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Berkshire Resident Tries To Improve Life For Kids In South Africa

It’s been a year since a Sheffield, Massachusetts resident opened a Montessori school in South Africa. 

School is in session at a former sugar plantation hostel in Illovo, South Africa – all thanks to Susie Weekes Roeder, a social activist from Sheffield.

“The Montessori system works amazingly well with these kids,” Weekes Roedes says.

The Indwe Learning Center is modeled after The Montessori School of the Berkshires in Lenox Dale. It serves 160 children from 18 months to 20 years old, mostly from the nearby Mother of Peace orphanage.

“There are 3.7 million children orphaned in South Africa and then there are many millions who are just very, very poor. And a lot of these kids, instead of going into orphanages, were put in child-headed households, and that means children raising other children,” Weekes Roeder says.

South African Iris Canham heads the school.

“Poverty is rife, and there are lots of lots of lots of lots of children. And a large group of men who are unemployed, and women that basically try to be breadwinners but there are not a lot of jobs around the area,” Canham says. “So houses are made of mud, children – mostly children and the women – travel, or walk about four kilometers to get water. There’s electricity now, but there is like one cable so you have limited use of electricity, and there is no running water.” 

The region has a long history of war and disease that killed off families, Canham says.

“The stigma attached to the HIV was terrible,” Canham says. “So children were burying their parents in the gardens so that you couldn’t find out. Susie was there to uncover this story that was unfolding in South Africa at the time because the government didn’t want to talk what was really going on.”

“So they have no shot at life, they have no hope,” Weekes Roeder says. “Probably the thing we give them the most is hope – hope that they can do something in the future, hope that they can unearth whatever their passion is, whatever their talent is, whatever that skill is and we give them the support to develop that skill.”

Weekes Roeder moved to the Berkshires from Washington D.C. in 2001 to attend Suffolk University’s Visionaries Institute for documentary filmmaking and nonprofit management, which was located in Sheffield. The 67-year-old is a board member of the affordable housing nonprofit Construct.

Weekes Roeder and Canham were in Great Barrington in mid-November, celebrating the school’s milestone at a fundraiser. They highlighted the change they saw in students in just a year.

“A lot of my research is done as a mom,” Weekes Roeder says.

Weekes Roeder says children need to be creative, disciplined and confident. The school incorporates sports, technology and computer skills, and team-building to foster those traits.

“There is nothing better than an arts-based program, whether there be music, performance art or drawing using their hands,” Weekes Roeder says. “It develops patterning and patterning is so important for kids.”

The school takes the children on field trips to theatres, government buildings and safaris to see life outside their impoverished village.

“You know, up until last year these kids had never seen a zebra,” Weekes Roeder says. “I mean, how could you live in South Africa and not see a zebra, right?”

Weekes Roeder says it’s up to the school in most cases to teach children the manners and people skills that they may have missed without parents.

It costs about $200,000 in public and private funding to run the school per year. In South Africa, the exchange rate is about 14 to 1 U.S. dollar.

Weekes Roeder says she sees the school as a model for South Africa.

“Really what we want to do is just give them what we all give our kids,” Weekes Roeder says. “That’s all it is, simple as that – but it’s a big idea for South Africa.”

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