29- year old Mandy Rapson appeared on on the Scenic South website last year when she cycled alone from Kommetjie to Durban via East London and the Transkei. An intrepid and dynamic young woman, she cycled to raise funds for LifeXchange, an NPO based in Sunnydale working with youth at risk.
LifeXchange is the brainchild of Mandy’s colleague Cobus Oosthuisen who is doing research for his PHD on mentoring as a form of youth intervention. Cobus has a degree in marketing and a Masters in theology. After being involved for years with troubled youngsters he has come to the conclusion that the usual methods are not working.
“Millions of rands are pumped into rehab and the relapse rates remain very high – which raises questions about the methodology. Why is rehab not working? Some will argue that it is working, we just believe that the relapse rate compels us to seek a better approach,” says Cobus.
Through “trial and error, blood, sweat and tears”, Cobus and his team have developed an approach that he hopes to see used internationally. He wants to take his approach to government and say “this works”. He, with Mandy and their volunteer colleagues at LifeXcange, is about to embark on a 2-year pilot study which involves the recruiting of ten ‘new’ youngsters from Ocean View, together with ten ‘new’ mentors, a mentor for each recruit.
“There is a big drug problem in Ocean View. Poverty is at the root of it,” says Mandy.
One of the first activities that the youngsters will share with their mentors is a diving expedition. “After being diving ‘buddies’ they will have something in common, otherwise how do you bridge the gap? We have partnered with Pisces who have given us – for free- full use of their new shop in Simon’s Town.”
The recruits will also have opportunities to go surfing, kayaking and rock-climbing with their mentors.
“Our recruits and mentors will obviously come from very different backgrounds and this is one way of creating a bond and a sense of kinship between them. It will also give the youngsters a great sense of achievement. ’If I can do this, what else can I do?’”
Asked how old the mentors should be, Mandy replied,”Older than 21 and younger than 92! We match the mentor with his recruit, who tends to become a parental and a best friend figure. We had an older woman in Glencairn who wanted to be involved but wondered what she could do with a ‘young chick’. We sent the young girls to sew with her! We are developing one on one mentoring through the activities but mentoring can happen in other ways too. Mentors don’t have to have much time or much money. Mentoring can happen while mentor and mentee are fixing the roof together!”
Mentors will undergo a 2-week training period consisting of two weekends [and a few workshops during the mentoring process. “It’s easy really,” says Mandy. “It’s just a journey.”
“A number of the youngsters we have with us at present, of which there are twenty in all, have lost their mentors. We hope to recruit another twenty mentors. If we get more than thirty we will start a satellite group.
A little white kid from Fish Hoek with problems is very different from the sometimes hardened criminals we are working with from Ocean View, but really they are the same good people, raised in sad situations. When these youngsters see you are there for them it is as if their eyes are opened up to a whole new world. Gavin Fish , headmaster of Fish Hoek High School, invited us to a family dinner while we were camping on his property. Through the experience our ‘gangsters’ learnt the social graces of eating at a dinner table – learning amongst other things how to use the salt cellar and to thank their hosts!
Our youngsters don’t see our programme as ‘rehab’ but feel instead that they belong to an ‘extreme adventure’ organisation. We have learnt how to word things. One of our guys wants to become a pilot, so when we introduce him to others we say, ‘This is …. He is a pilot. He just has to learn how to fly.’ The guys come off tik and dagga without our telling them that they must. We just change the way they think about themselves through positive re-inforcement and affirmation.
Everyone needs someone in life to help them through it. One of our guys for a long time has tried to prove that he is unlovable, with scars and tattoos to show for it. Now at 28 he is the one who organises sleep-overs at the office with mattresses and movies and popcorn!”
The mentees are between the ages of 15 and 25 with the average age being about 21 and there is a fair mix of boys and girls. “The girls are tougher to work with,” says Mandy. “They think and function differently from the guys and have different roles within the community. The average age of the girls is 17 to 18. Many of them fall pregnant and LifeXchange organises pre-natal care for them.”
Cobus and Mandy both have a strong Christian faith and their philosophy is to give unconditional love and never to give up on their mentees. “We don’t have a drop-out rate. Some of our youngsters come close, get scared and regress. But that is okay. We leave them for a month or so and then visit them again. We keep showing face, whether it is with an invitation to go surfing or to have a cup of coffee…. The youngsters change when they have one person in their lives that they can trust and rely on. We create the environment where transformation can happen, but it is up to the youngster to make the change. They must have the feeling ‘I did this!’”
LifeXchange has offices at the Living Way campus which includes a teaching area and a social area, Ideally Mandy and Cobus would like to have their own property with a house of safety.”The teaching we offer is needs-based e.g. the mentees learn to read, learn computer skills, office skills, music, carpentry, dancing……They can’t fit back into the school environment but all wish that they could finish school. We had one mentee who passed Grade 9 but could not recognise the alphabet – he has just been pushed through in our awful education system. He has now been taught to read and write. We have good interaction with Living Way. Programmes can’t work in isolation.”
Prior to joining Cobus at LifeXchange, Mandy worked for ACT, a Christian based volunteer travel company, leading mission trips though Southern Africa before being based at their Cape Town office. She has a degree in Sports Science and teaching. While working with volunteers at ACT she came to realise that programmes that involve long term mentoring are more effective than programmes that use short term volunteers.
Mandy’s epic cycle last year raised R41 103 for LifeXchange. It was a journey that was symbolic of her mentees lives. “I had a goal, I embarked on my journey but I did not know what would happen along the way. It was hard. I wanted to give up at times.”
Waking up one morning in July last year with the idea to peddle to Durban, she left on the 26 Sept, having “used four people in my network, through whom I found 23 places to stay, within a month!”
Asked what the highlights were she said: “South Africa is amazing. The Eastern Cape is wonderful. We are a good people, a good nation. My family and friends were worried about my travelling through the Transkei on my own, but I received extraordinary help and hospitality from complete strangers. I am glad I cycled on my own. If I had had company I would not have met the wonderful people that I did. It would have removed the opportunity to make new friends. Every time I needed help it came. If my morale was low someone would cycle with me. “
And the lowlights? “Saddle sores! I needed extra days off my bike in PE where I was put on antibiotics for the saddle sores. I also got so bored! I never thought it was possible to run out of thoughts. I started reciting the times tables in my head! Going up some of the hills I often wanted to walk but I would only do so when my speed dropped to lower than 4.5kms. I was peddling with a 25kg pack on my back.
My folks were amongst the few people who did not argue against what I was doing. The general comment was ‘You’re crazy, you’re stupid! You will get raped and hacked to pieces!’ My folks were concerned, were very glad when I reached their home, but never questioned my desire to accomplish what I did.”
Mandy has always challenged herself, which is why she likes LifeXchange. “I like to see what I can do and I like to inspire people, at the same time having fun. When I was 23 I took a group of differently abled people down the Orange River in canoes. Two were quadraplegic/paraplegic and five were blind. We had the canoes re-designed for the former so that they would not fall out. When I was 17 I went overseas on my own and trained horses for the British royal family. If I had two lives I would spend one of them training horses!”
Getting back to our discussion about LifeXchange, Mandy concluded by saying that the mentors need to be go-getters, people who know where they are at in life. She said that women tend to respond but that they actually need more men – to do the “father-thing with the young guys.”
“We would like to be seen as the experts in mentoring … for LifeXchange to be seen as the place to go to – and not just for youth at risk. Cobus is an extraordinary counsellor. ”
LifeXchange won the prestigious MNET tag awards which will be flighted on Mnet and other DStv channels this year. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=81jrzQEHc7o
LifeXchange is currently seeking more mentors living in or close to the Fish Hoek valley. Are you willing to help make a difference in the life of a young person and thereby in the future of our country? It is a journey of a life time, something everyone should do before they die! To get involved, please contact Cobus at firstname.lastname@example.org