Helping the previously helpless

Staff and learners at the I Can! Farm celebrate their first agri-tunnel

Staff and learners at the I Can! Farm celebrate their first agri-tunnel

The little engine chugged: “I think I can.” Barack Obama rallied voters with “Yes we can.”

Ali Smeeton, entrepreneur, go-getter and mom to three children – including 14-year old Jamie, born with Down Syndrome – simply says: “I Can!”
She found that most special-needs schools catering for the disabled produce young adults with usable literacy and numeracy skills. Others become so enmired in basic care, nursing and feeding that education sometimes takes a back seat. For example: Smeeton’s I Can! company regularly encounters school-leavers incapable of writing their own names, doing basic calculations or understanding measurement. Others don’t know how to catch a bus or taxi, relate socially, or grasp the basics of how life works.
Rather than abandoning such youngsters to mere hopeless existence, she elected to put the word “able” back into “disabled” – by finding ways to bridge the gap between their unrealised potential and prospective employers’ needs.
Smeeton set up learnership programmes aimed at turning previously unemployable disabled youth into semi-skilled workers capable of holding their own; either in formal work environments or as self-employed entrepreneurs. Depending on each student’s abilities and capabilities, examples include Business Practice at NQF levels 1 and 2; Life Skills at NQF Level 1; Hygiene and Cleaning at NQF 1 and, recently, Plant Production (NQF 1).
Progress has been rapid. I Can! was launched in 2010, focussing on training, recruiting and placement with sister company Khulisani, its venture-creation partner, following a year later. Now boasting 10 centres countrywide – the tenth right here in the KZN Midlands – numbers 11 and 12 will follow soon in Limpopo and Northern Cape.
Because a most basic human need is for food and knowing how to grow it, Smeeton established the I Can! Agricultural Academy in Baron Road, Merrivale; backed up by a 34-Hectare farm out along the Petrus Stroom road. The big old house in Merrivale will ultimately become six classrooms able to accommodate up to 80 learners. Its rambling garden has ample space for five agri-tunnels where classroom theory is put into practice.
The farm, presently a country retreat, is being restored to working status for advanced training. Once stocked with cattle and poultry, professionally irrigated from the surrounding uMngeni River and planted with vegetables, its diverse produce will be processed on-site for marketing. Currently funded from training resources, it’s expected to become self-sustaining.
Training resources? Let’s explain. Each learner is employed by a commercial sponsor paying a monthly stipend of R2000; with a R4000 bonus on successful completion of his or her course. A training fee funds facilitators, educational equipment and premises.
This is no hands-out solicitation exercise. I Can! and Khulisani offer valuable commercial services that benefit the benefactors. Their mentoring, sensitisation, training and employment programmes provide ways for enterprises to earn valuable BBBEE points relating to disability, as relevant boxes are ticked in ways they might not otherwise be equipped for: Previously disadvantaged- check. Previously unemployed- check. Rural – check. Predominantly female – check. Disabled – check. Community repayment – check.
New students are recruited via special needs schools, community leaders, churches, hospitals and rehabilitation centres and by word of mouth from present learners.
By taking the “dis” out of disability, I Can! proves it can – by helping the previously helpless to help themselves, hold their heads high and move their lives forward.
Contact Rowan Robinson on 033-3302509 during office hours, cell 082-5793551 or rowan@ican-sa.co.za
More information: www.ican-sa.co.za