The youth development programme is the main focus of the Poloafrica Development Trust and it is because of this programme that Poloafrica earned the accolade of becoming a Laureus Sport For Good Foundation project in 2011. Click medley to find out more about Laureus. The boys and girls who ask to join the programme know that they must demonstrate discipline and commitment to the pony and the sport. Emphasis is placed on empathy for the animal, good attitude and teamwork. To be a Poloafrica scholar the children must be registered at school, they must work hard there and at the academic and practical lifeskills lessons provided for them in the holidays. It requires a lot of effort, to be a Poloafrica scholar. Only with evidence of this effort do they earn the chance to care for the ponies, to learn to ride and play the game. There are over 40 scholars registered in the programme at present, ranging in age from 6 to 20, of which one third are girls.
The Poloafrica educational support programme is led by Tracey Morgan, a Trustee, who draws on a wide network of teachers both local and international. The programme gives the scholars the opportunity to learn a variety of lifeskills, such as art, beekeeping, carpentry, computer skills, gardening, needlework, singing, spoken self-expression and welding. They also receive extra tuition in Maths and English, two areas which present a challenge to rural underprivileged children in South Africa today. The children come to the farm on Saturdays, sometimes Sundays during the school term and five days a week in the holidays. They spend all day on the farm, having lifeskills lessons, riding lessons, pony care tuition and polo practice. It is an all-absorbing programme; the children are very busy which they greatly enjoy.
The gender divide is one of the social barriers that the Poloafrica Development Trust endeavours to break down. A cultural mindset shift is necessary for the girls on the programme to develop the same sense of purpose in life and confidence in sport as the boys. The Trust uses development of riding and other sports skills as well as the lifeskills classes to encourage the girls to become more independent. In recent holidays the F.L.Y. (First Love Yourself) project was designed especially for the older girls to foster self worth. Girls on the programme are encouraged to learn practical skills that traditionally are only done by men, such as welding and carpentry. Equally, the boys on the programme are encouraged to learn skills such as needlework and cooking.
The extreme poverty of parts of rural South Africa means that children who live on farms often drop out of school simply because the logistics and cost are too much for the family to manage, especially when it is time for the child to leave the farm school and attend school in town. All Poloafrica scholars are given transport and homework help for school attendance and, depending on funding availability, some receive additional financial support. Bursaries are granted on merit, with one or two granted on the basis of severe need. The focus on education helps the village communities, as studies show that, especially with girls, as education increases teenage pregnancies fall and the health of families increases.
A recent holiday programme was very busy for the Poloafrica scholars. The emphasis this particular holiday was to work hard on improving riding skills. The children were divided into five groups, with the top group helping coach the younger children. In addition to the riding tuition the top two groups had plenty of practice chukkas and most of the middle group were also allowed to migrate from stick and ball practice to instructional chukkas. They also enjoyed hockey and football this holiday. The lifeskills focus this holiday was on reading and writing. Each scholar was given a different topic on one of three themes - nature and care of the environment, friendship and working together, or kindness to animals. The task was to research the topic, using reference books from the Poloafrica library and the internet, then to write an essay in their "Books of Inspiration". Scholars took turns in reading their essays out to the group on the last day of classes.
Above all, quite apart from the educational, sport and social development opportunities the programme provides, Poloafrica gives disadvantaged boys and girls a chance for childhood happiness. The Poloafrica scholars spend much of their free time in a beautiful safe place, with lots of books, ponies and mentors that cherish and care for them. They learn principles of good behaviour, care for the environment and empathy for nature and animals. They can read, sing, ride, fish, play polo, garden, generally have a lot of fun as well as feel proud to be part of Poloafrica. It is a childhood dream.