Namibia: Kids Saved From Life On the Street
New Era (Windhoek)
8 October 2007
Posted to the web 8 October 2007
The Joy Centre in Otjiwarongo is testament to the difference a single person can make in the lives of so many, by turning former street children into useful productive members of society.
In a space of three years, Muriel Fisch, almost single-handedly transformed the lives of dozens of street children in Otjiwarongo.
She provided them with the safe environment, love and guidance they needed to bring their shattered lives back on track.
The majority of street children were heavily steeped in a dagga and mandrax drug culture, as well as glue and petrol sniffing.
The first step to giving them a new chance in life, meant getting them to kick the drug habit.
Muriel Fisch originates from the Rehoboth district, but came to Otjiwarongo in 2004 after Esperanza Project asked her to come and become their co-ordinator.
She was a town councillor at Rehoboth, who did volunteer work and participated in community-based organisations.
Fisch helped at the Esperanza Project for two months before the project closed down unexpectedly due to unforeseen circumstances.
Two curious twists of fate came about that prevented her from returning to Rehoboth as she otherwise might have.
The premises of the old, but now abandoned, 435 Dancing Club happened to come on the market at a reasonably affordable price.
As fortune would have it, an anonymous American benefactor also stepped to the fore offering to donate the money necessary to purchase the property.
The payment of an initial deposit of N$85000 then led to the birth of the Joy Centre.
The birth pangs of the home were, however, painful and the success of the project hung in the balance for most of its early existence.
Fisch originally planned to operate the home as a day-care centre, where children arrived at 08h00 and left at 17h00 in the afternoon.
This arrangement, however, failed to break the cycle of negative and destructive behaviour they had caught their lives up in.
They would start abusing drugs again when they left the centre in the afternoons – and in some cases even criminal activity – returning in a morose and dulled state the next morning.
Fisch became despondent, feeling she was making no progress with the children, and the first step needed was to get the children sober.
Refusing to give up however, she decided to start overnighting at the centre with the children – at great risk to her own personal safety – in order to keep them away from harmful influences.
Many of the boys were of an age where they posed a potential physical threat, apart from the fact that they carried weapons such as knives and screwdrivers.
She also started a programme of one-to-one counselling with individual street children.
"The secret was to show them love, but it still took around eight months to turn their lives around."
It was a proud day for Fisch when she could take her Joy Centre group into the local branch of Pep Stores, without all the security guards flying into a panic assuming the children had come to shoplift.
She divides the type of children cared for by the centre into three types:
– Vulnerable children – have parents but are still on the streets;
– Problem children – have parents but there is no understanding between child and parent. These children are often aggressive and involved in theft; and
– Lastly, there are genuine orphans, including three at the centre from as far away as Mariental.
The centre has recorded some remarkable successes in the short three years of its existence.
The centre has reintegrated most of the former street children back into the mainstream school system, where some have performed exceptionally.
Romanus, the former leader of a street gang, is now at one of the local high schools where he is one of the top-performing learners.
Other boys enrolled at the Community Skills Development Centre (Cosdec) where they have acquired skills in carpentry, building and metalwork.
The experience at Cosdec made it possible for them to carry out most of the necessary renovation work at Joy Centre themselves.
Finding funds for day-to-day running costs of the centre has not proved easy. The well-known Theo Spar at Otjiwarongo donates food to the centre on a daily basis.
Individual local good Samaritans pay the centre’s water and electricity bills monthly.
Fisch regrets that because of limited space, the centre cannot take as many girls as she would like, although there is a crying need for getting girls off the street.
Her main ambition now is to expand the centre by purchasing a badly needed property next door.
Human nature being what it is, there are always those willing to prey on the misery of others, with the asking price for the property suddenly sky-rocketing making it unaffordable for Joy Centre.
Regional Councillor for Otjiwarongo Constituency, Ferdinand Kavetuna, could not praise Fisch enough for her work in Otjiwarongo.
"Since she started hardly any street kids can be found in Otjiwarongo. She has done a marvellous job.
"When I was at the municipality we tried various solutions, without any success. We don’t know what she did in order to succeed," Kavetuna said.