LearnServe Teacher’s Blog: Final Thoughts from South Africa (7/14)

What’s next? Where do we go from here?

I am pleased to report that we are all back safe and sound in the USA!  Our 16/17-day journey in South Africa has come to a close and we now must answer the question, “So, what now?”

I am sure my EME crew is off reconnecting with favorite foods, family, and friends.  But, I am also sure that many of them are/will be wrestling with the question of what to do next.  It’s a difficult question to answer.  After such an amazing international adventure with so many new and exciting experiences, it’s hard to keep it all in perspective. As we said our farewells to our South African hosts at the airport in JoBurg on Tuesday,  I started to feel sad.  Not sad that we were returning home to our loved-ones, but sad that we had to leave our new friends and experiences behind.  But, I tried my best to hold my feelings in check before my students started to clown me since they already think I’m too emotional!

In any event, I quickly remembered as I said farewell to each of our 14 guys in front of Eastern, that I already know part of the answer.  What we must do now is keep the fire burning! LearnServe EME South Africa was not about a one time trip to Africa.  It was not a summer vacation destination.  It was just one more step in our journey as a collaborative to empower our young men with the tools and experiences they need to be successful in their college, career and life pursuits.  Being reminded of that goal keeps me smiling and keeps me going.  I see how this experience has opened eyes and doors for our young men.  I also see how we now have the power to connect with more young men and women, at Eastern, to share what we experienced and how they too can get in on the action!

So, I would like to leave you with some of my favorite moments from the trip.  The purpose of these highlights is not for us to just re-live the moments, but to cherish them and spread the word to others.  This trip lives on in how we choose to remember it and how we choose to share with those we care about.  It is through these connections that we can begin to think about ways of creating more opportunities for experiential travel for our students of color at Eastern and throughout the District.  Thank you to all who have reached out with words of encouragement and appreciation for these reflections.  They are my way of unpacking all of my personal thoughts about our experiences and I’m glad that so many of you have enjoyed reading them!

Hats off again to the Empowering Males of Color Initiative and LearnServe International for making the last few months possible.  We are only beginning to see the fruits of the seeds that have been planted, but I am confident that the best is yet to come.

My Top 17 Moments (14 Students and 3 Chaperones=17 Great Days and Moments to Celebrate)!

  1. ​​Family Send-Off at Eastern on June 25th Departure Day.  Why in the world is this one of my great moments? Because the pure joy and excitement that I saw on each student’s face was…priceless!  I mean, these guys all looked like my 5 year old son getting ready for his first big birthday party.  It just felt good seeing parents and guardians, siblings, family members, and school officials, hugging and high-fiving each other–some even wiping away tears–all anxiously hoping that the trip would be safe, fun, and a success…it was 🙂  That day showed me that we all “got it.”  We all recognized that this was a big deal and we weren’t taking it for granted. We have to find a way to bottle up all that love and excitement and carry that with us each day to class and/or to work, and within all of our daily responsibilities.
  2. ​Naturena Day with City Year.  ​Our day-long work with City Year at Naturena primary school left a big impression on all involved.  We engaged in great dialogue with students in grades K-7, as well as with school officials.  While I was moved by the ongoing debate about the role of language in education, many of our students were struck by how motivated, gifted, and joyful the students appeared to be despite any personal challenges they may have had.   My hope:  that passion and joy for education will travel back with our EME guys to Eastern and the District, starting a new level of interest in the pursuit of knowledge.
  3. The Homestead Revitalization Project at Grassroots CYCC. Our Homestead work as highlighted in my Day 11-12 reflections, was a great example of community building and youth leadership in action.  As I mentioned before, there was something beautiful about seeing young minds wrestle with what would be worthwhile and sustainable to create in a community.  In the end, we created a space that everyone was proud to be associated with.  It was powerful and inspiring.  My wish:  each EME student will use the Homestead experience to really think critically in the coming weeks about what they can create and implement right here in DC that will be worthwhile and sustainable for the people who need it the most.
  4. ​Kliptown Youth Program (KYP) Gumboot Dance Tribute.  I JUST LOVED THIS!  I mentioned this moment in my Day 3 reflection, but haven’t been able to share the full video until now.  Check out the full 20 minute performance of our great friends in Kliptown through the following special google link (https://photos.app.goo.gl/Ro38E5IVVOdbSLMu2).  You can fast forward to minute 13 to see where some of our brave EME students joined in to show a few dance moves of their own!  I saw a number of our EME students come out of their shell and truly connect with the people of Kliptown, even from some of our guys that are usually too “hard” to smile, to see them dancing and laughing and playing, was quite special.  I hope you enjoy the full video link.  It is now also available through our master google photo link.
  5. ​One-on-One Check-Ins/Chat Sessions with EME Students.  This trip gave me an opportunity to get to understand each of my students a bit more.  Some of them, I have never taught, and so I only knew them through our regular mentoring sessions and activities.  This round-the-clock, 2-week plus trip allowed us to connect on another level.  The dreams and aspirations of our young men need to be understood, celebrated and cherished.  AND, our young men also need to be confronted and challenged, honestly and lovingly, in areas where they need to grow.  Courtney, Ginea, and I were intentional in checking in with each EME student, sometimes one-on-one and other times in small groups, all to reflect on the socio-emotional well being of the student and to challenge each student on how they were performing during the trip.  I am grateful for the opportunities I have had to connect with each young man and look forward to working with them as they grow, graduate, and excel in life.
  6. ​Birthday Celebrations for Zac and Devon.  Zac and Devon are alike and different in many ways.  The diverse nature of our students was shown throughout the trip, but one thing that remained constant was their sense of brotherhood.  I was honored to be able to share birthdays with both of them during our trip.  On both days, it was refreshing to see how all the guys genuinely wanted to make sure that their fellow brother had a great birthday.  We have to find a way to ensure that this brotherhood continues throughout the school year and that it becomes infectious throughout the larger student body! https://goo.gl/photos/nfz1tux97DdZU17k7 ​and https://photos.app.goo.gl/u9HnXRRnYazBE22l1
  7. ​Dinner with Kim and Corwin.  All smiles during my “ear-hustling” moments at the Friday night dinner where I heard students excitedly reaching for their business cards (completely unprompted by anyone) and sharing it with our dinner hosts.  When Kim yelled across the room, “Look Corwin, they each have business cards!”,  I silently beamed and shouted within.  I’m confident that our students will remain in touch with many of the people they encountered in South Africa and I look forward to hearing amazing updates from each of them.
  8. ​Table Mountain Day.  Table Mountain was a tough journey for most of us, but it was also a triumphant one. Many of my guys were upset going down the mountain because it was longer and more difficult, but we all made it through. Soon thereafter, most were celebrating their achievements and the difficulties were no longer overshadowing the big feat.  I hope the challenge of Table Mountain serves as a useful metaphor for each of our students in school, career, and life in general.
  9. ​Safari.  I already told each of you what made my Safari experience complete was my giraffe encounter!  But, what also stood out about my guys during the 2-day Safari was how resilient our guys are.  They battled through the unusually cold temperatures and even  a power outage to find a way to enjoy themselves.  That resiliency is a skill that we too often overlook, but that needs to be brought out during moments of trauma, crisis, and just daily disappointments.  I hope that I as a mentor and the rest of our students’ support network find new and creative ways to help our students become independent, resilient and consistent.
  10. ​Meeting Huddles.  I can admit to the guys now…our meeting times were intense!  We met almost every morning, afternoon, or night to discuss serious topics about race, gender, class, and division, with some meetings going on for almost 2 hours.  We analyzed texts, wrote journal reflections, invited debate, and shared personal moments.  That’s a lot to ask of young men on any day, but particularly tough during the summer while away on an abroad trip.  I wouldn’t change it for the world, though!  I saw true growth from our students during our huddle times and each meeting forced us to reflect on our experiences in country as well at home in a way that could never be accomplished from merely sitting in classroom with a textbook.  I thank each EME student for engaging during our huddle times and challenge each student to find their own space to reflect and explore the way we did in South Africa.
  11. ​EME Chats with Women and About Women.  It’s worth noting something that I have not explicitly spoken on before.  We had 14 young men, traveling with one man and two women.  Boy, was that interesting :).  Without going into details or breaking confidences, this provided for quite an enriching experience.  It helped to remind me the importance of dialogue when raising our young people and how too often many discussions go left unsaid. Shout out to Ginea and Courtney for being present and engaged with each of our young men, AND for pushing our students to think critically about the language we use when communicating with each other, and how better to communicate within and among the sexes.  More dialogue among the sexes is needed as we seek to produce Men and Women of Excellence.
  12. ​Favorite Food.  So, it’s no surprise by now that I like (read: LOVE) to eat!  I enjoyed trying new meals with my EME guys and seeing their faces when they liked (or not) what they received.  In the end, most of what we loved, wasn’t too different than what we could get in the United States, but when we loved something, we went above and beyond to get multiple rounds of it :).  Trying new things was a teachable moment for many of our guys and I’m glad that they rose to the occasion instead of starving for two weeks!  Here are a few of the food items that left the biggest impression with us:  “Pop,” in all its forms; Amagwynya (fried dough/bread); Braai (South African bbq); BGR’s American burger in JoBurg; RocoMama Milkshakes (the guys were truly addicted to these); and Malva Pudding (a popular South African dessert that made me gain 5 pounds).
  13. Favorite Destinations.  ​There are too many to list here, but I do want to highlight a category of destinations that I surprisingly really enjoyed.  I loved our time at the museums (Hector Pieterson, Nelson Mandela, Dompass, District 6, and Robben Island), even though I don’t usually enjoy museums!  These museums were so well done in telling us a story and in each case we had excellent tour guides that really gave us first hand accounts of experiences that were difficult to re-live.  My prayer is that we find a way to teach history so that it becomes living history that our students feel connected and empowered by.
  14. Homestays.  I can’t imagine doing a student study-abroad experience without a homestay.  So glad that our homestay period was a success and appreciated the feedback we received from students on how to make the experience even more enjoyable for future travelers in the coming years.  Seeing how our guys really connected with their “mamas” and other homestay family was a joy to see.  That period of time was invaluable because it showed a side of South Africa that we could not receive in any other way.
  15. ​LearnServe Student Blogs.  If you have not already, please check out our student blog reflections that have been posted on LearnServe International’s website:  http://learn-serve.org/blog/south-africa .  All 14 of our guys were assigned their very own personal reflection day and we were genuinely pleased with the results. We have been encouraging our young men to pause and reflect on their experiences while abroad, but more importantly, in life in general.  I won’t lie, many students hate the writing process, but I’m confident that they will be stronger writers and more critical thinkers, because of it!
  16. ​Oh, the Pictures.  As a reminder, this link has pictures AND videos from ALL of our days in South Africa: https://goo.gl/photos/2S9GS5pHLF7cMmUKA.  Some cover the big moments, others just capture our silly sides and random photo shoot sessions!  lol  Whenever in need of a smile or some motivation, take a look at these photos and you will be fired up/ready to go!
  17. Upcoming LearnServe Abroad Meetings and Student Presentations.  The work has only just begun!  Our students still have post-trip meetings they will have to complete before their official “LearnServe Study Abroad Graduation” in October.  During the next few months, I challenge each of you to check in with our EME team to see how they are doing.  How will each EME leader present their experience to their peers, school leaders, and district officials?  What sustainable social change initiatives will each EME leader create within DC? I can’t wait to see what each of our young men do in the coming months and I look forward to sharing the details with you all in the weeks and months ahead.

Again, I thank you for listening ear over the last few weeks and hope that together we have sparked something new and sustainable that infects the lives of many more.  Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you have questions or are in need.

All the Best,

Ivan C. Douglas Jr.
Law Programs Teacher
Program Director
Empowering Males of Color Initiative
Eastern High School


LearnServe South Africa 2017: The Greatest Gift of All (7/8)

As I reflect on today, I want to say that I gave the boys I interacted with the “Greatest Gift of All.” I gave them someone their age to talk to that we as teenagers desperately need.  The struggle of dealing with emotions is common and we cannot talk about them easily with adults.
Today, we visited the other part of Homestead. The place was called Homestead: Grassroots, and it houses young kids who have been abandoned and who have been on drugs. It takes “baby” steps, and when the kids finally complete their rehabilitation, they are moved from Grassroots to The Launch Pad.
A boy named Patrick who I talked to had a very inspirational story. He decided at a young age to change his life for the better, so he stopped using drugs and focused on having his own responsibilities.
Another part of today was planning what we were going to do for the Homestead children. In the facility, there is a open basketball court used as a concrete soccer field that we plan on revitalizing to make it a basketball court again. Also, we plan on zip tying the soccer net for the soccer field in the back of the facility. One of my friends is going to bring a game from Johannesburg for the kids to play as well.  We had a great discussion and planning session today with both my peers and the kids from The Launch Pad. I am excited for tomorrow and I can’t wait to change lives. Until next time!
Elijah D., Eastern High School

LearnServe South Africa 2017: Table Mountain (7/3)

Today was full of adventures and excitement. Although today was very tiring, the group and I enjoyed ourselves and got closer to some new friends like Push, Mike, Ashley, and more. It was a very jammed-packed day where the group experienced the type of opportunity that will be remembered for a lifetime.

Today, the group and I woke up very early around 6am and met at “Mama Knox’s” house at 7:30am. We left our home-stay moms and had a very hard time saying goodbye. Each of our moms received a card from us to show how much we appreciated their comfort and support while in their homes. All of the moms were very nice and respectful!

Once we met at Mama Knox’s house, she started selling some of her jewelry and souvenirs for us to take back home and share with our families. Also at Mama Knox’s house, we made many sandwiches for ourselves and other homestead members we were going to meet later as we hiked up Table Mountain.  Once we made the sandwiches, we drove in the van to pick up homestead members and drop off luggage with the backpackers in Cape Town. The experiences with the Home-stays were very unique. We were exposed to all types of cultures and traditions. 

​As I mentioned, we picked up Homestead members and headed to Table Mountain. Push and Mike were very experienced with climbing Table Mountain and had many tips for our group.  On the way up Table Mountain, I believed that this hike would be a walk in the park. I was 100 percent wrong!

The first 30 minutes of the hike was smooth and simple. After that time period, the hike started to become something like a big test that I hadn’t studied for. I am personally afraid of heights and that made the hike worse than it might have otherwise been. The rocks that we had to climb were slippery because it had rained previously. That made the hike feel even harder than it ordinarily was.  On the way up, I took many pictures because I felt proud that I was overcoming a fear. The time going up took about 1 hour and 30 minutes. 

Now on the way down, the hike became very scary for me. There were about 3 ladders going down and it took about 3 hours. This part was what caused my body to become sore. Despite all of the fears and negative thoughts, the hike was a once in a lifetime experience that I enjoyed, but I couldn’t say that I would repeat it!

Tyrone P., Eastern High School

LearnServe South Africa 2017: Safari (7/9)

On Sunday, we explored many things in South Africa. We left downtown Cape Town from the backpackers to travel two hours to the Aquila Resort for a 2 day, 1 night Safari!
At Aquila, we went on our first game ride.  Our driver, John, blessed us all by giving us blankets on the truck to try and keep us warm. On Day 1, we first saw hippos laying in a river and John told us facts about hippos such as they can stay under water for 5-7 minutes. We were also excited to see two live Elephants which walked behind us for about 5 minutes. A highlight from the tour was seeing the lions in their den. After the the tour, we had dinner and were able to talk about our day at the dinner table.
The Safari was a welcome getaway at the end of our two week trip. Overall, the trip has been great because I learned new things. In particular, I am proud that I experienced the Safari because I was able to see animals in their natural habitat and learn new facts about the animals.
In conclusion, I highly recommend taking a Safari so that one can experience wildlife from the animals’ point of view and not from a domestic zoo point of view.
Peyton S., Eastern High School

LearnServe South Africa 2017: Last Day with the Homestead Project (7/8)

Today was our last day working with The Homestead Project. It felt good to work with those kids and be able to teach them some of our games. Also, some of the kids were saying some positive things about what we did for their home. For example, one of the kids said “The field looks way better than it did at first.”  It feels good to hear that because we worked very hard and they appreciated what we did. 

We also built a basketball court for the kids. At one point, I thought us building a court wasn’t going to turn out so good but it did because the kids were eager to play and to be taught how to play. Also, some kids already knew how to play!  This is important to me because I really love basketball; it’s something I really want to do for my career. Also, I think this helped me become a better leader for my basketball team because the little kids were following everything I did, so I had to make sure they were doing the right thing. This experience will help me relate to my basketball team.

Another game that we played with them was a game called “Ping Pong,” which is the same thing as “Table Tennis.” I think this game was very successful because most of the kids were lined up to play and I think they were still playing when we left. A kid named Matthew, around the same age as us, said to me “I’m glad you guys built this table for us, we been wanted to play this game but the table was broken so we couldn’t play. But you guys came and fixed it. Thank you.”

Later on that day, we went to “RocoMamas,” a very good restaurant that sells burgers. It’s even better than some restaurants back at home. Something that caught my eye at that restaurant was a burger named after Donald Trump’s tweet. It was called “Covfefe,” and for the picture it had a white man with orange hair. So I found that funny, and it was my first time seeing that.

In closing, we ended our day at a special restaurant for dinner called “ExtraBlatt.” There, we had chicken with fries or steak and fries. That place was good. In closing, today was a successful day because we accomplished things, ate some good food, and everyone enjoyed participating in our service work.

Devon J., Eastern High School

LearnServe South Africa 2017: The Message Trust (7/7)

My day Friday went very well; I enjoyed every part of it!  The experiences throughout the day helped me reflect on how I would like to help people, and also how to be a better investor and entrepreneur.

During the beginning of the day, we sat and listened to how a man named Preston Jongbloed, who didn’t want to be a part of many stereotypes as a colored man in South Africa, overcame those stereotypes. He is part of an organization called The Message Trust.  He explained how he was around his uncles and cousins who sold drugs and had guns, but he chose the path of football (soccer). Because of his experiences he talks to young people and people who are incarcerated to flip their life in a more positive way.  The Message Trust also helps young people to get out of prison for good behavior. I would love to do what he does to inspire people to do better in their lives and to help people like my mother to get out of prison for good behavior. 

Secondly, later that day, another thing we did was go to Corwin and Kim Shropshire’s house, where they prepared a lovely dinner of pizza for us and also spoke about their careers. Ms. Kim works for the U.S. consulate office in South Africa where she serves as a diplomat, who regularly moves due to different government assignments she has. She recently moved from New York, to D.C., to Pakistan, and now to South Africa!

We also had the pleasure of getting to know Kim’s husband, Mr. Corwin Shropshire.  One very interesting thing that Mr. Corwin spoke about was how he invests in stocks and different businesses.  Even though he didn’t speak about what he invested in, he gave me a very important list on how to start as a beginner. I believe we really connected once I told him my life plan for when I turn 18: to become a young investor and entrepreneur. 

Overall, today was impactful because the information I gathered helped me to better my future as an investor and become more successful!

Alonzo T., Eastern High School

LearnServe South Africa 2017: The Homestead–Grassroots/CYCC (7/6)

After today’s experience in working on developing The Homestead–Grassroots/CYCC, a starting area for kids who come from abandoned homes and/or lives affected by “gangsterism,” I felt kind and generous for helping kids less privileged than me fix their soccer field, clean their garage, and build a basketball court. I also felt accomplished because as a group, we set a goal on what we were going to do and by the end of the day, everyone played their part. We completed at least 90% of the work in one work day, which left us with going back on Saturday just to finish painting a memorial bench. Overall, I was very pleased with how the day went, and very thankful for the opportunity to give to a less fortunate community.

During the day, I covered two roles. My first job, with a group of boys from EME and LaunchPad, was to clean out a garage. We were tasked with removing all the bags out from the back of the garage, placing all the towels found in the garage in to one bag, and all copy paper found moved into the new supply closet in the building.

After we completed these tasks, we waited for our next instructions, where I had a unpleasant experience. A white woman who was in charge at the organization, came out and gave use further instructions, but she spoke Afrikaans.  That alone was uncomfortable after thinking of the relationship between the Afrikaan language and blacks in South Africa…She then proceeded to give orders to us all ordering us to stop with the garage and move to a different garage where we were supposed to remove bricks. The reason this experience was unpleasant to me was because earlier in the trip, we learned that the Afrikaan language is an oppressive language used by whites in part to divide blacks and ignore the native languages spoken within the country. This made me uncomfortable and also drew me to make a comparison between that and slavery in the U.S.  We ultimately moved to a different task after consulting with our trip leader who agreed that there were better ways for us all to use our time at the facility.  I was pleased that our trip leader recognized our discomfort, and considered our thoughts on the matter.

Our next task was to clear the soccer field of weeds, which was quite a simple task. The purpose of this was to get rid of the safety hazard of the kids tripping and hurting themselves while playing soccer. This task went by smoothly with no problems and at the end of the day, the kids expressed how the soccer field looked better to them, weed free and with fixed nets. Although this task may seem trivial, it was significant to me and the people of Grassroots and Launch Pad because of how dominant soccer is to Their country.

While these tasks where going on we had other groups installing basketball courts into the courtyard, while others painted games on the ground that we learned from Naturena, a school we visited on our first day in Johannesburg.  A final group of EME and Launch Pad guys, painted and decorated a memorial bench that spelled out our name:  LearnServe EME South Africa.

Everyone played their part and helped to complete as much of their task as possible within our limited time. At the end, I’m proud of all we accomplished and how we all stuck to our plan.

Carl P., Eastern High School

LearnServe Teacher’s Blog: Growth (7/10)

Yes, it’s super late here in Cape Town, but the good news is that it’s not too late back in DC!  I just can’t go to bed tonight without recapping our last few days in Cape Town since we completed the Homestead service work.

The Message Trust

This past Friday, we visited The Message Trust, a private organization dedicated to improving the lives of young people throughout Cape Town, South Africa.  While we learned about the many divisions of Message Trust, we focused on their prison outreach, called Gangstar Enterprises, which assists youth out of prison or transitioning out of prison, by providing employment opportunities, mentorship and entrepreneurial support.  I was impressed by the personal stories of men who have served time in some of South Africa’s most infamous prisons, that have turned their life around and are now mentoring others to avoid repeating the same mistakes.  Many of our students found personal connections with some of the stories they were receiving, and that made the session quite moving.  I think we often fail to recognize the level of trauma that unfortunately too many of our young menhave been exposed to at such an early age.  I salute groups such as The Message Trust for reaching out and becoming part of the transition/rehabilitation process for youth that may have been subjected to the wrong path early on. Our young people are not disposable.  They all should have an opportunity to grow and learn from mistakes that may have been made, so they can become equal participants in our society.

Dinner with Diplomats

Shout out to LearnServe for arranging with our travel team on the ground for us to meet with a dynamic couple from the United States.  We were honored to have dinner at the home of Kim and Corwin. Kim, a member of the U.S. consulate diplomatic team in South Africa, along with her husband, Corwin, a businessman, were gracious in opening up their home to the LearnServe/Eastern Men of Excellence team.  We had an informal evening filled with good food and conversation.  I was so pleased to see our students engaging with professionals about government relations, investment strategies, college aspirations, and even favorite books!  My most exciting moment though, was seeing how eager some of my EME guys were to network and share their EME business cards with the couple, as they each sought to keep in contact with our hosts upon our return to the United States.  It was another one of those moments where I could step back and see how our young men are maturing and applying the skills taught throughout the last school year.  Good times.


The trip has been full of meaningful experiential learning moments, but we have balanced these significant experiences with the fact that we have to see the sights and sounds of South Africa!  We enjoyed some free time this weekend at a local market in South Africa and on the Cape’s beach front, so students could mix and mingle with local residents, shop and enjoy relaxing moments with each other.  We also had the unique experience of an overnight Safari that ended today!  Now, I know I’m a bit hype sometimes, but for real, for real, I am so excited about these animals I saw over the last two days!  lol.  We were thrilled to see 4 of the “Big 5” in Africa:  lions, buffalo, rhinos, and hippos.  But as the students now know, I really don’t care about any of those animals…I’m just glad that I saw some giraffe this morning!!!  lol.  We literally got out of our truck and walked near a giraffe!  I felt like a kid getting a brand new bike.  Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t hide my excitement around my EME guys.  Great times here, indeed.  Make sure you check out our master google photo link of pictures and videos…they were epic!  Even in the midst of all this fun, I was able to see signs of growth.  The Safari was 2 1/2 hours away from our stay in Cape Town.  It was COLD.  FREEZING. UNCOMFORTABLY FRIGID.  But, we fought through to see some animals 🙂  Did some complain?  Yes.  Did I complain? Oh yes!  But we realized, when is the next time we will have an opportunity to go on a Safari adventure?!  So, in the end, we went out in 40 degree weather yesterday and braved 25 degree weather this morning on a 8:30am game drive even after we lost electrical power this very same morning!  Was it worth it?  ABSOLUTELY.  No more complaints after seeing that giraffe 🙂

Student Reflections on Growth

One of the strengths of this trip has been the intentional times that have been set aside for us to pause and reflect on our experiences.  Although our students sometime resisted our morning and/or evening debrief/huddle/writing sessions, it is important for us to put into context the work that we are accomplishing here in South Africa.  We have begun, as a unit, to process what this experience has meant to the people in South Africa we have encountered and to us personally, as individuals.  A few days ago, we posed the following question:  How have you grown, personally and/or professionally, while on this trip to South Africa?  I am going to leave you with responses we received from each of our students.  As you read these responses, try to imagine what this growth exercise will mean to each young man a year from now…five years from nowten years from now?  It gives me goosebumps!  As I have alluded to in previous reflections, I’ve learned to celebrate the achievements of my students, both big and small, and to recognize that they will not grow at the same speed or in the same size, but that doesn’t mean that any one individual’s growth is more or less significant than another’s.  Each person is a work in progress and I am encouraged that they are bigger and stronger because of this experience.

How have I grown personally and professionally?

  • ​learned how to interact with other cultures/group of people; not excluding one group or another
  • speaking up for myself and engaging in conversations
  • relating with others and recognizing I’m not alone
  • interacting with other people since my tendency is not to interact with anyone
  • challenging myself to be a better leader and influence people in a positive way; teaching myself to be a better me
  • express myself more
  • stop making assumptions and accepting stereotypes
  • learned how to try new things and new food without being turned away because of differences
  • being a better friend; being willing to help; give more advice to others; better in encouragement
  • interact with people that I don’t know
  • still yet to find something new; don’t believe trip has taught me anything new yet (I’m sure his light bulb moment is coming…)
  • patience
  • how to move out of my comfort zone; preparing me for college by learning how to be away from home; sharing space with others
  • how to let things go: actively and passively

Have a great night! More reflections and final thoughts for the end of our trip are in store, so stay tuned!

Ivan C. Douglas Jr.
Law Programs Teacher
Program Director
Empowering Males of Color Initiative
Eastern High School

LearnServe Teacher’s Blog: Pushing Through to Make a Sustainable Difference (7/8)

At this point in the trip, we are on the tail end.  We have made it through our hump (days 7-10) and are now in the homestretch.  For those of you who have been on extended travel trips, you know what happens in the middle. Some are tired.  Others are easily frustrated.  Many begin to feel homesick.  Folks no longer want to be bothered or see each other for 24 hours a day.  All of these feelings are somewhat normal, yet our EME LearnServe South Africa team has persevered and is still standing!  In fact, we have been able to double down and produce some of the most meaningful service work to date, with the people at the Homestead Project.

Part of our LearnServe South Africa mission is to create sustainable social change within local communities.  As a testament to the mission, our Eastern Men of Excellence have been preparing for months for this service learning trip to South Africa.  We have read books, researched topics and explored common themes about South Africa and the United States.  We also made a commitment for each student to fundraise (online and by word of mouth) to support local initiatives that we would work with while in South Africa:  City Year South Africa and the Homestead Project.  I am pleased to report that our EME students have collectively raised approximately $2100 to fund community based projects in JoBurg and Cape Town South Africa!!!  Special Shout Out to our top fundraiser, Zac, and his family, as well as each of our supporters who invested in our vision and our project!

But, we didn’t come to South Africa simply to give money to local initiatives.  We came to learn AND to serve.  While our work with the Homestead Project began during our hump days of the trip and continued thereafter, I am so proud of our students for digging deep and producing some of the best service project work that I have ever witnessed!

Our Homestead Project work has been at two locations:  ​

  • ​The Launch Pad, which focuses on providing transitional housing opportunities from group homes to independent living for teenagers and young adults ages 17-22.
  • The Child & Youth Care Center (CYCC), which focuses on younger children below the age of 17 who have been abandoned and may be suffering from exposure to street violence (“gangsterism” as it is called in SA).  CYCC prepares young boys for more independent living and possible transition to the older Launch Pad facility.
Our goal was for our EME students to interact with the students at Launch Pad and CYCC to see what we all could do together to address issue(s) of concern in their community.  The results were phenomenal!  Over the course of a series of ice breakers, tours, meals (we prepared a meal for The Launch Pad and the Launch Pad children and staff prepared a meal for us) and intense planning sessions this TuesdayWednesday and Thursday, our students decided that it would be best to use our time, energy and fundraising dollars to revitalize an old basketball court into a multi-use sporting center for The Homestead.  The plan was ambitious, but doable:  install two new basketball rims and backboards; paint the court lines; design and paint new court games our EME students learned at the Naturena Primary school in JoBurg last week; help build an off-site “hookie” for a family in need; and clear the soccer field and replace the nets.  Before we settled on our final plan though, what impressed me and the other trip leaders the most was how we reached the decision.
Our EME leaders and members of the Homestead community have much in common.  We all met with our Launch Pad teenage partners at the Launch Pad, to ensure all parties had input in what work we would complete at CYCC.  During one of our sessions, we asked the students a question that was taken from our LearnServe curriculum: What pisses you off?  The responses were telling:
  • ​I hate not having enough mentors in my community.
  • I hate the unequal distribution of wealth.
  • I do not like the smoking of cigarettes around children.
  • Sexual assault.
  • Sex education (parents don’t even talk to kids about sex).
  • Students unable to study because they can’t afford to (access to higher education). 
Ouch…Wow! Their words, not mine!
And what about when we asked “what can we do to address problems such as lack of or access to education?”
  • ​Create a DC Kings and Queens program to teach self love and empowerment.
  • more emphasis on black history in schools.
  • reduce the price of higher education.
Sounds good to me!
Our EME students are really becoming leaders and true social entrepreneurs.  They understand that the process and results are important.  Zac came to me on Tuesday and asked “How will we use the money that we fundraised…do we get a say so in how the money will be distributed.”  Shout out to him for taking ownership of the process and wanting our team to be involved.  Transparency and accountability are key in community building.  Adonte, Alonzo, Louis, Noah and many more, led a pretty robust debate about how we should invest in CYCC.   While some EME leaders believed we should restore the basketball court, others questioned whether basketball and the concrete space, was the best investment of our funds and time since it is not the predominant sport in South Africa.  Would our work be sustainable?  Is it what the children of CYCC really want…really need?  Are we completing the work for our own satisfaction or for the benefit of the local community? Our future world leaders are already asking questions that all leaders today should ask when making policy decisions.  Questions of intention and sustainability before implementing a project?  IMPRESSIVE.  I smiled throughout the whole conversation because us trip leaders just had to sit back and watch the brilliant minds at work.  All sides presented their argument and a consensus emerged that it was best for us to revitalize the existing space and add new games that the CYCC children would enjoy.  We got to work and the results are amazing!  Take a look at the following pictures that we have taken over the past few days to capture the process and finished product at Homestead’s CYCC: https://goo.gl/photos/2TaKLbUuVGQU7nyz8
My heart is full and I am so proud of our students for their care, attention to detail, and for pushing through our hump days to get our Homestead project done!
For a complete recap of all images recorded to date, continue to check out our master google photo link at:
Until next time,
Ivan C. Douglas Jr.
Law Programs Teacher
Program Director
Empowering Males of Color Initiative
Eastern High School

LearnServe Teacher’s Blog: July 4th in South Africa (7/4)

This year marked the second time I’ve spent the 4th out of the country traveling with LearnServe International and my young men in the Eastern Men of Excellence program.  And so at the end of this reflection, I would like to pay tribute to 5 people who were with me around this same time last year.

On this 4th, we returned to one of the central pillars of the LearnServe International mission:  social entrepreneurship and community building.  Tuesday morning, we visited a business called MonkeyBiz (www.monkeybiz.co.za). MonkeyBiz is a classic example of social entrepreneurship because it was created to honor and revive traditional African Beadwork while simultaneously providing an opportunity for South African women to be gainfully employed within their own communities. The finished products are artistic masterpieces! Our students were treated to a special presentation by one of the leaders of Monkeybiz and they peppered her with questions about how the business is embedded within the community. LearnServe was also able to coordinate for us to visit the site on the same day that women from throughout South Africa were in the store to sell their African beadwork or to be provided with one-on-one guidance on various business strategies. The model is simply brilliant and the work product is truly priceless. Lions, giraffes, monkeys, table tops, wall pieces…you name it, MonkeyBiz has some beads for it. But it’s more than just beads. The organization has helped many women open bank accounts for the first time. It has provided resources for women to improve their health care. It has lifted women out of poverty. It has adopted a flexible business model that allows women opportunities to work from home and retain artistic license over their art work product. Monkeybiz is now global and does have a pretty cool and interactive website. I recommend you all visit and see if you can contribute to a business that is having a positive effect in the lives of women (and some men) throughout South Africa. Yes, I went home with a few souvenirs myself 🙂 ​

I highlight MonkeyBiz for two reasons.  One, because we came to see social entrepreneurship in action.  Creating businesses within communities that actually positively effect that same community, empowers the every day man and woman to provide for their family.  We witnessed the same late last week when we visited a local community center and purchased pottery from local potters.  Our purchases sow directly into the lives of people we know need it the most.  Secondly, the work of MonkeyBiz serves as an inspiration to our students to think globally, but act locally.  LearnServe and the Eastern Men of Excellence program challenges students to think critically about how they can make a difference in their own community.  I’m excited every day about how some of our EME scholars have already answered the call by becoming leaders within our Eastern and D.C. community.  Let’s continue to challenge each of them to think big but act local.  Our EME scholars have the tools needed to address many of the issues they have already identified in our community:  teenage pregnancy, uneducated youth, and teenage unemployment.  I’m confident that they will move forward with their own initiatives in the coming months.

We ended our day giving students some time to explore the coast line of South Africa by taking them to the Waterfront for a few hours.  Our young men always enjoy opportunities to be “independent,” so we could think of no better time to honor them (you see what I did there?!)!

As I close, I want to shout out 4 of our EME students and our LearnServe trip leader.  Alonzo, Clinard, Elijah and Peyton, have been with me since we first traveled to Jamaica with LearnServe in 2016.  Since then, they have grown and matured beyond my wildest expectations.  They truly have taken on the responsibility of being Eastern Men of Excellence ambassadors by performing well in school, recruiting other young men to join our mentoring group, traveling to other exciting destinations, and serving as leaders within and outside of Eastern High School.  Our organization would not be what it is today without the path that each of them have set.  So today, I celebrate each of them for a job well done.

Last, but not least, I want to shout out our LearnServe trip leader, Courtney Williams.  July 4th is her birthday and for the second year she spent it traveling with a bunch of high school students!  I salute Courtney for her leadership, sense of humor, passion, and tenacity.  Seeing her in her expanded leadership role this year after our journey together in Jamaica, has served to inspire me to continue to strive for excellence in all that I pursue.  The amount of time and energy that it must have taken to help engineer this 16-day trip is on display each and every day.  Her ability to remain positive and flexible, even when dealing with 14 young men with varying personalities and demands, is worthy of some praise!  Thank you, Courtney for all you do and for sharing your heart with us all.  Please join me in wishing Courtney Happy Birthday and Independence Day!!!

Tomorrow, I am excited to share with you the work we have started with The Homestead Project.

More pictures and videos have been added here: https://goo.gl/photos/2S9GS5pHLF7cMmUKA.


Ivan C. Douglas Jr.
Law Programs Teacher
Program Director
Empowering Males of Color Initiative
Eastern High School