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Turning a life around


As Secretary General of The Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award Foundation I’ve been very fortunate to have met hundreds of young award participants around the world and many of their stories are quite remarkable. It’s impossible to share all of their experiences within this blog but ‘Agnes’ is a great example of the kind of young person that I often meet. Although Agnes is an amalgam (and is not featured in above photo)her‘story’ is based on the inspiring real life experiences of many young people I have met over recent years…

Last Friday I met Agnes. Just a few weeks ago, Agnes had been at risk of dropping out of society and entering a world of drugs and prostitution. She had left school long before matriculation, was unemployed and had argued with her parents to the point where they were close to throwing her out of the two room family home in Khayelitsha, a township on the Cape Flats in the Western Cape of South Africa. She knew things were going badly wrong – and were potentially getting worse.

Then, one Wednesday afternoon, a local community worker mentioned an opportunity to Agnes. How would she feel about taking a massive leap of faith and enrolling in a very special remedial residential programme? It would mean voluntarily leaving her family for three months, living in very spartan conditions, doing without her beloved mobile phone, studying hard and buckling down to serious discipline. But it could be a away for her to turn her life around.

Agnes has now been at the Academy for seven weeks. She is halfway through the programme. She is one of a cohort of 180 students who have volunteered to submit themselves to an almost military regime of 4:30am wake-up calls, drill, inspections, life skill classes and community service. The daily programme is well planned to encourage structure, self-discipline, order and routine amongst students. The day starts with physical training, ablutions and cleaning of rooms for inspection, followed by parade. Classes start at 09h00 and end at 15h15 each day. From 16h00 until supper, the students engage in various sporting activities, fitness exercises, drilling and graduation preparation. After supper, the evening programme starts at 19h00. Students are engaged in recreational activities like arts,craft and culture, entertainment and devotion. A debrief at 20h00 between instructors and students addresses challenges, provides fresh insights and discussions take place about the next day’s activities. During the quiet time, students are encouraged to write in their journals and do reflection work. By the time the lights go out, students are normally physically and mentally exhausted and ready to get a well-deserved 7 hours sleep until wake–up the next morning.

For the past three weeks, Agnes has been taking part in the Outdoor phase of the programme, aimed at building leadership capability. She has slept under canvas, taken more physical exercise than ever before, learned to solve practical problems and has developed a bond with her ten team-mates that is obvious for all to see. She now has two more phases of the programme to experience. She is just about to start the Skills Phase when students learn basic skills such as electrical circuitry, fire fighting, welding, cookery, youth development and a range of other skills depending on their individual needs. Agnes is looking forward to learning how to work with young children. Finally she will experience the Community Phase of the programme, when she and her fellow students will engage in various career discussions, volunteer at community projects and prepare for their exit back into their communities and home life.

As Agnes showed me around the Academy campus, it was clear that the programme was having an incredible effect on her self-confidence and ambition. If she hadn’t told me about her recent troubles back home, I would never have guessed that the articulate, enthusiastic young woman that was my guide for the visit, was a child at risk. She was sparky and full of hope for the future. Her only complaints were about her sore feet; she and her friends had found hiking up Table Mountain to be the most challenging thing they’d ever done. These complaints were the same ones that I experience when talking to Award participants around the world. They are complaints that are always coupled with great pride at having achieved what had been thought to be the unachievable.

And this isn’t so surprising. Agnes is a teenager like so many other teenagers the world over. As a result of the Academy Programme she will achieve the Bronze Standard of the President’s Award for Youth Empowerment, the South African branch of The Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award. She is looking forward to her Graduation Ceremony when parents, families, friends and invited dignitaries will attend and see her receiving her certificate – the first official qualification she will have achieved. Agnes told me that the gala event is amazing. The students showcase their dancing, acting and singing talents, as well as the crafts that they have learnt. A prestigious drill squad wows the audience with precision drilling manoeuvres.

As we say goodbye to each other, Agnes is already talking about how she will earn her Silver Award when she gets home.

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One Comment

  1. Great reflection, John. I missed it in the aftermath of our 30th anniversary celebrations!!

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