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An audacious request transforms South African schools

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Partnerships can sometimes be slow to develop, but their results can be remarkable. Two Rotary clubs in South Africa and the U.S. might never have become partners if it weren’t for an enthusiastic expat who worked at a Jackson Hole hospital. But the outcome of their alliance is extraordinary: a US$540,000 overhaul of facilities at 11 South African schools that benefits more than 7,200 students every year.

Julia Heemstra, a health worker in Wyoming, USA, who used to live in South Africa, told a meeting of the Rotary Club of Jackson Hole about the water scarcity many South Africans deal with. She mentioned that on her next trip back, she planned to take along as many handheld water purifiers as she could fit in her luggage.

“It literally was just me putting water filters in my duffel bags and then heading up to the township and working with schools to distribute them,” Heemstra says. “I went and talked to Rotary about it. Rotarians came to me at the end of the meeting with their checkbooks, saying, ‘How much money do you need? And who do I write the check to?’”

The Jackson Hole members were eager to do more, so Heemstra helped them connect with the Rotary Club of Grahamstown, South Africa. At the time, Grahamstown members were working with the nearby Ntsika Senior Secondary School, which serves around 760 students ages 12-20. The school’s sanitation facilities were practically nonfunctional, and the school had limited access to water. 

“They had an inconsistent water supply. When the water is shut off, the schools have to shut,” says Stuart Palmer, a past district governor in Wyoming and the main fundraiser for the projects. “You cannot have school if you don’t have water. We were seeing the children shortchanged in their education.”

Ntsika had only eight toilets, and they frequently clogged. Even worse, an overflowing sewage tank had created a kind of swamp outside.

The kitchen at Mary Waters High School (left) before the renovation and (right) after the renovation.

Photos: Gavin Keeton

“We were told it was going to cost 1 million rand — about $80,000 in U.S. dollars at that time — to repair the facilities,” says Gavin Keeton, past president of the Grahamstown club. “That would have been far bigger than anything we’d ever done. But then, when we looked closely at the project, we realized it was going to cost double that.”

Enter the skilled fundraisers of Jackson Hole. Together with the Grahamstown club, they applied for a global grant of US$109,000 from The Rotary Foundation and raised US$48,000 in contributions, including donations from other clubs and a remarkable US$20,000 from nonmembers. A change in the exchange rate made the project more affordable. The Grahamstown club got to work, installing water tanks, repairing the gutters and sewage system, and completely remodeling Ntsika’s kitchen and toilet facilities. 

“They just did everything we could possibly need,” says Madeleine Schoeman, Ntsika’s former principal. “They even put up mirrors in the bathrooms. I did not think that the mirrors would be such a big deal, but it’s made an immense difference to our children. Like most young people, they love knowing they’re still looking good.”

The success of the project made the Rotarians even more ambitious. In 2021, several districts collaborated on a US$34,000 district grant to upgrade the water systems at 10 area schools. The grant provided water tanks, filters, and pumps for the schools and paid to repair leaks and connect the new tanks to the municipal water supply. Jackson Hole partnered with Grahamstown again in December 2021, this time on a global grant big enough to completely remodel the toilet facilities and kitchens of seven schools.

A toilet block at Khutliso Daniels Senior Secondary School (left) before the renovation and (right) after the renovation.

Photos: Gavin Keeton

“As we began to hear more about the issues with sanitation in the schools, the thought was, ‘We already did one successful sanitation project, and we have seven or eight more schools with the same issues,’” says Ken Small, a member of the Jackson Hole club and a past district governor. “So we said, ‘Well, let’s do another school.’ And to avoid the fatigue factor of having to do seven or eight applications, we said, ‘Let’s go for broke.’ We started a grant for all seven schools.”

The result was the largest Rotary global grant ever awarded to a club or district in South Africa. Totaling approximately 7.6 million rand (US$400,000), it pays for extensive renovations. Each school is getting new plumbing, new toilets, new tile and mirrors, and refurbished kitchens. Security gates and bars are being installed to prevent vandalism. To keep the facilities in good repair, staff members and parent volunteers are being trained in maintenance.

“Seeing the incredible change — you not only have water, but you’re getting a face-lift on all these schools,” Palmer says. “It’s huge.”

The global grant included US$270,000 in District Designated Funds and contributions from Rotary members, plus US$39,000 from The Rotary Foundation’s World Fund. The rest was donated by nonmembers. “We probably had a hundred individuals participate in this,” Palmer says. 

The Grahamstown club began the work in July 2022 and plans to finish by March 2024. As the results of the project have become apparent, its impact has surprised even its funders.

“I would guess more than 50,000 kids in the next 10 years are going to use those facilities,” Small says. “That’s a huge, huge contribution.”

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