Infinite Family’s Net Buddy mentees share their stories.
“South African Tourism Gains a Mighty Fine Graduate”
Alfred was born and raised in Alexandra Township, Johannesburg; an area originally created for 70,000 residents is now believed to house four or five times that number. He is a remarkable example of a young man taking advantage of every opportunity to improve his skills and his prospects to go against the culture of give up and drop out. More than half of Alexandra's teens drop out of high school before 12th grade because, frankly, they haven't seen anyone benefit from continuing to go to school. The adults in their lives don't encourage education and so the generational cycles of poverty and violence continue. People move in, often from nearby countries, but rarely gather the means to move up to a better, more stable life.
Alfred lost his father when he was 6 years old and a few short years later, he also lost his mother. Without his parents as role models in his life, Alfred went searching for any adult willing to nurture him. In 2009, Alfred saw an opportunity and seized it: He became an Infinite Family Net Buddy to learn from an adult living somewhere else in the world. While his first video mentorship only lasted a year, he found a long-lasting mentoring relationship with Jennifer, who lives in the southern state of Alabama in the United States. His British English accent made her laugh, her seemingly relaxed southern drawl soothed him and helped him gain perspective. For more than five years Jennifer guided and helped Alfred find his strengths and voice. His progress was so impressive that when Infinite Family needed a new manager for the LaunchPad at Realogile High School, they turned to Alfred because he was always there, always helping the younger students, and always ready to learn something new. Although he was younger than most lab managers, Infinite Family knew they could depend on Alfred to always give the role his best and to continue making the LaunchPad a more inviting place for new Alexandra students to come to learn.
It is with great pride and joy that we watched Alfred graduate from college with a degree in Tourism - a booming industry in SA and a wise choice! We are already providing strong references to other potential employers and know he will be an incredible asset wherever his talents take him. We know it is our job to prepare South Africa's teens for self-reliant lives and jobs outside of the townships - this is our key measure of success and we know Alfred will go far. But we will miss him dearly, his positive attitude, his constant willingness to help whatever the task, and, most of all, his engaging smile, which brightens every day. Thank you to Alfred and Jennifer and congratulations on the bright future you have built together. Thank you also to our wide network of donors who support video mentoring scholarships that make each and every mentorship possible throughout each teen's critical teen years. No one can walk a teen's turbulent journey alone and just one caring adult half a world away can mean the difference between dropping out, or digging deep and working toward long-term success.
“Meet Siyabonga: Poet Engineer”
Siyabonga, also known as ‘Siya’, has come a long way from where he began. He grew up in a single parent household with his mother, who worked as a housekeeper, and his two brothers. His lifelong dream is to get a good job so that he is able to provide for his family and so his mother will no longer have to work.
Today, Siya is making that dream a reality. He earned his mechanical engineering degree in November 2015 and is currently working at a learnership (internship) at a Johannesburg-based engineering company to complete his credentials. In his free time, he mentors teenagers and helps them with their homework.
Below is a story that highlights a typical day in his life, at age 15, when he began as an Infinite Family Net Buddy:
Siya wakes each morning to the grey light of early dawn seeping through the gaps between corrugated metal & cardboard which make up the walls of his home. He rises, dresses in his frayed school uniform and hurries to the open tap in the center of his community. Siya lives with his mother and younger brothers in a squatter camp called Drummond on the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa.
School is more than a two mile walk down the side of a busy, paved road. Siya composes poetry as he walks, committing each line to memory with each step; a rhythm for his rhymes. He worries about his upcoming matriculation exams. He struggles with math yet dreams of studying engineering at University. Without the proper books or instruction, he knows that passing the test will be close to impossible.
A chaotic and crowded school day passes and a long walk home awaits him. Siya needs to hurry home to complete his homework and chores before darkness falls, as homework by kerosene lantern leaves him with headaches.
But before he heads home, Siya makes a detour. He navigates his way through a dusty field and across a swinging bridge over a ravine. Then he climbs the steps to a small brick building with a satellite dish atop it. He opens the door to a brightly painted room with computers distributed on desks throughout the room. He hurries to a workstation.
Siya types in the web address of Infinite Family’s Ezomndeni Net. He signs in with his password, checks his email and quickly opens his blog page to add this morning’s carefully memorized poem to his blog. He adjusts the webcam, puts on his headset and writes that same poem on the video chat room’s whiteboard, powered by Adobe Connect, as he anticipates the arrival of his Infinite Family Video Mentor, Chuck.
Soon, Chuck’s face emerges beside Siya’s on the screen. They smile and trip over each other’s words with the eagerness of their greetings. Chuck has found some practice tests for the upcoming graduation exams on a website. Siya efficiently types the web address into the web links dialogue box. He bookmarks the webpage and saves it in a file with his name on it. Chuck praises Siya’s poem and helps him polish the spelling of a few words. They alternate between laughter and furrowed brows as they share the details of their week.
Time flies and their 30 minutes together comes to a close. Siya feels encouraged on his walk home. He feels hopeful about his upcoming exams because his Video Mentor, a man he has only ever seen on a computer screen, is actively advocating for him.
Cars speed past this lanky boy headed back to his shack, one of so many boys ... in so many shacks. But this boy knows he is different. This boy knows that a community of caring adults reads his carefully constructed and heartfelt poems. This boy knows that a man who lives in Pittsburgh, PA has his picture on his mantle and spends time each week working to make Siya’s dreams come true...dreams of a future that don’t have him walking home to a shack, but have him entering a University classroom and a whole new world of opportunity.
“The Spirit of a Fighter”
Patricia’s mother passed away in 2002 when she was only 7 years old. She was raised by her sisters in a child-headed home. Three years later, the three youngest were moved to a group home. Patricia’s mother had been the pillar of the family. When she died, she left a huge hole in the fabric of Patricia’s family life. Patricia’s older sister quit school at 19 to take care of them and they did their best to be there for each other, but ‘children taking care of children’ is never enough. All the same, Patricia remembers her sisters as taking good care of her. Having been so young at the time, she has good memories.
In school, Patricia life was no easier. Her English teacher told her that she “was a nobody”, that she “was not going to make it in life”, that she was a “fool”. Patricia could not take the daily abuse and wanted to give up. She remembers, “I just wanted to die. I never wanted to be in this world.” Thankfully, she turned to her mentor who helped her to see that things would get better and that her struggles today were not worth dying over. Patricia’s mentor encouraged her and brought out the spirit of a fighter – a spirit that had always been there but just needed nurturing.
When Patricia graduated high school, she had no money to pursue higher education and her scores were not good enough for scholarships or a bursary. To make matters worse, she also had trouble securing a job. The words of her teacher telling her she was a nothing and would never amount to anything haunted her. She sunk into a deep depression. Even dragging herself to the weekly online meetings with her mentor was difficult, but they ultimately saved her life. Patricia’s mentor never let her give up on herself. The knowledge that she has someone on the other side of the world, who believes in her and cares whether she lives or dies, has helped carry Patricia through the darkest periods of her life.
Patricia has been with the Infinite Family program for the last 10 years. She describes her experience as “amazing”. Through the mentorship, her English language skills have improved dramatically, her self-esteem got better and her school marks went gone up. While working with Infinite Family, Patricia has acquired computer skills, the ability to speak confidently with people of diverse backgrounds and has received help dealing with her depression. She understands how important it is to be a part of a community and not to isolate herself during times of struggles. She has learnt from her mentor to be strong, to be herself, to be proud of herself and what she is trying to accomplish in life. She feels like she has finally come out of her shell.
Now, she is working part-time with Infinite Family as a Monitoring and Evaluation Associate while she completes a Learnership (internship) in Auxiliary Social Work. She only made it this far because of her inner strength and the support she received from her Infinite Family mentor.
When asked, Patricia struggles to put the value of Infinite Family’s mentoring program into words. For her, the program is valuable beyond words. Through it, she has found hope and many new opportunities. After she completes her Learnership as an Auxiliary Social Worker, she wants to secure a scholarship to study for a Degree in Social Work and Psychology.
Now poised, thoughtful and self-confident, Patricia’s long term goal is to work for the South African government and serve her home township, Orange Farm, by helping to get rid of the stigma that surrounds HIV and AIDS, and lower high pregnancy rates and the number of child-headed homes. She believes her life experiences have led her to this work and she very determined to fulfill this calling. Through her mentor, she has learned that trying and failing are just part of the life long journey and that she cannot give up on her dreams.
The advice she would give to her younger self is, “Go for it; join the Infinite Family program as soon as you can! It will be the greatest decision you could make in your life.”
“Lucky is His Name and How He Feels”
Lucky’s life in Gauteng, South Africa was never easy. His father passed away when he was just 9 years old and his mother, who had never worked before, had to find a job as a domestic worker. There was never enough to cover all of the household expenses and they had to get a government child welfare grant just to put food on the table.
With home life being so uncertain, Lucky often had trouble focusing in school. In the 11th grade he dropped out – just before the country’s matriculation exam (a mandatory exam, with certain minimum conditions that need to be met, for tertiary education). His original plan to go to college and earn a degree started to fade away. Feelings of inadequacy and depression started to creep in. The only positive thing he had to hold on to at this time was his connection to Infinite Family and his relationship with his Video Mentor. Lucky’s Video Mentor, Betsy, encouraged him to think about his life and what he wanted in the future. No matter how tough things became, Lucky never felt totally alone. He knew his Video Mentor cared about and supported him.
Lucky has always been an entrepreneurial young man at heart. With the encouragement he received from his Video Mentor, he eventually landed a learnership (ie. internship) at BMW, got a job doing part time modeling and has rejoined Infinite Family to work as an Administrator in Monitoring and Evaluation. He is proud to say he is also learning a little computer programming now too!
Lucky’s short-term plan is to build his modeling portfolio and to develop his musical talents – a life long interest and passion. His long-term goal is to own a small business. He knows this goal will be full of challenges. But he believes that if he keeps working hard, taking life one step at a time, and sticks to his plan, he will be able to fulfill his dream some day.
Lucky feels like he truly has been lucky in life to find Infinite Family and his Video Mentor. From the bottom of his heart, he says, ‘thank you’ to everyone who has supported him and Infinite Family’s mentorships in South Africa.
“Paying it Forward: The Mentee Becomes the Mentor”
Johannes was born in 1990 and raised by his grandmother in Lanseria, Guateng 45 minutes outside of Johannesburg, South Africa. His mother was never a constant presence in his life. Often, he would see her only once a year. Johannes was raised to be self-reliant and he had daily reminders from his grandmother that he could not rely on anyone else but himself. He feels like this was a tough, but good lesson to learn. Today, he prides himself on his ability to take care of himself.
Johannes joined Infinite Family in 2008 when he was 17 years old. He heard of the mentoring program from a friend and he initially decided to join because of an interest in computers. He ended up staying with the mentorship for two years and is currently working with Infinite Family on a part-time basis as a Net Blazer and Monitoring and Evaluation Associate. (A Net Blazer is a person who is no longer a teenager and has graduated out of the Net Buddy mentorship.)
Now, Johannes helps younger Net Buddies get started and coaches them on building their relationships with their mentors. Johanne’s favorite part of being a Net Blazer is the time he gets to mentor the younger Net Buddies. He is still in touch with his own mentor regularly and goes to him for advice when things get tough at home or when he needs advice with school or next steps in his career. His mentor has always been there for him through the good and the bad. Knowing he had someone there to talk to and confide in is something that sustained Johannes through his many teen challenges.
Being a part of the Infinite Family community gave him the foundation and motivation to do things he had no idea were possible, including receiving scholarships to self-fund the entirety of his undergraduate degree! In mid-2016, Johannes completed a Diploma certification in Financial Information Systems with the University of Johannesburg and he is now planning to go back to study for an Advanced Diploma in Accounting. He is hoping that he will be admitted into the University of South Africa for this program. Without the computer and communication skills he has learned through Infinite Family and the support and guidance of his mentor, he does not believe he would have made it so far in life.
One day, he hopes to secure a well-paid job and then eventually start a non-profit organization focused on supporting young people in his community. Despite many setbacks, he is grateful for the lucky breaks he has had in life. He is most appreciative of his grandmother, Infinite Family and his mentor for their unwavering support. He hopes to, one day, pay forward the kindness he received from Infinite Family.
“More Than A Mentor - A Friend, A Father Figure”
Andrew Johns was introduced to Infinite Family while living at Nkosi’s Haven when he was just 13 years old. Nkosi’s Haven is a NGO (non-governmental organization) offering holistic care and support to destitute HIV infected mothers and their children (HIV positive or not). Andrew was matched with his Video Mentor Mitchell Karp in New York. They developed a close relationship over time and Mitchell still plays a vital role in Andrew’s life today, 10 years later.
Andrew describes being a Net Buddy at the age of 13 as fun, but sometimes a lot of responsibility. He would forget his video mentoring appointments occasionally. He struggled at such a young age to really see the true value of having a mentor. But, once they built trust and comfort, Andrew began to see the true value and appreciate the advice he received. In Andrew’s words, “He is more than my mentor; he is more like a friend and a father that encourages me to be the person I want to be.”
Andrew says, “Having a mentor helped me see the world in many ways because I was learning about the American way of life and comparing it to my life in South Africa. My mentor would be my English teacher and also I would also learn computer skills while at it. I believe being in the program has played a role in who I am and who I want to become in life.”
Mitchell also played a critical role during several very frustrating years when Andrew wasn’t allowed to attend school until ‘his papers were sorted out.’ He hated spending day after day doing nothing to move forward with his life and the repeated set-backs he faced in getting everything in line to continue. His frequent discussions with his Mentor helped him learn to control his frustration and to practice patience as well. As a result, of his persistence and help from the Nkosi’s Haven team, not only was Andrew able to finish his studies – he managed to complete they long list of requirements to attend college in the United States! He is currently doing very well as a sophomore at St. Michael’s College in Connecticut.
When asked what his mentor has taught him about himself, he answers, “My mentor taught me to get out of my comfort zone and aim higher than I had ever done before. When I was in high school, he would make me write down the grades I thought I would get and at the end of the semester we would review them and see if I achieved my goal. This made me challenge myself because I did not want to let him down and also gave me a chance to be competitive and work towards achieving my goals. Without Mitchell, I would have done what I thought was good enough. Today, I believe I can do anything I want because of my Mentor.”
If he could tell anything to his 12-year old self, it would be to “stay involved in Infinite Family, keep the relationship with your mentors because you can never know what they can do for you and the influence they can have in your life.