'SA's youth an untapped asset, not a problem'

HOW do you motivate disadvantaged youth to have a positive outlook on the future? Social entrepreneur Rob Taylor, 58, has one solution: treat them with respect and reconnect them with the environment in a values-driven manner.

The married father of three sees gems where society sees problems.

"I believe the youth are treated as part of the problem – society adopts a glass half-empty outlook towards young people. They are an asset whose value is untapped," he said.

This ethos saw the former Dimension Data director launching Columba Leadership with Young & Able managing director Buhle Dlamini in 2009.

Although its end-goal is simple, it has had a profound impact on those it has touched: schools affected have seen a dramatic improvement in academic performance and a decline in absenteeism.

"Our aim is to make teachers' lives easier and we work closely with the Basic Education Department," Taylor said.

Columba Leadership is a two-year programme divided into various components. One of these is a six-day experiential learning course that takes place in a high-quality backdrop.

The 12 lucky pupils who are selected will spend time engaging with nature at Belmont Country Guesthouse in Addo next month.

"The environment is not a resource to be exploited – we position it as a friend and teacher," Taylor said. "During this time, we treat the youngsters with respect and dignity. Exposing them to a setting such as Belmont not only shows them the possibility of life beyond their normal context, but it also comes with the obligation to serve their communities."

The programme started two years ago in the Eastern Cape. Ten government secondary schools from King William's Town to Port Elizabeth are involved and there are 60 nationwide.

"We don't consider schools whose principals are not prepared to be part of the process. Strong leadership is our No 1 selection criteria," Taylor said.

Columba Leadership representatives go out and hold presentations at schools informing them about the application process. Thereafter, Grade 10s in successful schools have to write essays motivating why they should get a spot on the six-day excursion.

"Those who make it have to go back to their schools and share their experiences. They come out motivated and have started various initiatives in their communities, including vegetable gardens and cleanups," he said.