By SALLIANNE DECKERT
Eden and her son Eyouses burst into laughter as they work through the alphabet chart stuck to the wall. They have a loving, easy bond and brilliant smiles that light up the room and for a moment I forget we’re standing in their one-room mud shack in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.
Five year old Eyouses was given a small blackboard to help his learning. Having run out of chalk, the blackboard now covers a large hole in the wall, but it’s still bitterly cold inside. Their furnishings are a shared mattress on the floor, a cupboard and a photo of Eyouses’ father. Shot dead at the border of Sudan before his son was born, Mikias’ image now looks down from its place of honour as his little family go about their day.
Despite their desperate circumstances, today this is a place of joy and we are sharing in a traditional coffee ceremony to celebrate. Eyouses has just become the newest student to be accepted into The School of St Yared and that news changes everything.
Six months ago we sold everything from our unit on the Arafura Sea in Arnhem Land Australia and, lugging 4 suitcases, an aid package and 8 pieces of hand luggage (9 if you count our three year old) boarded a plane to be a part of this amazing school.
Volunteering for two years in a developing country is a long way from my former career in television, but sitting here accepting a small cup of coffee from Eden I can easily say this is the most satisfying work I’ve ever done.
The School of St Yared changes lives. It’s as simple as that.
In 2008, Yared Wolde led a small group of kindergarten students into the first class at The School of St Yared. Six years later, the school roll includes 189 names -all these children are severely impoverished but bright, resilient, passionate about learning and one day contributing to their country as doctors, engineers and scientists. Education rebuilds the self-esteem that poverty undermines, and these children, once tiny and timid are now bristling with confidence and large dreams.
For his part, Yared knows what it’s like to be poor. His father was drafted in the war with Eritrea and killed. The rest of his family died of tuberculosis soon after, forcing him to the streets for three years. In their brief time together, his mother instilled in him the value of education, and with that conviction behind him, Yared worked odd jobs to put himself through school, eventually landing in a series of orphanages. It was here, aged nine, that he met Jacqui Gilmour – a Perth woman determined to do something for the children of Ethiopia.
Years later, they established The School of St Yared – an experiment based on the question: “What might be possible for Ethiopia’s poorest children given a learning environment that supports the realisation of their true value and potential?” And so the school provides three meals a day, two uniforms and a quality education in a safe environment. The recent addition of a health officer is another way a way of responding to the needs around health, HIV, hygiene and sanitation of the students and their community. And its all thanks to the generous sponsorship and donations of predominantly Australian families.
The school has an excellent reputation in the region it serves and I recently had the heart wrenching experience of watching desperate parents pleading to have their child accepted for the start of the new year (in Ethiopia the new Year is September). We had to limit applications to 500 and then through a rigorous process, identify those most in need, finally selecting children to fill the 33 places available.