SOUTH AFRICA: Salesian Life Choices Program Provides Hope and a Better Future for At-Risk Youth
(MissionNewswire) Youth living on the streets of South Africa are often faced with severe poverty, lack of education, abandonment, abuse and exploitation. Many have also been affected by HIV/AIDS as the country has been the hardest hit by the epidemic. To address these issues, the Salesian-run Life Choices organization has been providing health education, leadership classes, life skills training and HIV/AIDS services that have impacted more than 138,000 youth since its inception in 2005. Originally started with the support of the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) grant funding, Life Choices has been able to expand over the years with the support of donors and corporate sponsors.
In 2005, in partnership with South Africa’s Departments of Health and Education, Life Choices was established to provide youth living in the southwestern port city of Cape Town with education, training and support around the issues of HIV/AIDS, teen pregnancy, substance abuse, violence and unemployment. The organization’s programs are offered to youth in the communities of Athlone, Delft and Manenberg and are based on the belief that sustained and positive behavior change requires significant investment of time, one-on-one support and resources.
According to UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations program on HIV/AIDS, South Africa has been the country hardest hit by HIV/AIDS worldwide. There are 6.1 million people living with HIV in the country but the rate of new transmissions of the virus has slowed. UNAIDS data shows that new HIV infections have been reduced from 540,000 new infections in 2004 to 370,000 in 2012. That same year, according to South Africa’s National Department of Health, some 2.2 million people were accessing HIV treatment, making it the largest HIV treatment program in the world.
Life Choices programs are offered in schools and students in grades 4 through 12 participate in educational workshops and activities designed specifically for each age group. The programs benefit youth by employing a multipronged approach to HIV/AIDS prevention. This approach not only offers health education on HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, but also life skills training, parental/teacher/community support, recreational activities, sports, youth camps, counseling and job placement services.
For youth like Sinethemba who very early on in life joined a Cape Town gang, his life was a cycle of substance abuse, theft and violence. He was born to young and absent parents and abandoned by his extended family. He began drinking at the age of 13, was first arrested for robbery at 16 and was back on the streets within five months and this time with gang affiliation.
“I didn’t have any family to stop me,” says Sinethemba. “And the gang gave me a sense of belonging. It supported me financially and made me feel safer out on the streets. I felt powerful and respected and no longer a nobody.”
Thanks to a prison outreach program offered in parallel with the life-skills and vocational training programs provided by Life Choices, Sinethemba found his way out of despair and gained a renewed sense of belonging. Today, Sinethemba has become the role model he never had and aspires to be a leader and a good father one day. He is studying electrical engineering and theology and works directly with youth involved in substance abuse and gang activity.
“Salesian missionaries understand how important it is for youth to have the skills and knowledge to make healthy choices in life,” says Father Mark Hyde, executive director of Salesian Missions, the U.S. development arm of the Salesians of Don Bosco. “The training and education provided by the Life Choices programs help young people of all ages gain the skills needed to make positive changes while understanding the consequences of their actions.”
Poverty is extensive in South Africa with more than 45 percent of the population living below the poverty line, according to UNICEF. A significant percentage of the population struggles to survive on less than one dollar a day. The country is plagued by high crime rates and violence against women and girls and has been the hardest hit by the HIV/AIDS crisis in the world. There is an urgent need for education to help prevent the spread of the deadly virus and to help lift youth out of poverty.
Salesian missionaries have been working to restore hope in South Africa, particularly among poor youth. From empowering girls and young women to building schools and teaching trade skills, Salesian missionaries have a long history of affecting change in the country.
Salesian Missions – South Africa: From Gang Member to Role Model
UNICEF – South Africa