Early Childhood Development must go on, even when times are tough; Sappi supports Barberton centres through the Penreach ECD programme.

Early Childhood Development must go on, even when times are tough; Sappi supports Barberton centres through the Penreach ECD programme.

The year 2020 will be long remembered, especially for the challenges it presented on how people live, play, and learn. The pandemic forced us to find new ways of interacting and working together, but for Penreach’s Early Childhood Development (ECD) programme, it posed a particular challenge.

Much of its support for ECD centres is interaction-based, with frequent visits from Change Agents who mentor, train and monitor practitioners, and provide educational tools and resources. Besides concerns about pre-schoolers falling behind in their development, many of them are dependent on the daily meal provided at their schools – a situation worsened by parents or family members losing their jobs due to the lockdown. These sudden changes called for a positive response from Penreach’s ECD team – and an immediate strategy change.

One of the first challenges was reaching out to beneficiaries remotely, setting up the coaching and mentoring of centre managers and practitioners via WhatsApp group platforms, SMS conversations and phone calls. Stimulating activity cards were developed for ECD centre managers and practitioners which were distributed weekly.  They were encouraged to share these with parents and caregivers, to encourage learning through play at home during the lockdown.

A booklet, developed by Halls and Penreach around Covid-19 prevention and safety measures, was widely distributed to beneficiaries during the emergency Penreach Cares Food distribution campaign. The booklet contained information relevant to the community on how to safeguard children and families from the virus.

Programme Manager Esther Sithole describes their concern at the time, knowing children were stuck at home with unemployed family members, with many households in dire financial straits. If not for the support and generous donations from sponsors, Penreach would not have been able to reach out to these children, the most vulnerable in our society, she says.

One such sponsor is Sappi, which has invested in our country’s future since 1994 by partnering with Penreach in early childhood education programmes. Sappi’s ongoing commitment includes not only general funding to promote ECD in Mpumalanga, but also specifically supporting thirteen ECD centres in the Barberton area, enabling Change Agent Modupi Mazibuko to visit these Penreach and Sappi-supported centres after lockdown eased, to offer resources and practical assistance through uncharted circumstances.

This included help with setting up social distancing markers and arranging spaces appropriately.  Covid-19 information files, and posters promoting awareness, were made available to all practitioners, and training was provided about the importance of hygiene measures such as handwashing and mask-wearing. PPE, generously gifted by donors, were distributed among centres. Sappi sponsored a large load of maize meal, delivered to where the need was most critical.

Elsabe Coetzee, Sappi’s communication manager explains that ECD is a cause close to their heart and the cornerstone of their shared value strategy. The company’s community involvement and commitment to providing access to equal resources is fully aligned with Penreach’s mission, adding to the success and sustainability of this partnership.

“We are proud to be associated with the Penreach ECD programme and were there from the start. An arrangement with Penreach to train teachers in our area way back has grown to something so much bigger. We are proud to have an opportunity to change the outcome for our children – to give them a bigger chance in life.”

It might take years to assess the full impact Covid-19’s lockdown had on education in South Africa, but through its efforts and the support of its sponsors, Penreach strives to make a difference to children’s lives on the ground, and when it matters most in their development. Through its efforts, centres have been able to reopen, and numbers, which remained low long after lockdown ended, are on the rise.

“We’ve seen a bit of a cognitive setback in their development,” Esther explains about the returning children, “And it’s been a struggle getting them to return, as many parents are facing challenges, but the centres are opening, slowly. It’s great to see the little ones stimulated and busy once again. We have learned many new skills during 2020 that will remain part of the Penreach strategy going forward to ensure we close the gap and offer quality and equal education to all.”

Penreach and Sappi ECD in pictures; Lockdown interventions:

A Barberton ECD practitioner shows off a colourful tree and resource box made according to directions on an activity card. These were sent out weekly and included resourceful ideas to help stimulate creativity.

Penreach’s ECD training focuses on the importance of using everyday items as toys. Here a child is enjoying a game of skittles with used 2L cooldrink bottles.

Penreach Change Agent, Mr Modupi Mazibuko at Healthy Day Care and Siphosethu, talking practitioners through Covid-19 regulations according to the Department of Social Development’s standard operating procedures.

ECD centres in the Barberton area receive PPEs to help facilitate the safe reopening of their facilities.

Change Agents assisted with markings in and out of the classroom to encourage social distancing.

When the going gets tough, the tough goes online! Penreach did ground-breaking work to facilitate the training of 70 centre managers on Covid-19 regulations and Asidlaleni Toy Library volunteers via Google Meet.

Penreach adopted a radio broadcast strategy on Voice Of Hope FM and BBR FM where ECD-related topics were discussed on-air. This including parental involvement, the importance of play, making toys from recycled materials and health and safety.

Sappi-supported ECD centres in the Barberton area receive large donations of mealie meal, as part of the paper and pulp-giant’s efforts to alleviate hunger in the most hard-hit parts of rural communities.

Face-to-face teacher development workshops resumed on 24 October 2020, attended by practitioners relieved and grateful to be back in the swing of things after lockdown.

Penreach remains committed to support our disadvantaged communities through education and social change.  Reach out to us.