“Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out. Many people take the first step and then stop. Yet, with every additional step you take, you enhance immensely the value of your first step. There is no royal road to anything. One thing at a time, all things in succession is the rule of life. Do not despise the bottom rings in your ascent to greatness “. Source: Unknown
The StarBright Learning Exchange idea originated over 10 years ago when a member of my personal life was touched by HIV. I was working in early childhood at the time and, being South African by birth, this event heightened my awareness of the devastation that HIV/AIDS was causing in South Africa. Whereas in western countries, treatment was available, children in South Africa were being left without parents, as they succumbed to the disease. These children had little access to education and were doing it tough as grandparents struggled to shoulder the unexpected burden of caring for this newest generation. I wanted to help. I saw setting up an exchange program in some of the more disadvantaged areas of Cape Town, as a possible, positive initiative, and so began the StarBright journey. Karen Williams, a co-worker from Kindergarten Parents Victoria, and I shared a dream and a vision of what could be! It has been an interesting and challenging experience with many ups and downs.
The year after this decision was made I travelled back to South Africa to see my family and visited some of the AIDS orphanages in Cape Town. What I saw distressed me greatly. I still have this clear image of being at one ‘house of safety” in a room of about 12 babies all just lying in cots. I asked the person in charge if I could pick up one of the babies and she looked a bit surprised and said “Yes”, but they didn’t really like to pick them up because when you put them back in the cots they cried. I can still remember picking up this very small baby, only to find that he was 9 month old. Looking into his eyes, I wondered what very little hope this child had. I asked the person in charge if she thought it might help them if we could send some early childhood teachers to spend some time at these centres and share some of their knowledge and maybe we could even have some of their workers spend some time in Australia working in our children’s centres. She thought it was a great idea. I visited 5 other orphanages that day and asked the same question everywhere I went and I got the same response.
As an early childhood professional, I have always been interested in how we could make a difference to developing communities and how we could provide early childhood education to disadvantaged children.
In September 2006, StarBright signed an MOU with Australian Volunteers International (AVI) to assist us recruit and place our Exchange Candidates. It was great to have the expertise of AVI to assist in recruiting and supporting our volunteer placements in South Africa.
Sadly we were not able to continue funding this role but lessons were learnt and we were on our way.
I was invited by the World Forum Foundation to join a 3 day HIV/AIDS Action Tank prior to the World Forum held in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia in May 2007. The Foundation invited people working with HIV/AIDS and children from all over the world. They came from the United States, Canada, China, India, Mexico, Namibia, Swaziland, Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Australia. The mounting evidence from neuroscience and developmental psychology indicated that a child’s early experiences have an enormous and lasting impact on how the brain develops, and has a lasting bearing on the lives of individuals and communities. Yet it is most often the developmental needs of these HIV positive young children that are the most neglected in the initiatives to ameliorate the consequences of the AIDS pandemic.
Bringing together around 30 representatives from 17 remarkable communities, we highlighted and examined promising practices, that people from these communities have started in their effort to promote, recognise, respect and resource these grassroots practices that focus the attention on the youngest children. The aim was that we would determine a number of actionable items and leadership messages that will be the drivers of the next steps of the World Forum’s early care and education community of practice.
The AVI Exchange Program sent our first exchange volunteer to Cape Town in January 2008. This exchange was made possible by the large donation of $25,000 by the Melbourne Market Lions Club. We had previously arranged for the Centre for Early Childhood Development (CECD) in Cape Town to act as her employer and house her at their offices. She started work in February, commencing a 2 Year stay to assist with the establishment of the StarBright Learning Exchange and also to raise funds to help facilitate the exchange program.
To maintain the viability of exchange funding, fundraising became a focus. Our aim was to set up an income generating business that would help us fund StarBright. We made a business decision to purchase and run a Child Care Centre in Melbourne, which would allow us to re-distribute profits to South Africa, thereby supporting our primary project. In late 2008 we opened Lemon Tree Children’s Centre
Unfortunately we learned that, although this was a great idea in principle, we needed more resources from both a financial and people perspective to make it work. It was with a degree of sadness and some pain that we undertook the sale of Lemon Tree in 2010, which had become an extended family culture of StarBright. However there was no other way.
The committee regrouped and we made the decision to focus on sending early childhood teachers to Cape Town. StarBright identified two organisations to which assistance and support to their early childhood programs for very disadvantaged children in Cape Town would be provided.
(1) The Etafeni Centre in Langa is a place of hope and inspiration, offering a great opportunity for skilling and empowerment of many ordinary people who are trying hard to survive under difficult conditions. Their aim is to support women infected and affected by HIV/AIDs and their children to stand on their feet and develop a sense of pride in what they can do for themselves. The Etafeni Centre was the first organisation with which we worked.
(2) True North was added in 2010. True North provides practical teacher training, educational resources, structural improvement to current buildings and facilities, building brand new creches, business training to principals, as well as ongoing support and monitoring. In tandem with these efforts valuable information has been gathered regarding the social dynamics within these communities, specifically as it relates to the education of young children.
To date StarBright has conducted four Exchange programs.
- The first as described was a two year contract between 2008 and 2010. An early childhood professional conducted preliminary tasks and researched needs of the community.
- The second was a three month exchange, where an early childhood professional strengthened ties with these two organisations, building trust and strengthening bonds.
- The third exchange was a six week exchange, involving three early childhood professionals. These wonderful women enriched the lives of the children in South Africa through arts based curriculum and connecting with the local environment, sharing experiences with South African child care workers. Not only was this experience felt in South Africa, children here in Australia were also engaged in the journey. There was sharing of stories and experiences from both cultures, with computer technology providing an avenue by which communication could be effortlessly streamed across the miles.
- In 2012, StarBright achieved a momentous goal. Two child care workers were brought to Australia from South Africa and had hands on volunteering experience at a renowned early learning centre. They could experience the theory which had been discussed and see the application of their ideas. There were several ah-hah moments.
In 2013, I returned to South Africa on another family visit. Imagine my delight when, visiting the two organisations with whom we have now developed such strong bonds, the child care workers shared with me their successes. They were still using the skills they had learned, they were initiating new ideas and practices, they were more committed to improving conditions, they had undertaken further education.
Some say, why bother. StarBright is yet another example of what can be achieved with a little passion, commitment and perseverance. Lives are changing dramatically, some are outside our immediate circle and we will never be aware, but we can see the effect. There is a renewed hope. These children will have new options on which to base their lives. It may not be much, but we ARE making a difference and that’s what makes it all worthwhile.
- Carol Allen, President and Co-Founder
“I have long held a passion for Africa after my visit in 1992 which opened my eyes to this wonderful country. There was so much for us to learn from each other. Then when the AIDS epidemic started to take hold, and upon meeting Carol Allen and learning her personal story, I knew I had to do ‘something’.
I had worked for community and overseas aid organisations with a focus on children’s education, women and family welfare for 15 years. StarBright was founded as both Carol and I believe that children who are nurtured and educated from the earliest age can provide a brighter future of hope and possibilities.
South Africa touched my heart deeply after a visit in 2006 and it was a privilege to be part of the establishment of StarBright to enrich the young lives of these children in need.”
– Karen Williams Co-Founder