The Ottery Poetry Initiative, a non-profit company founded by poet Shaun Warner, is working on sharpening children’s literacy skills.
Three weeks ago Mr Warner put his vision into motion when he offered 18 children from Grade 4 to Grade 9 free literacy courses, which included a focus on spelling and general knowledge.
Based at Ottery library, they are now catering to 47 children.
Mr Warner said he conceived this idea last year when he found himself unemployed and as a Sunday school teacher, approached schools to speak at assemblies. “Then I approached the Ottery library and my wife Vanessa and I got a room to operate in.”
Mr Warner immediately took Ottery children under his wing when he found out that literacy is lacking. “The first day I had the kids construct a poem. Each one gives a line and then the next child would add to the story and at the end it completed a story.
“I found out that children from nine to 18 years couldn’t spell.”
They wrote the poem in Afrikaans, their mother tongue.
“However, I teach both languages. I only touched on rudimentary work such as exposing them to reading and spelling after our focus shifted to literacy.
“Their aptitude was very disappointing.
“I am busy building a profile on each child to monitor their progress. Someone donated a camera to me so I will take pictures of them and I will be house visiting parents on Sunday.”
Mr Warner started taking care of the children in a holistic way. “My wife and I are unemployed so she helps us with the cooking as we find many come to us hungry.”
A carpenter by trade, Mr Warner said he took stock of his life and surroundings while unemployed and he came up with this programme. “I found my passion in life and will not go back to work. I never used to like carpentry.”
Mr Warner grew up in Bishop Lavis and faced many family challenges while growing up. Wife Vanessa is from Ottery. They moved from Bishop Lavis to Ottery in 2009.
While working with the children, Mr Warner found out more about their situation and it drew him closer to them. He built a relationship with the children. “I have a vision for the kids after speaking to them about language. Only one of them knew what a verb was. I decided to teach them and do quizzes in spelling and general knowledge such as asking them things like what is the national anthem, national flower, etc.”
Mr Warner said although he focuses on younger children, there are six youth older than 16 in his class who had dropped out of school in Grade 6 or Grade 7.
Mr Warner said he was stunned by the challenges of gang rivalry preventing children from attending school. “I asked the over 16s from Block B why they are not in school and they said they are not allowed to walk past Block A where they are being stopped for trespassing on another gang’s territory.”
Lotus High School is on the other side of Ottery.
“I thought that was the saddest thing I’ve ever heard and I’ve lived a colourful life myself. It stunned me for a minute. And this issue runs very deep in the community.”
Mr Warner said he believes in a three-pronged approach to educating a child.
The three main sources that affect a child’s life are the parent, the teacher and the socio-economic situation.
“Sometimes the parent does not have the energy to sit with the child’s school work. The teacher sometimes gives up on rude children and then there is the socio- economic side where the child can’t even navigate to school because of gangsterism”
Mr Warner said he hopes to continue with this programme of assessing, feeding and assisting with their home life, and their school life. “I have already picked up progress from a few children. Naomi Loff writes well as she knows how to start a sentence with a capital letter and end with a full stop and she knows where to put her commas. Atnicia Claasen is the brightest, especially in a quiz.
“I give them floating medals for things such as best behaviour and skipping rope competitions. If they bring back their medal, we give them each a R10. That is to teach them responsibility.”
He said volunteer Chante Dudley brought her two brothers to the programme while she is currently taking an Early Childhood Development (ECD) course. “She is midway through her ECD course and takes over the class twice a week. Chante plays with them and I am more serious in education.”
Mr Warner said he is working on plans to open a food bank. “We need loaves of bread to feed the children in our class.”
Community worker Jenny Williams, who introduced Southern Mail to Mr Warner, said: “I take my hat off to Shaun for opening his heart to our community by teaching what education is about. Our children are our future and we need them to go to school.”
If you would like to know more about this programme or the food bank, call Mr Warner on 063 377 6380.