Julie Hay – Singakwenza Education and Health

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Julie Hay doing what she loves best. Pic by Nikki Brighton

“Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world” -Nelson Mandela

There is magic happening where Julie Hay lives. Ordinary, everyday things which are usually discarded are being transformed into tools for learning and playing. While the Singakwenza project does have an office nearby, it is clearly Julie’s creativity which drives the project, so her home is part of the programme too. Putting waste to work is how she describes the process.

“You shouldn’t have to be wealthy to be educated” Julie says with determination. South African statistics show that only half of the children who start school get to matric and that less than 75% of those can get 30% or above in the final exams. Unless children learn the fundamentals at the right age, they start school from a disadvantaged position. “The only way to change this is to change the foundation of education and find creative ways of getting real learning into less privileged communities.” Julie has found a way. With 10 000 creches in KZN, there are plenty of kids who spend the day with caregivers. “We work with the system already there, no point setting up new pre-schools.” By investing in people, rather than stuff, Singakwenza, which means “We can do it”, is able to completely transform the ability of children to achieve at school and equip children with the skills they need to make good choices about their future.

Julie always knew she’d be a teacher as children were a magnet. As a pre-school teacher she has seen a lot of schools and crèches. “I simply couldn’t bear the wastage which I observed,” she says, “lots of good educational tools which were either neatly packed away, being used for the wrong purpose or simply languishing in the sandpit.” Despite the presence of reasonable equipment, education was not happening. “Everyone wants to fix up the built environment, but that does not necessarily make a difference. I want the teachers to connect to the kids and just start playing.” Julie has seen many examples of schools spending tons of money to buy all the right equipment, then tons of money to protect it, and realised there had to be a better way. “I noticed that people were quite helpless when something broke, so the learning would just stop” Now with the Singakwenza way – if something breaks, you just go out, find some more free material and make a new one! All Singakwenza learning aids can be created with a pair of scissors and some tape. Magic!

Julie’s transformative voluntary work earned her a Vodacom Change the World Award which paid her salary for a year in an Early Childhood Development centre in 1000 Hills. As fortune would have it, N3TC read a story about her in the Meander Chronicle, and after meeting her leapt at the chance to help her make magic. “The thing I love most about N3TC is that they don’t just want to tick boxes. They are the most incredible and caring partners, determined to make a real difference.”

Julie believes that stories are one of the best ways to teach kids and has read extensively to her own children who have absorbed her compassion and deep understanding of people. When Matt (age 17) first learnt at age 8, that there was no Father Christmas, he was horrified that there might be kids who wouldn’t get presents. He decided that the best way to remedy this would be to build a toy factory disguised as a mielie meal factory to make gifts for all the poor kids. Kirsty (14) is a mini-Julie, who cooks with passion, understands the value of nurturing relationships and is a voracious reader herself – determined to follow in Mum’s footsteps.

Julie’s favourite toy – made from plaited plastic bread bags – is the skipping rope. “It brings people together – you can’t skip alone.” This epitomises what Julie is about – enabling, empowering, nurturing, sharing – changing the world, one child at a time. And when she starts telling a story everyone listens.