Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Wrap-up from South Africa

Before we wrap-up our trip, we want to thank everyone for following along.  Beyond your support, we have received many e-mails and phone calls of encouragement that have helped guide our project.  We hope that we have kept you all in the loop through this blog and our regular updates.  We have tried to keep them both informational and entertaining.  However, if there is anything we have left out or anything that you wish to know more about that we have not answered, please let us know.  You are encouraged to ask us anything about our trips or projects, we would love to hear from you.  In the meantime, here are some thoughts on our latest progress and a little self-analysis.

Over the past year and a half, Focal Point has worked on our South African Campaign.  We have met with community leaders, government officials, embassy employees, non-profit specialists, wealthy donors, and hard working volunteers.   We have also spent more than a month within the Coffee Bay community itself.  It was our first project location and has been the model for how we wish to run future projects. We have tried to run an aid program in a small, personal and effective way. Not by merely throwing money at an area or a project but by spending time with communities and learning the heart of their needs and problems.  Then by personally ensuring that the aid we give is used for precisely what it is intended, we know that our supporters can trust that their donations are used properly.

As this current trip to South Africa is almost wrapped-up, we take a few seconds to ask ourselves some questions:  

Have we done all we can to fulfill our promise to both the community and our supporters?   

We certainly tried.  Inasmuch as we stayed true to the ideas that founded Focal Point Aid, we have been very successful.  We have been very open with our supporters and tried to communicate throughout this entire process.  As far as the communities are concerned, we have done our best to bring them what we have promised, not always as quickly as we hoped, but we will continue to work until we have.

Does our model of running a small charity program work?

Yes, we thing it does.  Small projects might not get the attention as the big guys, but they have been at the heart of international aid efforts for decades.  A few people deciding it's time to do what they can to help is exactly the way every charity has begun, big or small.  We hope that more people follow this model.  Because of our size, Focal Point is able to spend attention to the little details that can really make a difference.  The relationship we have with the communities we help grows more personal and direct each time we visit. 

When dealing with vendors, government officials, and dozens of other people unknown to you, how do we know who to trust?

The real answer is that you can never be 100% sure.  It will always take a little leap of faith, but we couldn't do our work without help from both our old friends and new ones.  We hope that by spending a lot of time in the location of our project, we get a better sense of the local scene and know where and when to take those risks.  Beyond those personal relationships, we never do anything without research.  We seek out many recommendations from every source possible before setting our path.  We have always and will continue to seek out advice from other non-profits as well when working in common areas and  dealing with common problems. Some times it might take longer or had a few extra hurdles, but we think it's worth it.

Where is our next project?

Focal Point will always look for ways to help anywhere we can. It might be something at home in our backyard or it might be something abroad.  Our work over the next few months will include looking for new grants and new areas of support.  In the meantime, we still have much work to do on our current projects.  While we will continue to find ways to assist Amun Shea in El Salvador, Coffee Bay remains our prime focus.  On this trip we were able to supply desks, chalkboards and new paint two schools.  It was a good trip, but it is not nearly enough.  There is a mountain of more that we can and will do in Coffee Bay.

We hope that our diligence in our work and our proven track record for reliability will help us gain respect within the giving community.  And we hope that our work thus far has lived up to the standards that we hold ourselves to and to the standards that you have all come to expect from us.  Thank you all once again, the next time we talk it will be from New York.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Story of the Desks

Over the past year, Focal Point Aid has tried to find a way to help out a few schools in need.  Some things we have found remarkably easy, like meeting new people in a community a half world away, learning how and when to trust strangers, and seeing how even small gestures of help can change desperate situations.   On the other hand, some things we have found needlessly difficult, such as actually starting our charity, dealing with large government bureaucracies, and convincing people that even small gestures of help can change desperate situations.  Through the entire process, from researching a region, meeting a community, pinpointing a viable project and raising money, we thought the simplest aspect of our program would be the moment that all that other stuff was completed and we could just go out and purchase what we had promised to deliver.  Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

This trip to South Africa was centered around us purchasing well-needed desks for the Madakeni and Bekisizwe schools.  Along the way, we intended on buying other supplies and materials, but the desks were the centerpiece of our aid package.  Sounds simple enough, right? Several weeks before leaving we started our search for school desks.  We asked the principals of the schools to get price quotes for us, but little news came back our way.  Then we solicited the help of 2 woman working in the South African Embassy in New York. They spoke Xhosa (K-osa) like most people in the Eastern Cape, and they offered to help us translate with vendors while we were still at home.  The prices that we were getting however, were sometimes 300% higher than  we knew they should have been.  We suspected that the vendors heard that an American group was the buyer and they thought they could make more money from us (later we found out that they will raise the price for any reason at anytime, a very frustrating trend considering the amount of improvement that all the schools in the area need).

Meanwhile, we were getting a little nervous.  We had promised the schools that desks were on their way, and we promised our supporters that their donations would be put towards these desks.  So, with some discussion and a little bit of faith, we decided that the best way to negotiate was face-to-face. While waiting for new quotes, we headed to South Africa ourselves.  Along the way, we met with the mother of one of our embassy friends who lived in East London, the South African Board of Education (twice), both schools, another NGO who had purchased desks in the past, and then rechecked our initial contacts.  We were neck deep in price quotes from several different sources, sometimes 3 different prices from the same company.  Some included tax, but charged delivery.  Some offered free delivery but only if we ordered twice as many.  Some vendors were near by but would have taken a very long time to fill the large order.  Some were seen as very reliable but were 300km away.  Who knew that it would be this confusing just to buy desks for a school?  In the end, we chose reliability (free delivery didn't hurt either).  

We are happy to announce that the desks have been purchased!  Along with this order, we had enough money to also buy a school full of chalkboards and dry-erase boards for Bekisizswe.  We will remain in South Africa for a few more days to tie-up some loose ends and then we will return to New York. 

Sunday, October 11, 2009

School Safety

The picture above looks much worse than it really is, we promise.   But it brings up a large issue that we have witnessed over the time we have spent here:  School safety.  Yesterday while we were overseeing the painting of the Madakeni Junior Secondary School we met a man introduced to us as the "Councilor".  He has some kind of jurisdiction over the school properties in the area. He was very friendly and glad to speak with us.   However, we were not the reason he was there.  As many schools of the Eastern Cape wish to do, the Madakeni wants to organize a school garden to plant fresh vegetables to prepare better lunches for it's students.  The Councilor had brought his tractor and was there to clear some ground for the garden.  This seemed normal enough.  But what we did not know was that this included burning the brush and debris away first, as is traditionally done on South African farms.  

So what you see above is an actual fire started on school grounds, on purpose, during lunch break where all the students sit in the school yard.  Many children didn't pay it a second thought, but many thought it was fun to surround the fire and see how close they could get or run up and smack the burning ground with sticks.  Now, nobody was hurt today in the fire, but his is certainly not an exercise that many schools in the Unites States would either try or get away with.  Which has lead us to ask some questions about school safety.

How much concern about safety can you have in a place where children must sit outside in cow fields to learn?  How much concern is there about general hygiene where dogs, sheep and geese drink from the same water spigot as students leaving sheddings, waste and feces in all the wrong places? How safe are schools where the concrete stairs are crumbling into piles of sand; where broken windows leave jagged glass within arms reach of anyone older than 7 years; where children already have fallen into creek beds and ravines just trying to get to the bathroom; where just walking to school could mean crossing dangerous terrain?

We don't know.  Each culture lives with its own risks and dangers and they judge for themselves what is acceptable or not.  It seems that in South Africa, starting a brush fire is not a school safety issue.  However, there are things that can be attended to. Fences, for example.  All these schools need fences.  Fences to keep the livestock away from school grounds, and fences keeping thieves away from valuable school property.  Teachers also tell us that they need fences to keep the children from wondering into dangerous situations during school hours.  Unfortunately, there have been too many cases of students being harassed, attacked, or even abducted within feet of school grounds.  It is difficult to keep track of where students are if your school is vastly understaffed and your buildings cannot even house all your students indoors.  

While new buildings and structural improvements could help some of those other schoolyard dangers, the schoolyard will become a much safer place around here with fences (and maybe they could find a less fiery way to clear the brush, too).

Friday, October 9, 2009

A New Coat Of Paint

Our trip so far has included a lot of frustration over things well beyond our control.  If you have been reading some of our past posts, you see we have come up against a beauracratic wall as far as improvements to both schools we are here to help.  We are continually saddened by the conditions in which thousands of children must learn in everyday in what is technically the "wealthiest country in Africa".  This could only lead us to a few very unfortunate conclusions.  Either the South African government is not spending money on these schools, or the money has been diverted away from this region by people within the education system.  It is a sobering reality that unfortunately will effect yet another generation of South African children.

Being outsiders here, it is not our place nor within our power to wage a political fight on behalf of these schools.  For now all we can do is shine a spotlight on the situation and give as much aid to these school directly as we can.  Today, we finally saw the benefits of our project in work.  After several trips to Umtata and wading through a comically inefficient hardware warehouse experience, we were able to purchase about 300 liters of paint and supplies for the Madakeni school.  Today, we painted.  To be more precise, students, teachers and community member painted.  Mrs. Madlalisa (the school's principle seen above) rounded-up a few dozen members of the extended Madakeni family and went to work.  From 9am his morning to the last ring of the school bell, they repaired cracks, spackled over holes and repainted the exterior of their 5 room school building.  Tomorrow they will tackle the interior and maybe take care of a few more cracks.  

Painting an old building isn't as good as building a new one, one that is desperately needed, but it is at least a positive step for this school.  For now they will have freshly painted walls to house the desks that we are on our way to delivering.  

As we continue our work here, we want to thank everyone back home for their support, especially the students of Ms. McKay's 2nd grade class at PS 154Q in New York City.

Thursday, October 8, 2009



As you can see from our past posts, we are very concerned about the Bekiziswe school.  We are concerned about the deplorable conditions that the children must endure each day they are there.  We are concerned about corruption in the way that education funds have been misused, how this school, one of the poorest we have ever seen continues to be overlooked for improvements and basic needs like a roof over their heads.  We are also concerned that the Board Of Education or some others who have heard about Focal Point Aid bringing aid to the schools of the region may use us as an excuse for not helping these schools themselves.  This last thought has weighed heavily on our work the past few days.

We were able to reschedule yesterday's postponed meeting with Mr. Madaza from the Board Of Education for today.  The meeting was at the Bekisizwe with us, Mrs. Mangisa, Mr. Madaza and Mrs Madlalisa from the Madakeni school.  Mr. Madaza brought us building blueprints and quotes for desk prices that he had promised from the other day.  After thanking him for those, we wanted to be very clear about our concerns for the school and steered the discussion towards what exactly the BOE is planing for the school.  Mrs. Mangisa had been hearing for the last 13 years to expect new school buildings and we had heard just 2 days ago the exact same thing.  According to Mr. Madaza, installment of temporary structures were scheduled to begin yesterday, but shrugged it off to "the way things happen."  

The meeting today was friendly but very direct.  The answers about the timeline for improvements to the school were unacceptable at best.  While we are here we will do what we can to help the Bekizise.  We will buy the desks that we have promised as well as a dozen chalkboards and other supplies.  But we will  certainly not stop there.  We will continue to raise money for the cause of the schools here.  We will also try to shine a giant spotlight on the egregious neglect of schools like the Bekiziswe. While we were here, we received a call from the South African Embassy in New York.  They are curious about our progress in the Eastern Cape.  We had a brief discussion over the phone about what we have seen here.  They have asked to meet with us when we get back to give them a full report about our trip.  We don't know if it will help, but we hope that us being can push things along.  If our stories and photographs can move those with the ability to help, actually do something positive for these schools, that will be a good day.  We will ourselves keep plugging along.

As always, thanks for following our project.  Please share this with your friends, families and colleagues. 

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A serious day at Bekiziswe


Today was all about meeting with the Beiziswe Junior Secondary school.  On our first trip, we were shocked at not only how poor the conditions of the school were but wondered for how long the school could continue running without help.   A year and a half later not much has changed.  Children learning outside sitting on the muddy field surrounding the 4 room school structure, no electricity or running water, no bathroom facilities, no textbooks, no this, no that, etc.  And unfortunately probably no change in sight.   It is hard to explain exactly how much a school like this needs when they barely have a school at all.   The community has come together recently to help build them a small new structure, but it will be no more than a small mud-hut that will allow only a few more students to sit inside in the dark, and only temporarily.  

We met with Mrs Mangisa who has taught children here outside for more than 20 years. She was happy to see us but as we spoke she was noticeably tired of the situation and more than a bit angry at being told time and again that the Board of Education is going to help without ever seeing results.  The day before, we were told at our meeting at the BOE in Umtatha that the Bekiziswe had been visited by the Portfolio Committee sent by the South African Parliament and that they were in line for new buildings.  Mrs. Mangisa told us with a very stern look that they had been hearing the same thing for the last 13 years.  It appears that what we have heard, what the school has been told and what is really happening are three different scenarios.  

We are certainly not here to get involved in the politics of the South African Education system, nor are we here to tell anyone what is right and wrong, but some things are very obvious when you see them.  The Bekiziswe school needs help, their children need help, and their teachers need help.  To put things in perspective let us compare the meetings we have had over the last few days.  One meeting took place with the BOE in a very nice office in a big building in Umtatha.  The second was with The principle of the Madakeni school in a broken down classroom with holes in the ceilings and floors, no electricity and desks on their last legs.  The third was today with Mrs. Mangisa which took place with us sitting outside where the children learn in the grass and mud. We talked as she ate her lunch (rice and cabbage) while a local starving dog sat next to her waiting to see if she would drop any of her food.  This is a very proud woman who has spent her life trying her best to educate the children in her community.  She runs a school of over 600 children and in order to do whatever she can to help her situation she is forced to take meetings sitting in a cow field literally fending off hungry animals.

We tell her that we are able to buy enough desks to fill the classrooms that she has as well as chalkboards and other small items, but obviously there is much more that is needed to be done.   We are not an advocacy organization but we will do what we can to ensure that the Board Of Education does what it has promised.  Unfortunately the meeting we had with them today was postponed.  



8:50 am- Met up with Sanele to thank him for all the help he gave up while we were back in New York.  It was a fun reunion amongst friends.

9:15 am.  Arrived at the Madakeni Junior Secondary School (with Sanele in tow) to meet with school officials.

9:30 am.  Sat down with the Principle of the school, our very good  friend Mrs. Madlalisa and her teachers to re-aquaint everyone to our project and update them on our fundraising.  It was the schools first day back from classes after a week vacation so our timing could not have been better.  The school, the teachers and the children all made us feel welcome.  Our growing familiarity to this area is a great sense of comfort.

10:00 am.  The meeting goes well and they are thankful that we have come back, since so many other charities that have promised to help, have failed to return.  We mention that it would be helpful to have a school official  come with us to Umtatha to visit the Board of Education and to negotiate with possible vendors for school materials.

10:03 am. Minutes after saying this we are in our car with Mrs. Madlalisa and Sanele heading towards Umtatha.  Along our 100km ride, the four of us talk about Coffee Bay, The World Cup, Music and the possible whereabouts of Osama BIn Laden.

11:30 am. Arrive in Umtatha.

12:00 pm Find Parking. You think it's tough to find parking in NY, try downtown Umtatha at lunchtime!

12:10 pm.  We meet with Thobile Jombile and Simphiwe Madaza at the South African Board of Education.  They are head of the schools in the region (over 300 in all).  We discuss our project and our goals.  We talk about the two schools we are trying to help and tell them our frustrations about finding too many vendors who are overcharging for desks.  They vow to help us find fair prices and help track down building contractors for the future.  Mr. Madaza is coming to Coffee Bay tomorrow to discuss a plan.  This is a good sign.

1:00 pm.  Sanele departs and we go look for a place to eat lunch.  We are in the Capitol of the Eastern Cape so we have many options.  We pass over a few South African chain restaurants like "Steers" and "Debonair Pizza" and ignore the KFC (who knew?) and settle for a quick soup and sandwich place.

2:00 pm Lunch is over and we take Mrs. M to a hardware store where we purchase 140 liters of paint and paint supplies for her school.  The store looked like a mini Home Depot with large aisles filled with paint, fencing, posts, and other building supplies.  This will be a good store to know.  We will organize a painting day later this week after we figure out the desk situation.

Overall today was a very good day.  We bought some of the materials we need and made contacts that could help us in the long term.  The price of desks and finding a reliable vendor continues to be a concern, but hopefully it will get worked out over the next few days.  We hope that we won't have to make the long and arduous drive to and from Umtatha too often.  It takes up a lot of the day, but we will do what we have to.

Tomorrow before we meet with Mr. Madaza, we will go visit Mrs. Mangisa at the Bekiziswe school.