Josh Groves has been a field worker with ACC International for ten years.
He co-founded Sepheo in Lesotho, Africa, an organisation that gets kids off the streets and back into families. Sepheo’s therapeutic primary school is designed to rehabilitate children who have been on the streets and those in family dysfunction, abuse and neglect. Sepheo also addresses broader social exclusion within the capital city, Maseru.
It’s 11 pm on a Monday night, and I’m driving home after a long, demanding day. As I pass a major intersection in the middle of the city, I feel it’s a good chance for a quick check of the streets to see who’s there and what’s happening. You get a much truer sense of the streets at night than you do during the day.
I take a turn and drive down Kingsway, the main street of Maseru, nervous at what I might find. On the one hand, the weekly report I receive from our team tells me that I shouldn’t expect to see any children there. On the other, I am still aware that some children’s experience at home makes the streets feel safer to them, and maybe a few have been missed.
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Tonight, it’s clear. Not one child. I feel relief, pride in my team, humbled and grateful for the impact of Sepheo.
Ten years ago, before starting Sepheo, this same stretch of street had hundreds of homeless children. In the day, you’d see them digging through bins and begging. Women wouldn’t pass their hangouts for fear of being mugged. At night, you would see huddles of children around small fires, well and truly in the debilitating throes of a glue-sniffing high.
It was confronting and intimidating, but it was what brought us to Lesotho and compelled us to leave our jobs. We saw how despised they were, and our conscience would not let us ignore the injustice. Few people saw they were hurt, scared children rejected at every turn. They were broken. They came to accept the label and identity of a ‘street kid,’ yet they were called much worse. Back then, the only way a child left the streets was by prison or death. We believed it could change.
Back then, the only way a child left the streets was by prison or death. We believed it could change.
In ten years, my role has evolved. With a team of 30, I’m now less hands-on and I spend most of my time supporting our staff, doing administration, working with government, communicating with supporters, and running construction projects. I’m aware of how easy it is to let a week pass without any meaningful contact with kids. At our staff meeting last week, our teachers told me the kids think I’m upset with them because I haven’t come to play at lunch. Ouch.
So, I asked all our program leads to fill my schedule today with as much face time as possible.
First thing this morning, I am at chapel for Sepheo School with our boys and girls. I always sit up the back because it can get quite emotional. As I watch the singing, clapping, stomping and dancing, I am overcome with the privilege of leading this organisation. I never thought this would be possible. These children were once despised and outcast, but their transformation is visible and on display in the most beautiful form. They are now believing something different about themselves and accepting a new label.
I give a short message of truth-telling and their faces are bright with captivation at the story of the boy who cried wolf. It’s the first time they’ve heard it. I keep it short, so I have time to take the boys out for a rough game of hybrid rugby-Aussie Rules-basketball played with a medicine ball. I know I’m going over time, but it is pure fun for all of us and I know I’m doing the teachers a favour by getting their energy out.
Our teachers told me the kids think I’m upset with them because I haven’t come to play at lunch. Ouch.
Over at our girls’ school, I’m careful not to interrupt too much. They’re at a stage in their journey where they are building consistent connections with only a few trusted staff. I pop my head in, make eye contact and greet. They’re so shy that they look away. They’re not used to being seen and don’t yet feel comfortable taking up space.
At 10:30 am, I see a slot in my diary called ‘Circle Time.’ I have no idea what it is, but I head over to our Early Childhood Care and Development (ECCD) Centre. We started this only two years ago in response to toddlers being left alone during the day while their mums went to find work. These mothers were faced with an unthinkable choice. Our answer was to provide free childcare so solo mothers could work and young mums could return to school while their babies were cared for. I’m very aware of the backgrounds of the kids in our ECCD; they’ve had a harrowing start to life, but you would not know by looking. The change that has taken place is breathtaking. I join in with singing, dancing, marching around, storytime, and then quiet time. Again, emotional. Their trajectory has been interrupted.
These children were once despised and outcast, but their transformation is visible and on display in the most beautiful form.
As our school students get on the bus to leave, a new group turns up. This group is here for tutoring. It is designed to help those most at risk of going to the street to stay in mainstream school. It has been wildly successful. It used to be that 80 per cent of street children came from our village; now, because of our prevention work, there have been no new children going to the streets from our village since the start of this year.
Why the emotion today? It’s way more than the feeling of accomplishment. It’s knowing how hopeless things looked ten years ago and how people told us we were naive and foolish. It’s being aware of how hard the journey has been, with great personal cost, but with the joy of seeing the results. Things are different and better and it’s noticeable. Where did the ‘street kids’ go? They’re home, safe with family.