Many stories have been shared of Colleen Ritzer’s ability to transform dull, complex math lessons into fun learning exercises that students would happily participate. That legacy of a love for teaching – and devotion to students personal and academic success – was spread across the Atlantic this summer and shared with students living in the worst of conditions.
Tess Dever, one of the first recipients of a Colleen E. Ritzer Memorial Scholarship, and a student at the University of Connecticut, spent four weeks this summer participating in a study abroad program in Cape Town, South Africa. According to Dever, “It was because of this scholarship that I was able to go on this life-changing experience.”
In Cape Town, Dever interned at Christel House, an elementary school established by an American, Christel DeHaan. According to Christel House, they “transform the lives of impoverished children around the world — breaking the cycle of poverty and building self-sufficient, contributing members of society.” The schools sponsor a “robust K-12 education and a strong character development program are complemented with regular healthcare, nutritious meals, guidance counseling, career planning, family assistance and College and Careers support”
According to Dever, the children who attend the school live impoverished lives, the victims of the country’s 46-year Apartheid racial segregation policy that unjustly forced many into poverty. While Apartheid ended in 1994, many of the families affected by the policy continue to reside in the slums, lacking the financial resources to pursue new opportunities
In South Africa, where Dever interned, there are over 1,000 applicants each year for only 60 slots at Christel House. The parents of many applicants are drug addicts, gang members or abusive.
“The school tries to accept students whose entire family will benefit from them getting a quality education,” shared Dever. “If the family owns an oven, fridge, stove, or microwave, they are considered too rich to go to Christel House. The students who attend all live in the townships in South Africa, which are the slums. The townships are the areas that classified black and colored people were forced to live in under Apartheid. Unfortunately, even though the law no longer says that they have to live in these areas, none of them have the funds to move out.”
Christel House, and students such as Dever who intern there, are a structural and personal refuge for these children. Each morning, students are picked up at 7 a.m. and return home at 5 p.m. They receive meals and snacks, nourishment they would likely forgo if not selected to attend the school.
“Christel House really provides them with the tools to get a quality education, and keeps them off of the streets, where gang members try to recruit kids every day, “ added Dever. “In South Africa, a high school degree is equivalent to a bachelor’s degree in America, so attending Christel House is a truly life-changing opportunity for the students. Even having one family member who has a high school degree provides the family (with what seems like, to them) endless possibilities.”
The four weeks Dever spent in South Africa with the Christel House students left an educational and personal impact.
“I learned more from them [the students] than I ever could have imagined,” Dever explained. “From day one, I walked into the classroom and felt the love that these kids had. The stories that they would tell me about their home lives made my heart ache every day, but the optimism that these students had about everything was absolutely astonishing.
I will carry the lessons I learned into all of my future classrooms.”