A group of 15 matric learners from Cape Town have become the shining stars in their school as a result of a groundbreaking initiative that invests in vulnerable youth. Through intensive academic tutoring, leadership training and activities that improve life skills, the Leaders’ Quest programme is helping young people achieve success beyond their wildest dreams.
When the afternoon bell rings at most high schools, teenagers take their time to get home or loiter around with friends, but at Oaklands High School a group of Grade 12 pupils rushes through the school gate to get to a place they consider their second home.
Around the corner from their school is the office of Salesian Life Choices, a Cape Town-based social enterprise that offers a programme that has had an immense impact on their lives.
The Leaders’ Quest initiative aims to support youth from developing communities. These learners have all had to overcome challenging circumstances and hardships, but instead of being the troublemakers at school, this group has become role models at Oaklands High School, explains the deputy head Washiela Wouters.
“Our head prefects this year are all members of the Leaders’ Quest group and have displayed exceptional leadership, motivational and business skills,” Washiela says. “The high standards these 15 students set are admirable. They all excel academically and are extremely passionate and committed to their studies.”
Nontuthuzelo Ncasa, a talented singer and poet, says Leaders’ Quest offers stability and security for her. “Many of us don’t really get support at home and Life Choices offers a safe space. It’s where we are motivated and where we get inspiration. Being part of this group keeps my fire alive.”
Like others in the group, the deputy head girl Natasha Chigamba’s home circumstances have been far from stable. Orphaned at age 7 the Zimbabwean born girl was rejected by her father’s family who believed she was possessed by demons. She was beaten and abused until an aunt intervened and brought her to South Africa when she was 11.
Her aunt’s family gave her a new lease on life and she soon started to excel academically. When she was selected for the Leaders’ Quest programme in 2016, her confidence blossomed.
Leaders’ Quest has given her the support to be able to tackle any challenge, Natasha says. “If somebody tells me I can’t do physics, I would just laugh at them. There is no limit on what you can do when you believe in yourself.” Natasha is aiming to get six distinctions in matric and she’s well on her way with a 78% average after the first term this year. “The tutoring we receive on Saturday mornings at Life Choices has helped me maintain my grades. It’s not always easy to study at home,” she says.
Leaders’ Quest is a four-year intervention that provides participants with academic tutoring, mentoring and career guidance. They also do job shadowing and get access to support networks. More than 200 learners from 12 schools in an around Cape Town are selected every year to form Leaders’ Quest groups. Participants in the programme also do volunteer work to benefit a social cause.
Of the learners taking part in Leaders’ Quest 66% received Bachelors passes compared to 33% at their schools, and 61% were admitted to universities or colleges in 2016.
The head boy Thembalethu Seyisi is a top academic achiever at Oaklands High School. He also credits Leaders’ Quest as a life changing influence. After his mother died in 2012, it became very difficult for his father to take care of him. Thembalethu moved in with his older sister in 2014 and started going to Oaklands. “It’s such a good feeling to be around people who love and care and support you in everything you do,” Thembalethu says. “The best part about Leaders’ Quest is that it is so much fun. This really feels like a second home to me. But it’s also a reality check, because you see and hear what other kids are going through and you realise your problems are not that big.”
Head girl Ashoerah Mwanami explains the leadership skills they learn at Life Choices has made her humble. “Being a leader is not only about giving orders, it’s about helping people to be and do better. You have to set an example, but always remember that you are serving people.”
The Oaklands group agrees the highlight of the past year was organising a TV Presenters course at their school to raise funds at the end of 2016.
This was followed by a Valentine’s Day programme where they played a leading role to raise R9 000 for the school’s Matric Ball on 8 April. After realising that some of their fellow pupils could not afford a dress or a suit, the Leaders’ Quest group started a social media drive to ask people to donate outfits.
Sibongile Buka says it was a huge thrill to connect with TV stars such as Carl Wastie, Channelle Davids and Ayanda who came to present the TV Presenters course. “Seeing it happen was wonderful, I actually shed a tear I was so proud,” Sibongile says. “But we also realised it’s hard work when you try to raise funds and sponsorships for an event and you have to deal with many rejections. We matured as a group through that experience.”
With the TV Presenters Course the Oaklands group raised a record amount of R5 900 – the most any Leaders’ Quest group has ever donated to Life Choices.
All of the Oaklands Leaders’ Quest group will be trying to go to university next year and they’ve already started applying for bursaries.
The deputy head boy Bonga Buka says there is some healthy rivalry in their group, but they spur each other on to greater heights. “The most important thing to us is that no one is left behind. We have seen how much we can do by standing together and the sky is the limit to what we can achieve.”
To the Leaders’ Quest group it is important that they’re not seen as beneficiaries of charity. “Through this programme we’ve been given choices, not charity. The better choices you make, the better your life becomes,” Bonga says.