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Anyone can make a difference – you just have to start!

Carolyn Hancock is nothing short of a local hero. In just over 15 years, she has influenced legislation around the collection of DNA at crime scenes (particularly in cases of sexual assault),  helped to build a thriving non-government school and founded a fully fledged centre for child victims of sexual abuse in the village of Howick in the KZN Midlands.

“Living in the country with the highest levels of inequality in the world, I truly believe each one of us can make a positive impact and help to ‘bridge the divide’. All it takes is one person who’s committed to fighting for social justice to get the ball rolling. Once you start, it takes on a life of its own.”

Carolyn’s social justice journey started quite by accident.

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“I saw a woman being interviewed on TV whose father had recently been murdered,” she recalls. “There was a lot of forensic evidence on the scene, but the police never caught the perpetrators because they didn’t deal with the evidence correctly. It turns out there were no laws in South Africa strictly governing the handling of crime scene DNA, nor its use in crime resolution.

At the time, which was around 2004, Carolyn was a lecturer at the University of Pietermaritzburg, with a Ph.D. in genetics and 15 years’ teaching experience.

“I felt I could be doing something practical and constructive with my skills and experience to help bring perpetrators to book using DNA evidence,” she says. “So I got in touch with Vanessa Lynch – the woman I’d seen on TV, who happens to be a lawyer – and joined a non-profit organisation founded by Vanessa called the DNA Project with the specific aim of changing legislation, notably the Criminal Procedure Act, to make it mandatory to take DNA from all arrestees and all convicted offenders.

“We put forward that all DNA information should be kept in a database, because generally people don’t offend once; they tend to become repeat offenders. So if you’ve got their information you’re like to be able to piece a whole lot of different things together. This is especially important when it comes to sexual assault cases where guilt is notoriously difficult to prove based on subjective evidence alone.”

For 10 years Carolyn and Vanessa worked relentlessly on the objectives of the DNA Project and eventually managed to get the legislation changed and through educational campaigns, substantially raise awareness of the importance of how and why DNA should be preserved at crime scenes so as to ensure justice for victims.

Along came Thembelihle

While still working with the DNA Project, Carolyn fell into another undertaking.

“Being an academic, I see education as a tool for bridging the divide,” she says. “As a family we always encourage our staff to send their children to school, and we help out by paying the fees. Usually I would just pay the fees over to the staff, who would handle the account with the school. But one day I decided to try and pay online. I discovered this was not an option. So I asked for the school’s bank account details. No luck. Phone number? Nothing like that either.

“So I went to the school, which was located in the centre of Howick, with the cash. What I saw left me winded! There were about 120 children being taught by one teacher in a type of shed with no floor, no doors, and no windows. The teacher had no educational materials but was somehow managing to teach these children.

“I was horrified. I had been living a life where I thought I vaguely understood South African society, yet this was happening right here on my doorstep.

“I asked the teacher how she managed to work under such conditions. She said, ‘I am just doing what I can.’ She was just an average South African trying to do something to uplift the lives of others.”

In the name of social justice, Carolyn sprang into action. She decided to find proper classrooms for the kids.

“This was in October,” she recalls. “I promised to find new facilities before school started again in January. A crazy commitment, but I was determined.”

Carolyn literally drove around the Howick area looking for empty buildings that might be suitable.

“One day I was driving past the Howick Methodist Church and saw they had a couple of prefab buildings that didn’t look like they were in use. I asked the minister if I could use them. He politely said no, but that the church had been donated a property by Brentwood United Methodist Church based in Nashville in the USA specifically to develop a primary school. He suggested that maybe we could use that.”

Carolyn grabbed the opportunity to build on the property, and that’s how the primary school component of the Thembelihle School started… through perseverance, faith and good luck. From 120 learners in grades 1 to 3, the school now offers places right through from pre-primary to grade 7. It is targeting 500 registered pupils by the start of 2023.

The school itself is phenomenal, boasting 16 fully equipped classrooms, a science lab, technology space, library, creative arts facility, multi-purpose hall and sports facilities. It employs 20 teachers and general staff and offers children the chance to get a world-class, all-round education, in and out of the classroom.

Four out of five children have their school fees sponsored, although there is a levy that all parents pay.

“I think it’s important that everyone makes some contribution,” says Carolyn. “The parents must buy into it so that there’s some perceived value. But they are relieved of the majority of the expense to give their child a quality education.”

 

In the care of angels

In 2015, as if she didn’t have enough going on (Thembelihle School was expanding and the DNA Project was about to reach fruition) Carolyn was approached to take over the running of a Howick-based organisation called Angels’ Care. At the time it comprised a pre-school, some after-school assistance for children and a feeding scheme.

“Initially I said no, but it kept nagging at me. This was an organisation that had the potential to do amazing things. I had heard of the government’s Thuthuzela Care Centres and liked their operating model. They’re essentially ‘one-stop’ centres that focus on lessening secondary trauma for victims of gender-based violence. They assist with reporting the incident to the police, organising a doctor’s visit, getting ARVs, counselling, etc.

“I thought it would be a wonderful model to adapt for children in need. After all, children make up around 46% of reported sexual abuse cases in South Africa, with many victims aged under 12.”

And so Carolyn took on the job of running the Angels’ Care Centre, adding to their already numerous social outreach initiatives by opening a rape crisis facility specifically for children. The crisis centre houses a full-time nurse and social worker and on-call doctor. Plus it’s located directly across the road from the police station, which makes it easy for officers to come to the centre to take down reports.

The centre also serves as an emergency short stay place of safety for abuse victims and special needs children primarily from the local informal settlements.

“We have helped more than 400 abused and sexually assaulted children so far since 2015,” says Carolyn. “Some of them are so young that they don’t even understand what has been done to them. It’s heart breaking, but at the same time extremely rewarding that we are able to help.”

There have been many obstacles along the way, not the least of which has been the Covid-19 pandemic. But with a strong team backing her, Carolyn has taken Thembelihle School and Angels’ Care to new heights, while strongly influencing legislation and tertiary education in the process.

“I think with persistence and creativity you can get most things done,” says Carolyn. “Know the rules and know how you can use them to your best advantage.

“We never broke any rules… but I will admit it was a battle.

“Are we fixing all of South Africa’s problems? No, but in my lifetime I will impact this community and that’s enough for me. We all need to remind ourselves that by changing one person’s life, you are changing their world.”

Carolyn believes the models that underlie Thembelihle School and Angels’ Care Centre can and should be replicated to assist in bringing help and hope to the vast majority of our population.

Carolyn can be contacted at [email protected].

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