Once a bustling metropolis of wealthy rand lords, Hillbrow is now a den of drug deals and broken glass. This Johannesburg suburb is not a nice place to take a stroll, people watch from a park bench, or play on the playground. In fact, the “park” is more of a dirt plot where empty bottles remind of last night’s debauchery and wandering prostitutes give sign of the coming night’s activities. Here, thousands of Hillbrow kids look for a safe place after school, forge for food, and just try to survive. Forget turning your homework in on time.
Yet a local South African climber has done something truly incredible for the community here. Referred to by his climbing partners as “the slum lord”, and from herein as “the local”, he provides structure, direction, and a safe haven for young kids, in the form of a climbing wall.
“The local” owns three apartment buildings in the Hillbrow area. In short, the buildings had been all but claimed by their tenants. Four or five families occupied each room, the windows were void of glass, and all material that could be pawned for money or used elsewhere was gone. The place looked like a war zone. The government gave “the local” these buildings, under the premise that he would restore them and provide affordable housing for tenants. First, “the local” had to reclaim the buildings, so under military siege, the “red ants” stormed the building with helicopters from above and on foot from below. Thus, with nothing more than the shell of the building, “the local” began the restoration process.
With very few climbing facilities in Johannesburg, “the local” decided to build a training wall in one of the buildings so that he and a few friends could train during the week. This was all fine and well until one day a child heard music and cheering coming from the room. He knocked on the door, and invited himself in to climb. The next day he brought a few friends, then a few more, until what were once serious training sessions had been overrun with kids. In what he describes as a selfishly motivated plan, “the local” decided to schedule kids time under a program called Kidz United, so that each day after school, kids could climb and play and be crazy from 2:30-4:30. After that, the climbers got to train in peace.
Today, “the local” realizes that what started as a selfish ploy to keep kids out of training sessions has actually made a huge impact in the lives of these kids. A Kidz United staff of 2-3 overseers watch the kids each day and work to establish a structure. Behind the climbing wall is a small indoor soccer field. A TV and craft corner occupies younger attendees who aren’t yet up for the chaos of the climbing wall. The staff hopes to expand this facility to include karate, and if all goes well, put a Kidz United room in the other two apartment buildings.
Jon and I had the opportunity to climb with the Kidz United participants last week in Hillbrow. We had been prepped for an interesting experience, as we were told that most Johannesburg locals won’t even step foot in Hillbrow. But when we walked into the gym and found the screaming, smiling faces 5-10 year olds, all the anxiety melted away. A few confident boys wanted to show us that they could get to the top of the wall and traverse to the other side (in floppy tube socks nonetheless). Newer children wanted power spots (meaning I lifted them up the wall as they sat limp in my arms, just along for the ride). And everyone picked up on a bit of climbing lingo. I even managed to land myself a spot at the bottom of a fifteen kid dog pile.
This experience perfectly defines Lead Now, and my vision for this trip. I know that these kids probably won’t grow up to be climbers, due to a lack of funds and resources. But what they crave is inspiration, hope, and stability. In the safe haven of the Kidz Unite facility, these kids are loved, they’re encouraged, they’re told to do pushups when they curse, and they get to support one another. I’m incredibly inspired by “the local’s” hope to build more climbing walls and play areas in other apartment buildings. What’s really cool is that this structure can apply anywhere in the world. In any suburb where it’s not safe for kids to play out on the street, a comfortable place to go after school could change, or even save, their lives. Maybe I should go into real estate!