For vulnerable children and youth, having a supportive mentor can be a life-changing experience. Numerous studies over many decades have shown that having a healthy relationship with an adult mentor can put a child on the path to better behaviour and stronger relationships, committed school attendance and improved academic results. These are impacts that last a lifetime as mentor relationships are also highly effective in fostering interpersonal skills, a growth mind-set and self-mastery.
55 South African men across the country are currently serving as vital mentors for 250 boys who are growing up without their fathers. This band of everyday heroes are volunteers for The Character Company (TCC), a non-profit organisation that has been implementing a mentorship programme for the past nine years. Founder and Director of TCC, Jaco van Schalkwyk says, “Our goal is to turn the tide against the violence in South African culture by helping to raise boys to be good men through our activity-based programme. Our strength is our incredible team of mentors who make a solid commitment to the boys they mentor and embody the values and good character we aim to inspire in them.”
It is estimated that 70% of South African children are growing up in single-parent homes, and 4 out of 5 boys do not have a consistent, positive male role model in their lives. Broken masculinity is associated with the country’s high rates of gender-based violence, crime, gangsterism, substance abuse and other mental disorders.
A TCC mentor’s story
Five years ago, Thando Malepe was ministering to a group of children in Ivory Park when he was introduced to TCC. He says, “I fell in love with the work that The Character Company does and relate to it because I grew up without my father or any other positive male role model in my own life. At that time, I was concerned as I saw that we were losing our boys to Isikhothane, gang groups and substance abuse. TCC gave me an opportunity and a platform to enrol the boys I was working with under their MENtorship programme.
Through TCC, Thando has mentored over 20 boys, reliably meeting with his small group once a week as well as taking them on night walks, fireside get togethers and camps. Personally, he has found belonging in a community of men where ongoing learning from other men is prioritised and the challenges of masculinity in today’s world are openly discussed.
He says, “There are many rewarding aspects of being a TCC MENtor, an important one being the opportunity to have a space as a man to share your life struggles freely. We are supported by our senior MENtors, referred as Regional Characters, and your walk your own journey as Christian man of character with a mentor by your side. In this community of men who are not afraid to be vulnerable, we share the same interest in seeing our boys growing up to become better MEN, to make our country and world a better place to live in. Through my teachability, I have learned so much over these years and I have grown to be a better man myself, a better father, and MENtor.”
Do you have what it takes to be a TCC mentor?
One day in early 2019, Keith Hanes heard a radio interview with Jaco van Schalkwyk who was promoting a TCC mentorship drive. He responded to the call to action and is today a senior TCC mentor. For Keith, his volunteer work with TCC has become a calling. He says, “This is good for one’s walk with the Lord. It’s fulfilling for me to be part of a group of good Christian men who are of like mind and realistic about what it is to mentor, to be Christians and be a man. Camping with the boys is great and always brings great rewards. Men and boys together around the fire is a real highlight of our activities.”
The success of any mentorship programme is underpinned by reliability and commitment because mentors serve as beacons of stability in the lives of their mentees. Jaco says, “The reason why we spell commitMENt with a capital ‘MEN’ is because it is something that is so lacking in masculinity these days. It seems harder and harder to find men who can make and stick to commitMENts in our communities. That is why is it so amazing that we have 55 MENtors doing this on a weekly basis. We ask that MENtors make a commitMENt of at least one year but of course, hope to include them in our community over the long term and do involve them in a handover of their group if things change in their life and they can no longer make a weekly commitment. It’s not for everyone, but it’s an amazing and special opportunity to grow as a person, to give back and to contribute to a better South Africa.”