Irish builders making school dream come true

Irish volunteer builders laying bricks for new school classrooms in impoverished Missionvale, Port Elizabeth. The men are (from left) Neil O'Loughlin, Russell Williamson, Kieran O'Connor, Seamus Rawle and Tony O'Mahoney. They are all part of the first group of 16 builders who arrived from Ireland last Saturday. Another 25 are due this Saturday..

Forty one Irish volunteer builders are rapidly turning an ambitious community upliftment dream into a reality in the impoverished, shackland township of Missionvale, Port Elizabeth.

“It’s a miracle”, said Missionvale Care Centre Academy principal Pastor Russel Viljoen as the industrious Irishmen — seemingly oblivious to a relentless heatwave in PE —  set about day three of their mission to build six classrooms and an ablution block in just 14 days.

The men from Ireland are all ardent supporters of the impressive, multi-faceted caring and community development work of Irish-born Missionvale Care Centre founder Sister Ethel Normoyle, who started with a “school” and a “clinic” under a tree in 1988. With significant help from local supporters and Irish volunteer builders the centre has grown into a substantial facility over the years and notable visitors have included Mother Theresa and Queen Elizabeth.

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The current classroom building project was still just a dream last year after Ebenezer Church accepted a request from Sister Ethel to take over the running of the school which at that stage offered classes from Grade R to Grade 3.

Missionval Care Centre Academy principal Russel Viljoen on the school playground.

“Our vision was to develop the school into a fully-fledged primary school with classes up to Grade 7 by 2015,” said Viljoen, who is a pastor at Ebenezer and a former principal of Ebenezer’s thriving primary school in Algoa Park, PE. He said the vision was necessary because currently the investment in the children’s education was dissipated after they left and either stopped going to school or went to dysfunctional state schools.  The longer-term goal was to establish the Missionvale Care Centre Academy as a feeder school for quality high schools — and ultimately to develop a high school as well.

As a result of Sister Ethel’s credible track record and her strong supporter base in Ireland, the school expansion dream was becoming a reality faster than they could have imagined. A Grade 4 class which was introduced this year was being held in the library until the completion of the current classroom construction project.

Viljoen said he and Ebenezer senior pastor Neville Goldman were excited about the opportunity to partner with Sister Ethel from a base in Missionvale.

“We have always had a passion for this area and have done lots of outreaches and projects here over the years, as well as provided flood relief disaster management here. It is amazing that God has now placed us in the heart of Missionvale,” he said.

Bigger vision
He said Ebenezer saw the school as a key to a bigger vision to play a role in transforming the wider community. “With nearly 200 children in the school we have access to 200 families where we can make a difference.”

The key to transforming the community was the children, he said. Currently the learners , some of whom were HIV positive or had TB or other diseases, received two nutritious meals a day during school hours. For many these were the only meals they would receive on those days.  Clothes were also provided to the children according to their needs. The food and clothing were supplied by the Care Centre. School fees were a nominal R20 a month but in a community where most adults were unemployed even this was too much for most parents and so the school relied on donations. Progress was being made with a project aimed at sourcing private donors to sponsor every child to the tune of R7 000 a year — the full cost of providing a quality education to one learner for a year.

Qualified teachers taught each of the classes and there were no more than 30 learners a class in order to maintain quality educational standards.

Minds, hearts and hands
Viljoen said that the educational approach was to educate the children’s minds, hearts and hands. The heart education dealt with teaching Biblical values and fostering Christlike character. The hands aspect included sports, music and lifeskills programmes — all of which were currently being introduced with the help of local Christian volunteers.

There were no sports fields in the surrounding shackland and so the school playground was a hub of activity after school when the children played there under supervision  until 4pm.

After school hours the school catered for parents and the wider community through ABET classes. Adult computer, woodwork and needlecraft projects were also being introduced under the leadreship of another Ebenezer pastor Larry Gewswindt.  These projects were geared to making the local adults more employable. And at the end of February a parenting seminar would be introduced.

“The parents are quite excited and I believe that the more the community comes to the school and gets built up the more they will take ownership,”  Viljoen said.

He said he was also encouraged by the recent start of a major municipal project to tar roads and build stormwater drains in the area in preparation for the construction of RDP houses to replace the shacks that some families had been living in for more than 60 years.

“By the time that there are tarred roads, houses and electricity is finall introduced in the area, we trust that there will be a new generation of teenagers who will have the education and the Godly character required to look after the improvements.”

More information about the school can be got by contacting Russel Viljoen at 083 685 8490.

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