CYC-Online 64 MAY 2004
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“Back to the shop floor”

Chris Smith

Some of you may have seen the BBC TV show “Back to the Shop Floor”, which has the CEO of a company going unannounced to work on the “shop floor” for a week. I thought it would be a good idea for me to do this in my own agency...

On the day I chose we wanted to invite the parents of our young people to an event at our centre, and we decided that we would deliver the invitations by hand. And since more and more of our work is now done within families and communities, my “shop floor” increasingly included homes, streets and neighbourhoods “out there”. We left Cape Youth Care after the morning rush hour to visit homes in Kensington, Mitchells Plain, Woodstock Ottery, Parkwood, Khayalitsha, Blue Downs, Milnerton and Maitland. I was driving and Manfred, our Senior Child Care Worker, was to be my guide. He was in good form today and we were soon talking about why Manchester United were going to beat Chelsea in the coming English Premier soccer league match. Of course I argued one way and he argued the other – and because of this we nearly missed the first turn off which took us into Woodstock where our first visit was to be. Not a bad house. It could have done with a coat of paint and a few screws to fix up the broken fence, but more important than this was that the family who lived there, especially the kids, were doing better. The paint job could wait.

On our way to Mitchells Plain, Manfred talked about the gangs which are evident in the communities that our boys live in – especially the 28’s and 27’s which are prison gangs – and the things that go on in prisons; of the horror of the songs they sing when new inmates are being sodomised; the killings that take place after lock up; and the “pecking order” of the inmates and what people have to do to gain acceptance in the prison gangs.

We are soon at the home of another of our boys in a gang-torn community where the Young Americans and the Mongals rule. As we turn in off the main road I’m very conscious of eyes looking us up and down. Manfred seems not to be as worried as I am as he says he is known as the “Welfare Man". He only has to pay R5.00 to enter an area. This is a discounted price as he is known to do good work in the community. Other visitors pay much more – and without the security that Manfred receives. I’m wondering how it would be if all this energy that goes into the gangs, their rules and conduct, were to be put to more positive use. Would the communities and the kids be better off? I suddenly realize that my car radio is still in its socket and although not playing right now a youngster seems to be interested in the make! Very casually I press the button and the face comes off and I quickly place it in my pocket. The youngster walks on and I look for Manfred, who comes from another direction chatting to some of the people in the street.

We visit more gang areas, each one having its own feel with its unique graffiti. I’m struck by the many people “hanging out” in the streets. Adults who should be at work and youngsters who should be at school. I think again why aren’t these people working. Are their no jobs or haven’t they got the skills for the job market? Why aren’t the young people at school? I understand more of the background and the predicament of our boys and their families, when it is common for people to be out of work and out of school.

I find myself wondering about the fathers and mothers we so easily criticized and blamed. Goodness knows we as a staff team struggled often enough when we tried to work out a plan for this kid or that family – but at least we had staff members, resources, volunteers, transport, connections, money ... Looking around, I could see how parents and families could feel demoralised and helpless. Where can these folk turn?

We are now on our way to Khayalitsha and I’m not really listening to Manfred as I realize that I’m wearing my W.W.J.D. (What would Jesus do) armband. What would He do? And what does He want me to do? And how must I lead the Cape Youth Care team. I have a Board meeting next week and the Board members expect me to come up with new solutions on how Cape Youth Care can make a significant difference in the lives of young people and their families in our city.

While deep in thought I nearly missed another turning and Manfred realizes that I wasn’t listening to him! Mew Road in Khayalitsha has no fears to me as I have travelled it often to visit the Anglican Church and the Habitat for Humanity centre, but when Manfred tells me to turn right into another street then left and right again I’m soon out of my comfort zone. He tells me to stop and says “Smithy I’m going to close and lock the door but keep the engine running!” He then disappears into a conglomeration of shacks. I see him going in and out until he’s out of view. Eyes from the street again direct themselves towards me and big brave Smithy isn’t feeling very comfortable. It’s like being in the dentist’s chair knowing that you have to be there but rather wishing it would all finish. I am aware of my own anxiety, and realise that “back home” I am the protective adult, yet here, in the territory where our boys must live and survive ... Manfred appears. He says with a smile: “Smithy have you a fever? You seem to be perspiring!”

A few more turns and we see a Caltex petrol station where, I’m told, Manfred often stops for a “pit stop” when taking boys home for weekends and where cooldrinks and chips are purchased before the journey continues. While doing this as part of his regular weekly duty Manfred picks up on the conversations the boys offer. Sometimes they don’t seem to realize that the driver listens in to what they are saying, but from this we all get to better understand the culture and experience of the young people and families we work with. I learn, for example, that at this “pit stop” Jonny (not his real name) always asks the price of an article and then tells the shopkeeper he would like to buy it but hasn’t got enough money. With his sad look he almost always comes away with the article having paid well below the price – and his pocket money still intact in his pocket! In our former “institutional” context we might have construed Jonny’s manipulation as dishonest, but while I am still unhappy about this, it doesn’t seem quite such a black-and-white issue.

We are traveling now past row upon row of small shacks, made of planks of wood, roofing sheets, even plastic sheeting. How far this is from the bedrooms, lawns and table manners which were part of our residential centre. At our final call I see, with admiration, the results of Joe’s efforts with some wood I had given him. He had built his own “pad” at the back of the small cottage where his family stay. Every week he would come to me and ask advice on how he could join and fix pieces of wood together. Often he would borrow a few tools (I think they all came back) and a few nails would be thrown in as well. He said he was building something, but was very guarded when I asked what it was. The “pad” looked very stable and Manfred said it even had electricity connected. I felt very proud that I may have taught Joe some of the skills that my father had given me.

On our way back to Cape Youth Care I asked Manfred many questions on how our boys coped in these communities. He was very insistent that the Life Skills that we taught during the week, and the follow ups that were done, were fairly accurately focussed on what the youngsters needed and were a good recipe for success.

Just a couple of years ago Cape Youth Care provided a five-day residential program from Monday to Friday and community care over the weekends and holidays. Unlike many other children's homes, we did not want the children to make Cape Youth Care “their home”. We believed that our mission was to provide good experience and skills for the children to manage in their own communities – and in most cases without the luxuries which children's home tend to add in, such as TV and videos, swimming pools and entertainment programs. Of course not all weekends went as planned and calls were often made to Cape Youth Care and special visits were made. Manfred said that all the boys looked forward to the weekends and that’s what kept them going during the “school" week. Our team was very satisfied in the way our organization focussed its attention on the real needs of children living in their communities rather than the elaborate programs we used to run weekly in our children's home. Brian Gannon's phrase “good enough care” has an added meaning when we are offering good enough family and community care “in which the families and communities feel empowered to help.

I learned many things during my trip. It is generally off the main routes which most of us travel where the young people we work with live, and their families and communities can be alien to us if we concentrate only on running our program back at our centre. And different members of our teams have insights which the rest of us lack. I learned, too, that managers must spend more time on their wider “shop floors” and away from the office – even though we may at times feel out of our depth and have to rely on others. Mother Theresa had it right when she said: “Alone we can do so little – together we can do so much”.

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