22/11/2016 03:55 GMT | Updated 22/11/2016 03:55 GMT

South Africa Cannot Reach Its Full Potential Without Taking Care Of Its Young People

Pupils meditating in lotus position on desk in classroom at the elementary school

Now more than ever, education and youth development are critical in South Africa. For years, these issues have been the focus of many NGOs, NPOs and charities. With South Africa's turbulent past, we need groups like this to level the playing field and work together to create a brighter future for our youth. But as the number of organisations increases, we must ask – what can we do to really make an impact on a child's life?

In 2016, UNICEF published the report: Global goals for every child: Progress and disparities among Children in South Africa. The report evaluates the progress in reaching the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted by world leaders in September 2015. These goals are: social inclusion, nutrition, health and HIV, water and sanitation, education and child protection.

Especially relevant to our work, is that 'only one in three children live with both their biological parents and one in six has lost a parent'. Where parents are not present, community caregivers often fill these gaps in a child's life. These caregivers have been an integral part of the South African landscape for decades and it is clear that this remains true today.

The UNICEF report also shows that 'children suffering from hunger declined from 30% in 2002 to 12% in 2014'. While this is a promising statistic, there is still much work to be done and we endeavour to lower this number year after year. At Ikamva Labantu's centres, we focus on a number of key areas, including nutrition. We know that a child needs to have a nutritious diet in order to reach their full potential – physically and mentally.

Aside from care and nutrition, there are many other essential factors that contribute to a child's growth too. How do we ensure that the youth are fully equipped to participate in society as they get older? How can we protect them from gangs, violence, alcohol and abuse? At Ikamva Labantu, we take a holistic approach to the way we support the children in our programme. This means that each child is assessed and cared for on an individual basis, from their home environment to the playground.

We have implemented a model after-school programme at the Ikamva Labantu Rainbow Centre in Gugulethu, for children living in the area. Through the programme, we ensure that vulnerable children in the community have a safe space to come after school, where they can be engaged, stimulated and cared for. Children at risk can be recruited to the programme through their teachers, community leaders or by word-of-mouth.

Once a child is identified as being a candidate for the programme, we interview them and their parents or guardians. When we first interview the child, we ask them what their goals are and what they want to achieve, and we identify areas where they specifically require assistance. From there, we develop an individual plan for the child that maps out how they can reach their goals. We conduct weekly home visits where necessary, or alternatively monthly visits to ensure that the parents or guardians are on board with the programme and are holding up their end of the deal.

In the programme and at the centre itself, we focus on life-skills, sports, arts and culture, as well as counselling. We also provide our beneficiaries with school uniforms, stationery, primary health screenings and academic support. We want the children in our care to be able to find their niche, where they can learn to flourish.

We have seen some amazing transformations in our children through utilising this approach. Kids that entered the programme with anger and aggression, now show signs of true leadership and act as role models to other children. The holistic model works – children need more than just food; they need support, guidance and structure.

In an effort to ensure that we reach South Africa's full potential, we need to start with the youth. We need to support and nurture our children from a young age to ensure that they do not turn to self-destructive behaviour and become just another statistic.

The child-centric, holistic approach is the only way we can achieve this, and it is a costly endeavour. We currently have 150 children at our Rainbow Centre who benefit from this programme. With the right resources, we can expand the programme and set more children on the path to success.