Situated on the border between the Eastern Cape and the Free State, Aliwal North is known as an agricultural town famous for producing wool, maize, wheat and dairy. Now, the town is also home to the GEMM Leadership Academy (GLA), the brainchild of Evelyn Fisher.
The agricultural academy was founded by Fisher as a non-profit organisation (NPO) in 2021 with a vision to build sustainable communities through education, training, and most importantly, by establishing an agri-business.
Education in her blood
Fisher was once a chief financial officer at a government department where she earned a good salary. However, her love for education and passion for community development, forced her to leave everything behind to serve those in need.
“At the age of about 45, I decided to go back full-time to the University of Pretoria to study for a postgraduate certificate in education. The reason was that I come from a proud family of educators, both on my mother and father’s side, and I have also always wanted to be a full-time educator,” says Fisher.
After completing her postgraduate degree, Fisher went to a high school for about three years to teach accounting, business studies and mathematics among others.
Fisher was born and bred in Middelburg in the Eastern Cape. After matric she went to live in Cape Town to study towards a BCom degree at the University of the Western Cape. She worked for over 30 years in office administration, financial management and various senior management and executive positions.
Back to her roots
However, all these successes were not enough as Fisher long had the passion to go back home and starting a meaningful project that will help to uplift the young people of her beloved Eastern Cape.
“We barely utilise opportunities to live out of our passions, because that is the story of our lives as we chase after financial security – and sometimes in the process – we give up on our dreams and aspirations in the pursuit of money,” Fisher says.
She got into her car and drove to the Eastern Cape where she met friends and talked about her dream of starting a school.
Fisher explains that after seeing many young people jobless and languishing on the streets during school hours, and the high employment rate in her community, it compelled her to start GLA. She was hoping to give them skills that will empower themselves and their communities.
Starting the school
The GEMM Leadership Academy is situated on a 74-hectare of farmland outside Aliwal North, which makes it conducive for learners to do their practical work and be exposed to nature at the same time.
Fisher got the farm on a three-year lease.
“Our school takes learners starting between the ages of 13 and 25, regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds. GLA provides high school and training facilities for unemployed graduates and school leavers with practical exposure to agriculture,” Fisher says.
As a qualified teacher, Fisher also fulfills the role of educator along with two other teachers.
Fisher says she could have chosen any other discipline of learning, but she chose agriculture because she believes that it has the potential to create more than jobs. It also places food real food on the table.
“The focus is on agriculture and entrepreneurship as we believe that it is possible to create sustainable communities. We all have access to a piece of land, or a container it is still good enough to plant a seed. The agricultural sector provides the ideal starting point to bring hope as young people begin to see what is possible.
“So, the concept of sowing and reaping is not only practically demonstrated [in the food garden] but also weaved into the other subjects that we teach,” says Fisher.
Young people also learn critical skills such as literacy and numeracy, critical thinking on how to navigate life as a young person in these trying times, and coping mechanisms for emotional intelligence, she adds.
The academy started with classes this year with nine learners (five grade 8s, one grade 9, two grade 10s, and 1 grade 11).
“We offer one meal a day and school hours are from 08:00 to 16:00. We ensure that learners utilise the time effectively and take responsibility for their own learning,” says Fisher.
As an NPO, the school faces many challenges as funding will always be a challenge.
“Challenges that we currently facing is that it is a 100% faith project, which means that we are 100% dependent on resources through God’s provision.”
Fisher said she would like to see the academy expanding and accommodating young people from all over the Eastern Cape. Thus, having more classrooms is critical.
“Classrooms, learning and teaching material to be able to accommodate a possible increase in learner numbers, is required. We require funding to assist with the expenses of the school [currently funded by founder member], agricultural input to establish food gardens and poultry farming, to generate an income to fund educational projects,” she says.
“We invite experts in the industry – agriculture, education, business – to volunteer their services and expertise to advise the management team. To give of their time and resources to help implement this vision for the benefit of our children in the Eastern Cape,” she concludes.
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