A DECADE OF PARTNERSHIPS: UNIVERSITY RESEARCHERS, TEACHERS AND COMMUNITY VOLUNTEERS TAKING HANDS IN SUPPORTING VULNERABLE COMMUNITIES
In this paper we reflect on a participatory research project where university researchers, school teachers and community volunteers have been partnering for over a decade. We highlight the experiences of the various partners and the outcomes of a longitudinal research project spreading over a period of ten years. The initial research project involved one primary school in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa, and focused on the manner in which teachers mobilised assets and resources within their community, in order to enable the community to cope better with HIV&AIDS. In collaboration with teachers, two university researchers developed and facilitated a strength-based intervention (STAR – Supportive Teachers, Assets and Resilience), which subsequently resulted in teachers initiating various projects in support of vulnerable communities. Following on the evident positive outcomes in the initial participating school-community, teachers of this school were trained as facilitators to replicate STAR in neighbouring schools. In this manner 74 teachers in 11 schools in three South African provinces – all situated in historically disadvantaged communities – have formed part of the STAR project since 2003, partnering with two primary investigators and 13 postgraduate university students. Participatory reflection and action was subsequently utilised to facilitate social change in resource-scarce communities, all characterised by high prevalence of poverty, unemployment and HIV&AIDS.
Firm partnerships between university researchers and teachers within the context of participatory methodology have thus lead to a well-established web of relationships enabling access to healthcare for well-being amongst vulnerable children and their families. Teachers were empowered to take agency to support children’s objective wellbeing (health) and subjective wellbeing (happiness). Teachers did this by initiating and sustaining, over a 10 year period, school-based psycho-social support projects, such as vegetable gardens to supplement children’s nutrition, in-house policies to identify children-in-need, community-wide partnerships to refer children (and families) to a range of health and well-being service-partners (community clinics for treatment and care, faith-based organisations, social grant officials, NGOs for after-school activities), advice and support when accessing medical care, creating and manning school-based HIV&AIDS advocacy centres, soup kitchens at schools, and school-based lay counselling services. In this manner, school-based support not only focused on basic health, nutrition, and financial needs, but also included social development and emotional support to families in need. In addition, partnering teachers have displayed increased levels of self-confidence, reporting quality of life and viewing themselves as agents of change, who can take ownership of health challenges.
Based on the needs communicated by vulnerable community members, STAR was adapted during 2011 and implemented with 37 community volunteers in 2012 as the SHEBA (Supporting Home Environments in Beating Adversity) project. The focus currently falls on how volunteers may support vulnerable communities by implementing a strength-based approach when facing adversity. Such an approach may form the backbone of healthcare in an emerging economy country such as South Africa.