In the Mpumalanga province lies the rural communities of Huntington, Lilydale and Justicia. There, a woman with a heart of gold is ensuring that 400 orphaned and vulnerable children are fed, clothed and supervised after school on a daily basis.
Fondly referred to by the locals as “Mother to all”, Charmaine Krugel and her husband (Andre) were devastated by what they witnessed when they visited Mpumalanga. In these parts, people have access to very few resources and to address this, the couple started the Swa Vana Children’s Project in 2004.
Getting the non-profit organisation (NPO) off the ground proved to be quite challenging. “We’re just an ordinary family and we didn’t know anything about how to collect donations to help these children,”Charmaine says.
By asking for donations from friends and their church, they were able to help six children. Then Charmaine took a leap of faith. She resigned from her job as a radiographer in Johannesburg after donations and assistance to her project grew considerably.
“I stopped working for 11 years to work on the project and opened three children’s centres in Lilydale, Justicia and Huntington,” Charmaine explains.
Pontso Natoi, who is Charmaine’s right hand and project manager, says they offer support to children who live in homes that only have one source of income or nothing at all. They also prioritize child headed families, orphans placed with caregivers and vulnerable children from the community.
In addition, the organisation helps households who depend on child support grants. The staff at Swa Vana Children’s Project recently noticed that a number of children in various parts of the communities don’t have South African documentation. This means that these homes have no source of income at all.
To help feed these families and keep up with demand, the NPO started growing vegetables in 2015 on unutilized ground. Each centre was planted with a variety of crops.
These rural communities have little access to resources and water, so with the gardens came set of challenges which the garden keepers were not prepared for. “We also had difficulties with the poor soil conditions and all three gardens failed,” Natoi says.
Through Shoprite and its implementation partner, Food and Trees for Africa (FTFA), the vegetable gardens were revived. The two organisations provided land preparation and training to the garden keepers and assisted with reviving the garden.
“We don’t have much agricultural knowledge, especially when it comes to soil conditions. We were grateful that the two companies offered us training,” Natoi explains.
The training included techniques such as how to prepare the land, promoting soil health and biodiversity, making compost and crop rotation. When they harvest from the gardens, it reduces the amount of money spent on groceries. Last year, they didn’t have to buy tomatoes and butternut, because the garden was doing so well.
“We used to spend R4800 per month on vegetables. Since starting the vegetables, our costs have reduced to about R900.00 per month,” Pontso explains. Shoprite and FTFA also installed a 10,000-litre water tank and irrigation, and provided tools, plant material and educational material.
The centres, which are open from Monday to Friday, each have their own garden, but the bulk of the produce is grown at Justicia. The plot, slightly bigger than the size of a netball court, produces spinach, butternut, cabbage, tomatoes, green peppers, onions, beetroot and chilis.
The vegetables that are grown in the garden not only benefit the children, but also a small portion of the community. Some families are completely dependent on the organisation and Krugel explains that they often have to ensure that they have food over the weekends as well.
To prevent the veggies from going bad, a portion of the veggies are sold to members of the community and the rest is distributed amongst the children to take home.
Apart from tending to the children’s nourishment, Swa Vana Children’s Project also addresses educational needs. Their newly implemented reading programme and spelling bee competition has helped the children improve their reading and writing.
Clothing is donated and distributed, and children are transported to clinics. They also host organised sporting activities, arts and crafts lessons, and offer counselling. “Through playing educational games we are able to assess whether the children require further educational or psychological help,” Natoi says.
Swa Vana Children’s Project’s goals are to empower and equip local community members to take care of orphaned and vulnerable children and the sick in their villages. They encourage youth and matriculants to become self-sustainable in their communities and thereby break the cycle of poverty.