Dustin returns from his South African mission with UNICEF Ireland
Dustin the Turkey is just home from his first visit to Africa, after spending a week in the heart of Kwa Zulu Natal province of South Africa with UNICEF Ireland. Dustin was in South Africa to find out the impact of HIV/AIDS on communities and children and ways that UNICEF is working to help very young children cope.
There are more children orphaned or left vulnerable by AIDS in South Africa than anywhere else in the world. It is estimated that over half of the country's 2.5 million orphans have lost a parent to AIDS. As parents and relatives die or fall ill, it falls on the wider community to take care of the orphans left behind.
During his week in South Africa, Dustin met with many children who have lost parents to AIDS and may also be HIV positive themselves. Over 95 per cent of the families in the area that Dustin visited have been directly affected by HIV/AIDS and over 80 percent of the families live below the poverty line.
Dustin visited the UNICEF supported LETCEE Centre in Greytown, in the northern midlands of Kwa Zulu Natal. Its mission is to improve the access to, and quality of early learning opportunities for all young children. As well as this, LETCEE trains early childcare practitioners from the surrounding communities who work throughout the vast rural areas around Greytown. LETCEE was founded in 1991, and in that year, they trained 6 early childcare practitioners. Last year, LETCEE, with UNICEF's support, trained over 750 early childcare practitioners.
These practitioners are formidable women, of all ages, who are picked from their own communities to be trained to help the vulnerable children. They do this in many ways but playing with the very young children is an integral part of their role to help very young children deal with their grief as well as providing support to their elderly relatives caring for them.
Speaking about the children he met during his week in South Africa, Dustin said;
"I didn't know what to expect and I was brickin' meself but I soon learnt that the boys and girls in South Africa are as much fun as the boys and girls in Ireland. Sadly though, in South Africa, sometimes boys and girls have to grow up earlier to look after their little brothers and sisters or older sick relatives. This made me sad but when I saw the work carried out by UNICEF programmes, I soon had hope in my heart and a spring in my wing."
Dustin also travelled around Kwa Zulu Natal - visiting smaller villages in Lilani and Ematimatolo - entertaining and meeting children and their
families. Speaking about Dustin's visit, Mary Jones the Director of LETCEE said;
"For all the children that Dustin met this week, it was their very first time meeting such a personality! Dustin's special ability to entertain was
not held back by language barriers as he speaks the universal language of childhood. The time that Dustin spent with us this week is so important as he has helped us to further expand the vision and most importantly, the imagination of all the children and the educators we work with."
Dustin also met with and spent an afternoon with the LETCEE Buddies. These are older children aged between 9 and 13, who take time out to spend it with the younger children in their communities. They teach them games, songs, read them stories and do arts and crafts. Many of these children have also been through the LETCEE programme themselves and they work with groups of 3 younger children each. The buddies also play an important role in helping the family facilitators identify problems or troubles with the children - such as neglect or abuse.
Speaking about meeting the Buddies, Dustin said;
"One of the highlights for me was meeting the boys and girls who are on the Buddy Programme. This means from around 9-13 years old they Buddy Up with younger kids whose Mams and Dads mightn't be around anymore or might be very sick. These buddies were such a sound bunch, giving their time up to look after littler kids isn't always what bigger kids want to do (trust me I know, I live with Socky) but this gang do it in such good spirits, it was just deadly craic watching them at it."
Speaking about the children Dustin met last week, Melanie Verwoerd, Executive Director of UNICEF Ireland highlighted how important the
programmes that Dustin visited are;
"Early childhood is the most significant period of development in children's lives, establishing the cognitive, emotional and social skills
upon which we build our futures. Young children who are nurtured and well cared for are more likely to fully develop these skills; to grow up
healthier; and to have higher self-esteem. Our experiences in early childhood truly shape who we ultimately become."
Thanking Dustin for his support, she continued by saying;
"We are very grateful to Dustin for taking the time to support UNICEF Ireland's work and to help bring awareness to this troubled area of South Africa, where young children are in need. I have no doubt that Dustin's visit will have a lasting impact on the children and educators he met last week. For a few minutes he made children, who have very difficult lives, smile and forget their suffering. It is this unique presence and ability to communicate with children and advocate for their rights, that makes Dustin a special supporter of UNICEF Ireland's work."
UNICEF has saved more children’s lives than any other humanitarian organisation in the world. Working in over 150 countries, UNICEF provides children with health care, clean water, nutrition, education, emergency relief, and more. UNICEF Ireland supports UNICEF's work through fundraising, advocacy, and education in Ireland. UNICEF receives no funding from the United Nations but is supported entirely by the voluntary contributions of individuals, foundations, corporations, non-governmental organisations and governments.