on the South African social hierarchy, every experience of being welcomed and acknowledged cannot be understated.

IMG_2870I was surprised and happy to see that Mtuseni’s mom Nester attended the ceremony, even though he says she doesn’t really understand what he’s doing. I hope she realizes that the program is opening long-term career paths and connections for him; it’s a different mindset when you have little education and have only done menial work all your life to survive and raise a family. But it’s nice to see her smiling and proud next to Mtuseni; particularly when her eldest son Moses would have turned 26 on Monday. With him gone, Mtuseni is now the man of the family, and he quietly carries that responsibility and burden. Any work he does to better himself is with the hope of one day providing a better life for mom and the kids.

IMG_2876The impressive thing about Mtuseni is that — despite having so little — he’s always wanted to contribute something to the community, to make a difference in people’s lives. On Monday, when he starts working with primary school kids in Tembisa township for the next seven months, he’ll begin realizing his dream.

Whether he utilizes his college training and pursues a radio career in the future, who knows? But all a parent wants is for their kid to be happy, to feel like they matter, like they belong. Seeing Mtuseni’s deep commitment, abundant enthusiasm, and vibrant smile for his City Year experience gives me the best feeling I’ve had in a long time. My work with him is not finished, but I’ll admit to sitting back these past few weeks, letting out some major sighs and a few tears, and telling myself, “You did it. Well done.”


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Help celebrate Mtuseni’s Red Jacket Day and support his expenses during his tenure as a City Year service leader. His stipend barely covers commute costs from his remote settlement to a township school where he will tutor young children. Help me give him a robust allowance so he can buy breakfast and lunch — and maybe treat himself to a movie now and then — as this young man with so little already begins to pay it forward. Click the GoFundMe campaign icon to learn more, donate, and share. Thanks!

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Not-So-Superdad

April 2, 2015 — Leave a comment

IMG_1408When we’re young, we believe our dads are superheroes who can protect us from all types of risk and danger. As fathers, we internalize that all-powerful role. No matter how old our kids are, we like to think that we can always swoop in to their rescue. But with Mtuseni, in many ways I’ve been powerless — and it’s a constant source of stress, anxiety and frustration.

This is not to say I do nothing for him. I put him through school. I send him emergency money and boxes of clothes. I’ve replaced more phones than I care to count. I’ve guided him through academic stumbles and boosted him through crises of confidence.These are the challenges that most dads can handle; they’re part of the basic job description.

The things that are beyond my control are systemic. Being poor in South African, Mtuseni faces problems that I never anticipated and which seem to arise in ever-changing forms. Here’s a sample from the past month:

  • The strong US dollar led the South African government to jack up gas prices this week. This will surely increase Mtuseni’s commute costs, which already take up most of the City Year stipend.
  • Because he leaves so early for his two-hour commute, Mtuseni skips breakfast — and even with cash infusions from me, he can only afford a tiny lunch. He says the two-dollar nutrition bars I tell him to get for breakfast are too expensive. He’s losing weight; even his friends see it. He’s never had one ounce of fat, and I worry if this might be caused by something other than caloric intake.
  • Two weeks ago he saw a bad taxi accident on his way to Joburg and felt nervous. The taxis he rides are notorious for renegade driving, and South Africa has the worst highway fatality rate in the world.
  • After learning at City Year that asbestos is harmful, Mtuseni is afraid to sleep in his wallboard shack — because that’s what his ceiling/roof is made of, which was news to me. He wants the tiles gone, but there’s no money to replace them. Working with them would be dangerous; he built the room with his late brother a few years ago, so he’s already been exposed.

So this is the most recent slate of problems, which are layered on top of ongoing issues. Winter is coming, and Mtuseni can see outdoors through wide gaps in his walls in the unheated shack. Candles used for light have burned down local shacks in the past, and a generator recently leaked gas into his dirt floor. Despite his asbestos worries, I don’t want to tell him that the kerosene lamps they use are equivalent to smoking a daily pack of cigarettes. People in the settlement get sick and die on a regular basis. The family’s gas-powered fridge barely keeps food cool, and Mtuseni seems to have little knowledge of food-borne risks. Living in an informal settlement, there’s always the chance of a forced eviction. On Google maps, new housing developments are springing up near his tiny community; a landowner could sell to a developer and kick everybody out at any time.

I could go on, but it would throw me into despair. And besides, I’m Superdad. I’m all-powerful.

IMG_2269I want to fly in and take Mtuseni away from the shack, put him in a safe, warm house with water and electricity. I want him to have as much food as a 22-year-old guy can eat (and based on his visits to the US, he can eat!). I want to get him a car so he can avoid riding in the dangerous taxis. I want to find him a great job where he’s happy and earning a good living. I want to get his young sister and brother out of the shack and away from the risks of illness and violence. I want to fill all the public schools in South Africa with computers and libraries and qualified teachers. I want all the poor residents to have health and nutrition education and access to quality medical care. I want to ride in on a white stallion and bitch-slap the ANC government to take smart, innovative action to fix the country’s problems, rescuing not only Mtuseni but all the kids in South Africa.

But I’m only one man, and super heroes only exist in the movies. So I do the best I can for my son. In America, that’s usually enough. But when faced with the challenges of raising a kid in a developing country, I feel like the proverbial 98-pound weakling on the beach. Still, Mtuseni is ever grateful for what I do and calls me his magician. I just wish I had more rabbits to pull out of my hat.


GoFundMe widget

Help support Mtuseni’s expenses during his tenure as a service leader at City Year. His stipend only covers commute costs from his remote settlement shack to a township school where he will tutor young children. Help me give him a robust allowance so he can buy breakfast and lunch — and maybe treat himself to a movie now and then — as this young man with so little already begins to pay it forward. Click the GoFundMe campaign icon to learn more, donate, and share. Thanks!

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