Melissa Kroslak - Sports, Teach Physical Education in South Africa
My experience with Projects Abroad was one that can be summarized as no other than life changing.
I completed my volunteer work in Cape Town, South Africa. I prepared myself for the trip, memorizing my Frommer's guidebook and decided I knew everything there was to know about Cape Town. I was wrong. When I arrived I realized this beautiful city, so geographically and culturally diverse, had a personality and liveliness to it that could not be adequately explained in text books or captured in pictures. It could only be understood through experience.
I resided in a suburb of Cape Town called Grassy Park. In this town, shacks and small houses dot the streets leading you to a downtown occupied with shops and bakeries and filled with a community of struggle, strength and pride. Initially, I felt slightly nervous to be in an unfamiliar setting. This quickly dissipated. I cannot pinpoint an exact moment that caused this; however, I can clearly recall when I realized I was no longer regarded as just a visitor in the neighborhood. I was going for a run one morning and I had left a little later than usual. Because of this, there were a lot of people filling the streets. I would say in a 15 minute period I was greeted by about 7 mothers and their children as “teacher Melissa” and one of the mini bus drivers yelled “go America!” outside the window as he sped by. I even heard one little boy point to me and tell his father “that’s my coach!” It was during that time that I felt not only accepted, but truly a part of the Grassy Park community.
My host family was wonderful. There were four female volunteers, including myself, in the home and their own four daughters as well. Naziema, our host mother, did an incredible job taking care of her “eight daughters.” Her knack for detail impressed me greatly and she loved exchanging information and stories of our own cultures. Naziema would listen intently to my accounts from home, my work and my schooling experience. Some of my fondest memories are talks we had over a cup of tea at night. I can still recall her shocked giggle that resounded whenever something about my home surprised her. Naziema’s kind voice would recount her personal stories as well as stories of friends and neighbors. I received much of my Cape Town community education right in her kitchen. Her four daughters truly became like sisters, hanging out in our room at night, sharing laughs, pictures and reminiscences. Time passed trying on clothing and discussing life matters that I found are not separated by passports or country lines on a map.
My volunteer work proved equally as enjoyable as home life. I had come with hopes to do something incorporating athletics but was not sure of the most effective way to do so. I worked with the school principal and with Dana and Alyssa, the Projects Abroad coordinators, to formalize what I would be doing for my project. I organized what in America would be the equivalent of a gym class. Prior to my arrival the only athletic experience the students had was running; mainly around pieces of trash that were utilized as cones. The excitement on the kids’ faces when they saw the athletic equipment I brought was incredibly gratifying. Their appreciation reminded me of how lucky I really am to have grown up surrounded by such luxuries often mistaken for certainties.
Gym class turned into an Olympic competition, each class would choose a different country, research it and represent it during events. I loved walking through the school hearing students yell out in unison “Go team Botswana!” “Go Italy!” “Coach, Russia is going to win, right!?” Their enthusiasm filled the buildings. One of the events we did was called a team squeeze. This was something very special to me because my college field hockey team did this before games. The students would form a circle holding hands. I would start the squeeze with the student on my left and simultaneously start my timer. The watch would stop when I received a squeeze back from the student on my right. The classes loved this! I was shocked how receptive and enthusiastic they were with this exercise. I felt that they really understood the importance of focus and teamwork. They worked so hard to improve their time by just a few seconds, encouraging each other and standing silently awaiting the squeeze. One of my classes first scored 43 seconds. For their final try they scored 7.2 seconds. The smiles on each of their faces as they rushed the middle of the circle, pumping their fists in the air and screaming out loud was unlike anything I had seen. They were so proud of themselves and so proud of each other. Later, I discovered that it wasn’t the fancy field hockey sticks, obstacle courses or shiny soccer balls but rather this simple exercise that proved their favorite; yet another instance where I learned to treasure simplicities in life.
Before I had left my home in the busy city of Boston, Massachusetts, I assumed I would be making a sacrifice coming to South Africa and extracurricular time would be limited. Once again, I was wrong. My time after school and weekends was quite busy! I still cannot believe the amount I experienced in such a short time and I can confidently say that is truly because of the Projects Abroad staff. They shared their knowledge of the program, the culture and different activities. Their passion for the city was contagious and they encouraged me to embrace every opportunity and live the culture there. They did not want me to merely be a touristy visitor of the region; rather, they wanted me to live the society. This basic ideal made all the difference in my stay. Thanks to their guidance I was able to accomplish more than I had hoped, including sampling incredible wines right at the vineyard, seeing the most beautiful animals only feet away on a safari, playing soccer barefoot with African tribal children, learning the township culture as I tasted their cuisines, hiking amazing trails, seeing the city from Table Mountain, witnessing the pain and struggle endured during apartheid at the District Six Museum and on Robben Island, watching the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen, learning to surf, sampling incredible foods, enjoying local linguistics and idiosyncrasies and my favorite of all, chatting with neighbors and drivers as we rode the mini buses throughout town.
I could not speak more highly of a program or of a city and would recommend it to anyone with a desire to learn, help others and encounter life changing experiences. I am forever grateful for the opportunity I was given in Cape Town and will treasure each memory made. I left South Africa with only one regret- that I could not stay longer!