Background to Vutshilo Mountain School
Vhutshilo (meaning “life”) Mountain School was started in a mobile home in 2002 as a pre-school specifically for children affected by the AIDS pandemic. The Church of Scotland heard about the plight of these youngsters and thanks to the generosity of their Inverclyde congregations, a new school was built at Tshikombani in 2005. Since these humble beginnings the school has grown dramatically and become an integral part of the local community. Orphans, vulnerable children and those living with HIV in our care receive an excellent pre-school education with a strong emphasis on positive living. Free transportation, two good meals per day and second hand clothes are provided to the children, as well as medical help when needed. The medium of instruction is English, but an integral part of the learning programme is to promote indigenous cultural practices as and when appropriate e.g. dancing and singing.
In 2007 the doctors at Siloam Hospital shared their concerns regarding non-compliance of children on the ARV drug regime, so the school began to host and facilitate workshops for HIV+ children from the community and surrounding villages. The aim of these workshops is to “empower” the children to take control of their own drug regime, to be healthy by eating nutritious food, and to help eradicate the dreadful stigma associated with HIV/AIDS by improving their confidence and self esteem. These workshops attracted the attention of Oxfam as they were the first workshops ever to be held specifically for children. Oxfam Australia funded us from 2007 but unfortunately withdrew from South Africa at the end of March 2016.
The older children in the group, who have been with us for more than 8 years, are beginning to play an important role as peer educators, not just for their younger colleagues but also in the community at large. They are healthy and open regarding their status, and so are excellent role models for ART and Positive Living.
VMS operates both a Pre-School and an Outreach Programme, which enables us to provide holistic care to children, and not abandon them when they go home or leave the school. We also accept a restricted number of “healthy”, fee paying children to cross subsidise their indigent class mates. The fact that we have to turn away prospective paying students testifies to how well we have managed to mitigate stigma in our community, as it is well known that we are a school for children infected and affected by HIV/AIDS.
This year our Pre-School enrolled 72 children, of which 42 are vulnerable and indigent and 30 are fee-paying. We have earned a good reputation as children leaving our school and moving on to Primary School invariably do very well; they are confident and speak good English, which gives them a great advantage over their peers from other local pre-schools. Our children receive two nutritious meals, and a fruit every day, second hand clothes and donated blankets every winter, as well as medical assistance when needed.
Vutshilo Outreach Programme
Our Outreach programme currently looks after almost 200 HIV+ children and youths who were born HIV+ and are on ART, and we also assist and capacitate their care-givers. VMS hosts dialogues, workshops and support group meetings for HIV+ children, youth and their caregivers at local health centres around Vhembe district, to which relevant guest speakers are invited to facilitate the meetings/ workshops. Older children from the support group have become the role-models and peer educators to new members and other young children living with HIV/AIDS. We also take the group for camping trips to alleviate stress, and for them to learn about leadership, team building and nature conservation. These activities also teach the children to appreciate and protect their natural heritage and build self-confidence.
We have a skills training programme for the older youth who do not do well academically. They attend trainings on sewing, carpentry, plumbing, computer literacy, and basic home maintenance. The latter has proved to be extremely popular and confidence building, as by attending to repairs at home they feel useful and it builds self esteem. Training is not gender-specific; boys can learn to sew, and girls can learn carpentry if they so wish. We want to expand into entrepreneurial skills training for the older members and encourage/enable them to start small businesses.
In 2012, one member from the children’s support group was on SABC 2 talking openly about her HIV status and encouraging pregnant women to take Nevirapine to prevent mother to child transmission. She was also the leading story in the Cape based Ubuntu magazine in December 2012 talking about positive living. In 2015 she was invited to facilitate a “I have something to say “campaign at a Youth summit at the University of Cape Town. Of the 18 youngsters chosen from all the provinces, four of them were from the VMS support group. They discussed issues like rape, HIV, mental illness and the state of public health services in our country.
The caregivers of these HIV+ children (usually elderly grannies) attend separate workshops where they can discuss problems and issues in a relaxed informal environment as opposed to the monthly hospital visits where the doctors and nurses are too busy to deal with individual queries. Guest speakers at these workshops include social workers to discuss the accessing of the foster grants, nutritionists to discuss food security and healthy eating habits, and a pharmacist/nurse to explain the importance of strict adherence to the ARV regime. Some of the caregivers went on a HBC (Home Based Care) course to train them to look after, not only their own young charges, but also people in their communities. Massage therapists from the States spend time each year at the school and teach the caregivers about the “healing touch“ of massage.
According to feedback from the doctors at Siloam Hospital, this outreach programme has dramatically decreased the number of children dying due to non-compliance to the ARV drugs. Other AIDs clinics and organisations heard about the success of the VMS Children’s support group and began asking for assistance, so in partnership with Thohoyandou Victim Empowerment Programme (TVEP) a dialogue was held with representatives from two other State Hospitals attempting to run support groups for children. Caregivers and children from VMS answered questions and told the group why they thought the VMS support group was so successful. The government officials were amazed at the openness of the children and their obvious self-esteem, and explained that they were still struggling with deciding whether-or-not to even tell the children they were HIV+; such fears clearly endorse the stigma around the disease. At their request, a draft issue of “A guide for the implementation of The VMS Children’s Support Group Model” was produced and although still a “work in progress” has been sent to interested parties.
VMS’s 11 members of permanent staff and volunteers are from the surrounding villages, and the school employs 3 contract drivers who transport the children to and from school. Local businesses and artisans have come to rely on VMS for both employment and trade. With a local unemployment rate of over 50% (most of them women) this small school is making a significant difference in assisting this community to achieve a slightly higher standard of living.