Before I left Australia in 2013, I sat in the office of my now-former boss discussing the plans for Sepheo and establishing a culture of excellence out of poverty. I outlined how we wanted to centre our model on a Character and Leadership program, as success is fleeting without the right character. She nodded and matter-of-factly said, ‘you need to add resilience.’
Resilience, she said, is a trait common to successful people. She would know. It was also the first time we’d heard a concise explanation of the thing that we wanted to build into our kids, so Character, Resilience and Leadership was born.
One of our objectives is to have every child off the streets. Each child’s situation is different and our team has had great success in helping children who have been on the street only a short time and with those who come to the streets from home to earn a living. When we help them build their own plans and work with their families to enact them, we find children returning home with relative ease. But this shift is much harder for children and youth who have lived on the streets for years.
For most who have been on the streets long term, they have found an identity and a rhythm to life. It’s easy for them to be there. This comes as a shock, especially to those who see them begging, the rags they wear and their daily fight for safety. But, despite appearances, the streets are comfortable for them. It’s all they’ve known. Some are now young men and apathy and lethargy are their safe places.
Our goal is to get these kids to WANT something different. We can work with that. For years, organisations have come in and thrust opportunity upon kids who don’t want to change, then they’re surprised when they quit and return to the comfortable. Whilst it’s true that many in the developing world lack opportunity, for these kids opportunity is not the catalyst.
Opportunity alone isn’t enough to get out of poverty. You need fight; you need determination; you have to want it. This is where resilience comes into the picture. It is the ability to succeed despite adversity. We don’t ignore the pain that our kids live with, but as best as we can we try to help them chart a way through it. It’s not as simple as telling them to snap out of it or that life can be better. Tweetable, soundbite motivation is useless. Just last week, our team learned that the mother of three children told her kids that the only reason they’re here is that she can’t afford poison. Another young man has burns and scars up his legs inflicted by his mother. To me, it’s no wonder they came to the street. These stories aren’t unique. One-liners can’t restore what has been stolen from our kids.
From my time in the army I learned the value of physical training, not just for fitness or job-readiness, but as a way of developing what we called ‘mental toughness’ - resilience. We figured that anyone can get fit, but being a soldier required persistence in the most trying of circumstances. It was when we were the most fatigued that the training actually started. At the same time, the sense of achievement was palpable whenever we did what we thought was beyond our ability. Our instructors knew it. Those without ‘mental toughness’ would pack it in and let their emotions show, but the resilient would shut their mouth, maintain their composure and keep on going.
I always had a hunch that I could apply what I learned in the military amongst the kids on the street. Here in Lesotho, we’re not training soldiers, but we are trying to get people to care about their lives. I thought that if I could get kids to persevere in a 30 minute training session that we can apply the lessons to their lives. The idea is to shrink the time between hard work and reward. We put achievement within reach.
It’s great to watch kids after a session drinking their protein shakes and comparing muscle growth. They go back to their hangouts and replicate the training sessions with their peers. When I walk through town kids will show me their pecs and biceps, clearly impressed at their progress. A couple of older youth asked for more sessions, so we’ve started a weekly running group.
Of course, resilience on its own isn’t worth much. It has to be connected to a purpose. As we train and run we talk about making a plan for their lives and about getting off the streets. We don’t come up with the plan or give them the answers, but we do challenge their ideas and help them refine their goals.
Just this week, a young man, 19, arrived at training and gave Belinda some money to put away for saving towards his goal. He has a plan to get off the streets - not just a feint desire - and he came up with it himself. This time, the reward is likely to be months off, but he has committed and his resilience is maturing.
Another young man, also 19, has been training with me for months and is now off the street and working. He recently came away with our family where he completed the world’s longest abseil down a 204 metre cliff. This would have been an unthinkable accomplishment for him a short time ago, but over time he has developed drive and a love of achieving.
In growing resilience, we are really laying the ground-work for success. We had initially set out to help kids take opportunities, but we’re now seeing that they have the capacity to make opportunities. We see excellence in our kids. We want them to be better than those who despise them. Most of all, we want them to want it.