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(This blog is from the Summer of 2016.)

A few weeks into my Duke Engage experience, I was tasked by my work supervisor to develop and plan a youth week program hosted by our organization. I was excited and honored to be given a large scale project, and I felt ready to create a program that would make all of my co-workers proud.

Shortly after receiving the assignment, I realized this task would be monumentally more challenging than I had expected. Not only did I lack the local contacts to be able to organize food, guest speakers, and activities, but my background as an outsider of the community meant that my ability to connect with youth of the area was diminished. From small things like saying “Fall” instead of “Autumn”, to large things like expecting that our published age bracket for the event (14-25) would be upheld, I began to feel less and less capable. To add on to these barriers, my supervisor often articulated new visions of the programming, and I would find that my planning over multiple days would be quickly disregarded for the youth week to take a new direction.

The weeks leading up to the event were stressful, and as we got closer and closer to the start date, I began to understand how little control I had in executing the event. Our programming was subject to change minutes before, we were expecting hundreds of youth to attend, and the team that would be available to run the event seemed to get smaller and smaller.

To make a long story short, I was starting to dread the program I had so anticipated. I felt that it had become out of my control. I was worried that the program wouldn’t live up to my standard of perfection, and that the success of this week would speak to both my ability and credibility as a volunteer.

While the week was long, extremely taxing, and 60% of the time did not go as planned, the entire team and youth involved cited the week as a success. The following weekend, I was still struggling to comprehend their excitement. On the final day of the programming, we were kicked out of our rented community hall, part of our electronic equipment was stolen, we had over 200 people waiting on food that was cooking slowly, and young children from age 3 to 13 wreaked havoc inside and on the grounds. Yet as the crowd left, the tattered team stood behind to clean up, and everyone (myself included) was smiling and laughing.

We joked about the crazy kids and the condescending hall supervisor. We enjoyed the amazing taste of the “braai” (barbeque) that took 2 hours longer than expected to cook. We even spoke with the older youth that hung around and kept asking ‘so, when will you have another youth week?’

It took me until I was walking home from work on Tuesday to understand what I had failed to see. I was two minutes into my five-minute walk, and I passed the primary school I’ve seen every day. After training myself to block out most noises due to the incredible amount of cat-callers on the street, I was jolted to hear someone scream “Lesley!!!!” I quickly turned around, trying to plan my escape route in the event that this person was an aggressor, and I was greeted by the toothy grin of one of the most disobedient young girls at our youth week programming.

I was so surprised. The same girl that our team had struggled to control the entire week – that frustrated me since she was 8 years younger than what we planned for – told me that ‘her day was made’ by running into me on the road. I immediately thought of how terrible it would have been if we turned her away at the door, a prospect we had considered as our program became overwhelmed with tiny tots. I thought of how, instead of spending her school break roaming around her neighborhood unattended, we were able to feed her twice every day. I became confident that although she might not have internalized all 5 days of our organization’s message, she at least left the program with one new piece of knowledge. Finally, I remembered my goal of this trip; it wasn’t to show off my talents or even deliver amazing content for my organization. My goal of this trip was to be a positive force in at least one person’s life. I can say with confidence that I actually achieved that.

I was annoyed by the messages at the Duke Engage Academy, repeating “it’s not about you.” This theme was meant to engrain in our heads that our time abroad is centered around serving our community, not serving our own interests. This claim was true. And still, no family member or site coordinator or Duke administrator could have relayed this message clearer than my tumultuous week. My expectations were challenged, my usual abilities diminished, my standards compromised by all metrics I would have used just 2 months ago. But writing now, I know I am proud.


**Please find below our program mission and overview from our post-event report.

Program Mission
The South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) saw a premier opportunity in the holiday season for youth of the area, and we prioritized creating programming to engage the youth in discussions of critical issues. Our mission was to involve all youth from different South Durban communities in interactive educational experiences throughout the week to promote stewardship and youth empowerment. SDCEA also aspired to provide a safe environment for these youth to spend their days while they were released from school.

Program Overview
The program ran from Monday to Friday, from 10.00AM to 14.30PM, and our target age was 14 to 25. Nonetheless, our program attracted large groups of small children below the age of 13, and we allowed them to participate in the program. Each day had a different theme, allowing us to plan activities, speeches, and the like in a cohesive and comprehensive manner. Additionally, each day was led by a member of the SDCEA team to introduce the youth to our various staff members, interns, and community volunteers. Out of approximately 500 paper invitations, as well as electronically shared invitations, we averaged just above 150 participants each day. We fed all participants and organizers each day with fruit and a snack, as well as juice and a lunch meal at the end of the day.

Throughout the week, we engaged the youth in competitive games and activities to capture their attention and generate excitement for the content of our program. About 13 South Durban communities were represented each day. Details of the attendants of our program can be found in the “Daily Attendance” section of this report.

SDCEA team members thought that the week was an achievement, especially due to the growing numbers of participant’s day to day. However, it was noted by all members that the influx of young children somewhat derailed the efficacy of the program for the older youth that we had targeted. Overall, the team was glad to see that we could provide a safe, learning environment for the youth of many areas for the entire week. We are all positive that each participant left our week-long programming with at least one new piece of knowledge about being a guardian for the community and environmental stewardship.

The participants were excited to meet other youth from different areas and engage in discussion and activities, and SDCEA found the program to be a positive and rewarding experience. Many on the SDCEA team would enjoy seeing more events of this nature, especially with the wisdom acquired by this first venture. Planning and organization are an absolute must, and we know these are areas in which we can improve tremendously. Overall, the week was educational and fun, and many youth inquired about when the next program would occur. We believe this speaks volumes to our success, having excited the youth about participating in community building.