Unlocking the potential of youth

Coady youth grad Lila Pavey is helping vulnerable youth in Botswana

Almost five years after her Youth-In-Partnership assignment at the Coady International Institute, Lila Pavey returned to the StFX campus this week and a much different Coady Institute than when she left.

Pavey, now 26, was in Canada to accept an award for her volunteer work at World University Service of Canada. Before heading back to Gaborone, Botswana she came to Antigonish, Nova Scotia to visit her mother. She also sat down for a brief interview with the Coady’s Richard Perry.

How did you feel walking through the building this morning?

Beautiful! I was part of Coady in the old ‘tin room’ across campus, so it was absolutely amazing to see such progress and all the pictures on the wall, familiar faces, new faces. It’s been exciting.

You came to Canada this past week for a very specific reason. Tell us about that first.

I have just received an alumni award from the World University Service of Canada for my work in Botswana. So they brought me here [Ottawa] for an international forum and a gala awards event, so they flew me in for that and I was very happy to be part of it.

And that’s when you pulled a fast one on your mother, right?

Well I told her that she had to go to Ottawa to receive the award on my behalf. She graciously went and expected to receive the award, but I showed up at the airport to greet her, and her jaw dropped to the floor. It was exciting.

And, then ‘by the way Mom, I’m coming back to Antigonish to live with you for the week.’

She says ‘You are? Oh my goodness!’

Botswana seems to have a special connection for you. Is that where you went for your placement as a youth intern?

It is. I went there for six months as a Coady intern to work at a small NGO, the Holy Cross Hospice, where I spent six months and fell in love with Botswana and saw a lot of potential in terms of opportunities that existed for me and also for the country. Development definitely had potential for areas to work. So I came back [to Canada] after my six months and then found myself there four months later again.

I’m going to read a quote from an article done back when you were a youth intern: “The rhythm of Africa definitely captures the heart. I haven’t even left yet and already I know I want to come back.” And you did.

[laughs] Yeah, I did, and it’s been 4 1/2 years now.

What is it about the work at Stepping Stones International that really excites you, Lila?

I think it’s the people who are there, the excitement and the potential for growth in development, trying new things, and a willingness to get on board with new ideas and test them out. There’s a big sense of community and involvement in working together to achieve something. I think that’s what continues to drive me, to propel me in the work I do in Botswana.

You work with youth who have been orphaned, or is it broader than that?

Orphaned and vulnerable adolescents. There are criteria for the youth that come into our centre. Some of them are registered as orphans, others are destitute and from impoverished backgrounds. Usually all of them have poor academic records. A lot of physical and emotional and sexual abuse cases. Some living with HIV, some taking care of parents who are chronically ill, usually with HIV. So there’s a whole range of demographics that these kids are coming from.

When you first went there, was it difficult to work with government and other organizations. Much relationship building?

At the hospice it was more of an insular group working with the clientele in some of the impoverished townships, so it was more so just working with the immediate people. Then I had the opportunity to go back to Botswana with WUSC as a long-term volunteer, so there I was placed with the Ministry of Education which really helped solidify my relationships with government officials throughout Botswana. Not just the headquarters, but in different districts across the country. So I started to get connected with the local departments on-the-ground. With Stepping Stones, we’re involved in so many different facets of development in education and health, local government and community mobilization. So we really have a plethora of relationships and cooperation agreements across the country.

I want to ask you about the organization. I’m guessing that depending on the country you’re in, its approach or mission might differ?

Right now we’re based solely in Botswana but we’re looking at expansion to other countries as a model that can be transformed, depending on the situation and the politics or what the need is for different areas. So that’s something we’re looking at now. But in Botswana it’s working very well. We’re growing with tremendous speed, and really there is so much potential to grow.

You’ve had some high-profile visitors that would certainly help get the word out about the kind of work you do.

Absolutely. It’s been an exciting year for us. We’ve had visits from different embassies and ambassadors represented in Botswana. We’ve had the CEO from Barclay’s Bank in the UK come down. We’ve had a member of the British Royal family, Princess Anne, who graced us with her presence and planted a tree at our site. And we had the pleasure of meeting with Michelle Obama, which was an extraordinary event for us. She had invited a couple of staff and youth, some of our girls between the age of 16 and 18, to a women’s leadership tea, and while that was going on we had seven of our other youth participants meet her children at the hotel, and got to teach them some of the crafts they’re learning and activities they take part in. Mrs. Robinson, Michelle’s mother, was also there for that, so it was a real opportunity for two worlds to come together.

I can’t imagine how excited your kids must have been, not only at the event, but also in the days leading up to it.

Absolutely. They did a lot of research into what the girls liked, so a real opportunity for the kids to just be kids and interact. It was very natural. They enjoyed it so much. One of our boys talked all about snakes and warned them for their upcoming safari trip on what to do if they come across a snake, so it was a lot of fun.

Is there much in the way of leadership development as you’re working with the children? You’re obviously trying to encourage them to continue with their education and gain practical skills, but leadership must be a big part of that.

Well I’m so glad you asked that because we’ve just launched our leadership centre, which is funded by Lawrence Gruff, one of the big diamond gurus and under the Faset Foundation. So we’ve just opened the centre, which is equipped with computers, and will help develop computer and technology skills among these youth who otherwise don’t have an opportunity, but are yet expected to compete with students who come from private schools and other schools with more competencies. So we’re doing a lot of job skills training, CV development, learning what is out there for employment, a lot of income generating approaches and activities, trying to develop entrepreneurial skills. Right now we’re taking on partnerships with different companies in Botswana, local companies that want to develop that culture of internship opportunities in Botswana.

Sounds like you’ve transferred some of what you’ve learned here at StFX through Xtending Hope and Coady to your work today.

Yes, it’s been a nice transition to have been here at StFX, be a part of the Coady and to work on the ground, taking what I’ve learned and being able to transfer it to others to build the capacity of our organization, and also the individuals and youth in particular.

I believe you said there are other former Youth-in-Partnership interns in Botswana.

There are. We’ve got a nice cohort of young Canadians all working to build capacity, working with NGOs for the most part, on-the-ground. We have one former Coady graduate working with us at Stepping Stones, Joanna Shackleton, [YIP ‘11] so it’s nice to have her on board. We make a great team. The organization is very happy to have lots more Coady participants come through in the future.

It’s been nice to have the opportunity to chat with you about the work you’re doing. More importantly it helps encourage others to stay in touch. People throughout the Coady world are always interested to hear of the success of people who’ve come through the doors, so I’m sure they’ll appreciate hearing your story. Thank you.

Well, I’m glad to share it. Thank you.

About Stepping Stones International

Stepping Stones International is an innovative after school and community outreach program serving orphaned and vulnerable adolescents (ages 12-18+) and their caregivers. The program is unique, as the only initiative in Botswana that focuses exclusively on the underserved needs of teenagers.

SSI works with local school counselors to identify teens who under-perform academically, have lost one or both parents, have experienced abuse at home, and or their basic needs are unmet. SSI uses a holistic program model, which combines life skills, leadership, psychosocial support and community mobilization to enable youth to heal the scars of the past, reconnect with their lost childhood, while growing into self-sufficient young adults.

For more information visit the website at http://www.steppingstonesintl.org/newsite/

We gratefully acknowledge the financial support of our donors, partners and the government of Canada through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).