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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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A Red Letter Day

April 11, 2015 — Leave a comment

City+Year+Johannesburg+South+Africa+red+jacket

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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Mtuseni is always stressing about school. One reason is because his perspective is that he’s in college for the whole family. He wants to get a good job and move his sister Bongeka and brother Musa out of the destructive influences of the settlement. He’s especially concerned about nine-year-old Bongeka. He said something last month that shocked me, partly because he doesn’t speak too often about larger family challenges…

It’s a bad thing growing in townships for a girl. Teenage pregnancy, rape, emotional abuse, environment. Just limits your thinkin’. It’s decaying when u got friends and people that think of u in a box.

My stomach and my heart both took a hit when he said this. What an awful perspective to carry about your little sister. When I met Bongeka in January, I immediately fell in love with her. She is so sweet and pretty. My hope is that once Mtuseni finishes school — and the Long-Distance Dad book about our experience is a best seller — I can provide support and  opportunities for Bongeka… and Musa… and other kids like them.

But Bongeka’s story is shared by millions of other girls around the world who face challenges that limit their opportunities. On October 11, 2012, the United Nations marks its first International Day of the Girl. The nonprofit 10×10 is one of many organizations embarking on a global campaign to educate and empower girls. Explore their site and learn more about how you or your organization can help girls like Bongeka realize a better life! We will all be richer for it.


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