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By Hein Kaiser


‘If we don’t work together things will fall apart’- Meet the non-profit empowering a community

Investing in the future and residents of the area has paid dividends for all.

This is not a feel-good story. It’s a short tale of grit and caring about fellow humans.

It’s something we should all be doing – giving a little because it makes a lot.

This is something Clayton Viljoen of Urban Ruins in Boksburg knows all too well.

He makes hay while the sun shines and it’s all for the less fortunate.

Urban Ruins is a non-profit organisation that’s doing it for themselves.

Help others help themselves

With so many charitable organisations becoming financially challenged, partly due to what are alleged funding cuts and poor administration by Gauteng’s social development department, along with worsening economic conditions, Viljoen decided to invest in the future and in the community.

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The organisation has a fundraising office and its own call centre staffed by community members.

Each earns commission on the funding they collect, negating the need for their families to be cared for by the organisation.

Viljoen says his vision is to help people to help themselves to lessen their dependency on charity.

Earlier this year, he started a mushroom farm on the property, right beside the classrooms.

When life gives you lemons, grow mushrooms

“We started the mushroom farm to generate revenue,” he said. “After much research, the crop was settled on because it requires limited space and is relatively affordable to grow. Now, more members of the community are employed in pasteurising straw for the fungi to grow in, and to harvest and package the product. It’s being sold to three retailers in the area and in local markets.

“The mushrooms are really good quality, and everyone’s very impressed,” he said.

Viljoen is optimistic about the farm’s potential to ultimately sustain Urban Ruins financially although that might still be a bit further down the road.

It’s an exciting prospect considering the disastrous circumstances facing many non-profits.

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The project was initially funded by a legacy amount from a corporate donor. Viljoen decided to make the capital work for the organisation rather than to spend it day to day.

And it’s working, with a full yield expected by spring.

‘Work together or it will all fall apart’

For Viljoen, who quit his corporate job to focus on the centre full time, it’s a calling and one everyone should heed in some way or another.

“The government is overwhelmed by the extent of the need in South Africa. Regardless of your political views, satisfying this need completely is not going to happen under any political dispensation.

If we don’t get together as a community and start empowering ourselves and others, everything will fall apart.”

He believes there is power in grassroots initiatives to create resilience and nurture hope.

Viljoen has been running Urban Ruins for three years. He shared how a neighbourhood skatepark became a place of hope and empowerment for the local community.

“It started with a few people across the road from where we are now, aiming to provide a safe and free space for kids,” he said.

Man with a plan

The founding member, a physiotherapist, wanted to create a place for physical play and imagination for youngsters.

Soon after, the physio realised that access to education was a challenge to some less-fortunate families in the area, and this led to the establishment of an informal school.

Urban Ruins rapidly expanded its scope, transitioning from a small initiative to a comprehensive non-profit organisation.

The school is now formally registered and about 64 Grade RR and R pupils attend daily.

Viljoen runs an aftercare programme for older children to help with their homework and participates in a broader, charitable network in the area.

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The organisation also feeds between 200-600 people daily depending on how much is available in the kitchen. Donations often arrive from retailers or community organisations.

Visiting the facility is heartwarming. The aroma of meals on the stove drifts freely and the classrooms are filled with well-behaved kids, intently learning.

Professional teachers are on the payroll and, said Viljoen, the education department has played a major supporting role to ensure that the children gain more than their circumstances would have ordinarily allowed.

They also keep a watchful eye while providing educational tools, equipment and teacher training.

“They make sure that whatever money they give goes to the right place. They have made teacher training available over weekends, all their contributions ensuring it benefits the kids and their education to the fullest,” he said.

Urban Ruins operates on the principle of community involvement and empowerment.

A school of hard work

The children’s parents, many from disadvantaged backgrounds, often contribute by volunteering once a week if they can’t afford the R300 monthly school fees.

“The idea is to give the community education and that’s primary,” said Viljoen.

There are also families who work on the property, tending to the vegetable garden or general maintenance in return for food parcels.

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“It teaches discipline and negates simply queuing up for handouts,” he said.

It also helps to nurture a feeling of self-worth and contributes to a greater cause.

“We want to start more projects that generate income and provide employment,” said Viljoen.

The goal is to create a sustainable model that can be replicated in other communities

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