Caring for Caregivers: A Global and Local Concern

We brought educational toys and materials and demonstrated ways of using them to engage young children at various stages of development.

Caring for Caregivers: A Global and Local Concern

Lenette Azzi-Lessing
Associate Professor of Social Work
Wheelock College

Twice in 2014, I have had the privilege of visiting Early Care and Education centres in East London, South Africa.

In January, my colleague Patti Hnatiuk and I traveled with students in Wheelock’s South Africa Service-Learning course to East London, in the Eastern Cape region, to work with children and teachers in a small number of early childhood centres. We brought educational toys and materials and demonstrated ways of using them to engage young children at various stages of development. This past summer, I returned to East London with another Wheelock Early Childhood Education colleague, Bobbi Rosenquest, and Carol Cashion, Education Programs Officer at South Africa Partners in Boston.

Our work there is part of a developing partnership to support efforts in improving the quality of early care and education in South Africa. The partnership focuses on the East London area, which has a high concentration of families challenged by poverty, a persistent and harmful after-effect of Apartheid.

My second visit to East London in July was especially heartening, as I was greeted like an old friend by the centre directors and other community leaders I had met in January; the warmth of the South African culture radiating through each embrace.

My Boston colleagues and I spent much of the two-week visit dialoging with leaders of community-based organizations as well as with faculty from nearby universities and schools. In this early stage, our work involves partnering with local institutions to identify and understand the strengths, needs, and challenges that impact the quality of care infants and young children receive. Bobbi, Carol, and I also visited those same centres I had visited in January, and brought additional educational supplies. We demonstrated the various ways in which simple materials, such as blocks, can be used to engage children in early learning activities and promote healthy development.

The directors and teachers were very receptive to our suggestions and ideas. They demonstrated for us some of the creative ways in which they were already engaging the children in their care, and taught us some local songs and games that the children obviously enjoy. On both trips, I saw how resourceful the centre directors and teachers are as they work with limited resources and training opportunities.

Most of the centres are very small structures cobbled together with pieces of sheet metal and wood, housing as many 25-30 children in each. Some are without running water or plumbing, yet they provide children with as much safety and nurturing as is possible.

In dialoging with the teachers and directors and observing their interactions with the children, I was struck by how hard they work and the long hours they put in. I learned of the poverty, illness, and other hardships that many of them endure. Yet, each day, these women do their very best to provide care to babies and young children who are living in poverty as well. Much of that care is uncompensated; as families are often unable to pay much if anything, and there are many barriers to accessing government subsidies.

My experiences in East London caused me to reflect back many years ago, when my children were very young and my husband and I were seeking care for them while we were at work. We visited a number of early childhood centers. I remember how tired and overwhelmed-looking some of the teachers were. Many were earning salaries near the poverty line and had children of their own to care for after spending long days providing care for other people’s children. I couldn’t imagine spending 9-10 hours teaching and caring for several babies and toddlers, and then going home afterwards and trying to be responsive to my own children’s needs.

In the years since, I have learned a great deal about early care and education in the United States and in other countries. I am struck by how here, in the world’s richest country, the salaries for those who teach and care for babies and young children remain miserably low. This is especially so in disadvantaged communities, where “poor care for poor children” — those children who most need a great deal of nurturing — is too often the norm.

I am familiar with the research that shows that children’s wellbeing depends heavily upon the wellbeing of their caregivers. And that being cared for by individuals who are depressed and/or distracted by many of the problems that often accompany poverty can be harmful to the physical development of young children’s brains and their chances for a satisfying and successful life.

While in East London last summer, I was asked to deliver a workshop for home visitors who work with vulnerable families and for staff from a local orphanage. Like so many of my social work colleagues and students here in the U.S., the participants were full of passion and enthusiasm for the important work they do every day. And like most social workers here, they, too, work long hours in challenging conditions for low pay.

As is my practice, I left plenty of time in the workshop for dialogue with the participants. As we were wrapping up, many of the home visitors remarked about how helpful it was to come together as a group and share their perspectives and experiences. They expressed that they felt lifted up by the support of their colleagues, support that is often missing in their non-stop work lives.

As my Wheelock and South Africa Partners colleagues and I become more deeply engaged in our work in the East London area, it is becoming clear that helping to find ways of supporting caregivers in South Africa will be one of our focal points. It is also clear that ensuring the wellbeing of those who work with disadvantaged children and families is of critical importance around the globe. So as we embark on our South Africa journey, we remain mindful of the importance of continuing to address the wellbeing of caregivers in our own country, as well.

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