Tuesday 28 March 2017

Irish family of volunteers give South African children something to smile about

Jane Last in Cape Town

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

Some of the 220 volunteers from the Mellon Educate charity believe there can be no stronger motivation than these words from the late Nelson Mandela.

They put  Mandela’s quote onto an Irish flag, before presenting it to charity founder and Irish developer Niall Mellon.

The volunteers –  from across Ireland – are working on a major refurbishment and construction project on a school in Cape Town, South Africa.

The school is situated next to the sprawling Imizamo Yethu Township in Cape Town, South Africa.


Some 25,000 people live in abject poverty here – and it’s thought that every household has at least one child attending the Oranjekloof Moravian primary school.

And it was these children that gave a rapturous reception to the Irish volunteers who walked through their township earlier today.

Despite their sunny nature, nothing could take away from the appalling conditions in which some of them live.

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But there is some light.

The houses constructed by the Niall Mellon Township Trust stand just as they were when they were constructed back in 2002.

Indeed the Irish flag erected by the trust back in 2002 still flies proudly – and the building that once housed the charity’s onsite office is now a bustling community centre.

The South African government are now involved in social housing which means Niall Mellon’s charity can focus on other areas such as education.

Niall took volunteers on a walk through the township before they continued work on the school earlier today.


There is no doubt that these volunteers are highly motivated – but the rapturous reception and cheers given by the township’s children can only spur them on further.

Today was the second day of the seven day building blitz at the Oranjekloof school – and already things are beginning to take shape.

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Walls have been constructed for a number of new classrooms while floorboards in existing ones are being ripped up.

Volunteers are working steadily and are highly confident the school will be ready for handover to the community on Friday.

Back at the site, we met some family teams.

Electrician Dermot and his daughter Cassie (23) – a basketball coach of at the Loreto school in Dalkey – are working on the school.

Both Dermot and Cassie are ‘blitz’ veterans.


This is Dermot’s seventh blitz, and daughter Cassie is just two years behind him.

 “It’s a fantastic charity to work on. I came with the intention of coming for just one year but having seen the poverty that these people have to live with on a daily basis, it encouraged me to come out every year,” Dermot said.

“The first year was very easy in raising funds – but it’s very difficult to go back to the same people to ask to put their hand in their pocket. So what we’ve done since is events such as bag packs, bucket collections and other events to raise funds for the charity.”

Cassie has been helping her father raise funds since he first went on a building blitz seven years ago.

Two years later, she decided to join him. Similarly to her father, she became hooked.

“This is my fifth trip - I first came out here after my Leaving Cert.

“I work in a school at home so I was really excited to work on a school out here.”

The father and daughter decided to work on separate teams – and you won’t see them work together on the school site.

“I wanted to make my own friends and find my own way – and it’s worked well so far,” added Cassie.

Working alongside Dermot is fellow electrician Jerry Fogarty.


Jerry’s wife Margaret and daughter Sarah -  from Galmoy, Co Kilkenny – have travelled out together to work on Oranjekloof. 

This is Jerry’s sixth building blitz – he has worked on blitzes for the Niall Mellon Township Trust previously, including houses the nearby township.

“I have a trade – I’m an electrician – and I thought I would be of some use out here. So I came out – but I soon became hooked and have been back out every year since.

“This year is a little different because I have my wife Margaret here with me and our daughter Sarah.

 “Margaret is out here to keep an eye on us,” he joked.

“I have helped Gerry with his fundraising for the last six years and I always wanted to come.  I just felt that fundraising for the two of us was a big task but I did it,” Margaret explained.

“I only decided in November I was going to come so I did a coffee morning before Christmas and I also did clothes recycling which was promoted by the Niall Mellon Township Trust.  So I got money from that and donations from people and eventually I got here. It was hard work,” she explained.

While working as part of the 220 strong group, husband and wife are separated while on site.

“Well I don’t think we’ll be working together out here,” she laughed.

“They’ve kept us on separate teams – but Sarah and myself will be working together alright.”

Their daughter Sarah is just 17 – but is already on her second building blitz. She is a fifth year student in the Ursuline Convent in Thurles, Co Tipperary.

“In Transition Year last year I decided to go because my dad was going and I thought it would be a great experience.

“So four of us from Transition Year came – and then I just wanted to go again this year.”

Sarah was meant to go on the Mellon Educate seven day blitz to Nairobi in Kenya last November – the trip for Irish volunteers was cancelled due to security reasons although the school has been constructed by a team of sub-contractors.

This meant that Sarah travelled to Cape Town with her parents.

“My friends think it’s a really good experience and my teachers say it’s amazing for a 17-year-old to be doing this.”

She’s keeping her friends at home updated on her progress via Facebook and Snapchat.

As for her working with her mother, she said: “We’ll see how that goes during the week.”

Progress on the school is rapid – no doubt these Irish volunteers want to give the children of Imizamo Yethu Township something else to smile about.

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