A retired primary school teacher, Ursula Matzopoulos (UM) is now renowned for her remarkable rapport with children, after she took up the position of Physically Active Youth (P.A.Y) Programme Coordinator about four years ago.
P.A.Y is a dynamic after-school centre in Katutura that provides safe and nurturing learning environment to Namibian children and youth from disadvantaged communities. The programme caters for learners in Grades one to 12 as well as out-of-school children who come from over 10 different schools in Katutura.
The programme focuses on using educational games to improve the literacy and math skills of children, while also improving their health and fitness through sport activities such as BMX riding, football, swimming and basketball.
Since 2015, Ursula led the organisation’s extra-curricular tutoring, helping over 150 pupils aged between 12 and 13 to achieve twice the national average pass rate for end-of-year exams.
She also encourages young people to continue their education, with 80 percent of children from the programme enrolling in secondary school compared to the national average of 54 percent.
Awarded by Queen Elizabeth II
For her exceptional service in improving the health and educational attainment of young people, Matzopoulos was recently recognised and awarded by Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom as the 42nd Commonwealth Point of Light.
The Queen, as Head of the Commonwealth, in the lead-up to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London slated for the 19th and 20th April, is thanking inspirational volunteers across the 53 Commonwealth nations for the difference they are making in their communities and beyond.
By sharing these stories of service, the Heads of Government meeting will celebrate inspirational acts of volunteering across the Commonwealth and help inspire others to make their own contribution in tackling some of the greatest social challenges.
Each Commonwealth Point of Light received a personalised certificate signed by Her Majesty the Queen. Matzopoulos was presented with her award on 27 March at the P.A.Y centre by UK High Commissioner in Namibia, Kate Airey.
At the time of receiving her award, Matzopoulus said, “It’s wonderful to receive this award, not for myself but to get recognition for all the amazing volunteers at P.A.Y who give so much of themselves to make sure the children get a better start in life. It is not always easy and we rely on the kindness of so many people and organisations to keep P.A.Y going. So this is a huge thank you to all of them.” Meanwhile, Airey said that the amount of effort Matzopoulus puts in to ensure that the children get a good meal, the creativity with which she approaches the extra-curricular work, the team she has created and the impact she has, was phenomenal.
“I hope this award means the work P.A.Y does reaches a wider audience and they can carry on making the enormous difference to the lives of children in Katutura.”
As Programme Coordinator, Matzopoulus oversees the planning, implementation and evaluation of the junior programme component; monitors the day-to-day delivery of the programs and services of the organisation to learners as well as coordinates delivery of the P.A.Y feeding programme
The project’s Junior Programme Component – Grades 1 to 7 – encompasses an integrated programme for about 50 learners. They concentrate on improving literacy and mathematical skills, learning through educational games which includes computer and robotics skills.
The children’s physical motor skills are enhanced by BMX riding, soccer, swimming and basketball. Other recreational activities are chess and reading. Weekly Life Skills sessions are held which include cleaning of their environment and gardening. Learners attend an annual Life Skills camp and participation is earned.
For its senior Programme Component – Grades 8 to 12- provides educational assistance to approximately 50 learners daily. Lessons are delivered in compliance of the Ministry of Education, Arts and Culture official syllabi and observe a schedule that ensures learners receive quality instruction in English, Mathematics, Accounting, and Sciences as well as computer science. Learners receive tutoring support for homework in all subject areas based on volunteers’ availability and skillsets.
Confidente’s Marianne Nghidengwa (MN) recently caught up with the grandmother of three boys to reflect on her award by The Queen while sharing her passion for children.
MN: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
UM: I am a teacher. I have realized a long time ago that everybody is a teacher. Your mother was your first teacher; we all think of teachers as formal teachers but we can all teach one another and we can all learn from one another. You do not walk around with an attitude that you know it all. Everyone has something to share.
MN: Briefly tell us about P.A.Y?
UM: P.A.Y was established 13 years ago as part of a PHD Thesis to see whether physical activities would keep children off the streets, which it did but the project was later abandoned. It however carried on and we now have four pillars; education, feeding programme, life skills and sports.
With education, we have grades 1 to 12. We look at it as a holistic approach by looking after the children and being sincere about them. Our children come from broken homes, low income families and most of them are looked after by unemployed single parents. We also try to give them scholarships but we still support them even if they do their tertiary education or have failed.
When they arrive here between 13h00 and 14h00, they get a proper meal. From 14h00 to 16h00, we help them with their school work. They later go into different groups to clean-up and they clean without hesitation. At the end of every term, we take them on camps. Fridays we do life skills only. We do not just concentrate on the bad but also the good. We talk about issues and where needed we award them.
MN: What positive changes have you seen in children benefiting from the programme?
UM: If I look at the little o n e s , t h e y come he re ill-disciplined and have no sense of direction. Here we do not tell them just to do things but we also tell them why they have to. We have rules and we tell them why we have those rules. We also monitor their behaviour. If they are good, then they are eligible for reward or excursions but if they behaved badly, they are excluded. They cry, but we do what we say we will do and explain to them as well. We do not feel sorry for bad behavior and they learn quickly.
When we used to hand out bread, they used to rush but now they are orderly. There is no sexism or age preferences, its first come first served. Certain things are also not tolerated like bullying and sexual abuse and they know it.
MN: Congratulations on your award by The Queen. What does it mean for you personally and for P.A.Y?
UM: I never did anything to get an award, but it is good that somebody recognises the work that I do. I am not the only one that does something like this, there are thousand others. It is (the award) still in my cupboard. If there is a need, it takes a moment to decide to do good deeds.
My serious part of the project is the feeding programme. I belive that children should be educated but their basic needs are not met. A child with hunger is a serious problem, not only here but at their schools and homes.
MN: What are challenges facing P.A.Y?
UM: It is always money. We need funding for the feeding programme which is very close to my heart. Individuals, friends and families have kept the feeding project going. There is an individual who gives us 60 loaves of bread every week and we get rice and meat and other everyday items as well.
Another challenge is lack of parental support. A child must not guide the parent but it should be the other way round. Transport is another challenge, our children participate in sports and we need to transport them around.
We have volunteers and paid staff members but they are not paid livable wages.
Every week there is a group of children on our doors wanting to be a part of this programme but we sent them back because of a lack of space. If we have more space, we can take up more children but obviously we will have to take up more staff members and that requires finances.
The children are registered every year and we give preference to those that are already a part of the programme and then there are few spaces left for new ones.
MN: What advice do you have for children on the importance of education?
UM: I never think its children’s fault. A child will follow. I would like to give advice to the teachers instead. Teachers should aim high because children will rise to their expectations. If you think nothing about the children, they will be nothing. Even if you have a slow learner, set the bar high they will catch up.
MN: What do you do for a little fun to unwind?
UM: I hang out with my family. I have a wonderful family, on Sundays we come together and have lunch. I love to cook. I have three grandsons who visit me and have fun. I paint, I am a trained art teacher but I have not done it in a long time, but I can do a few crafts if I have to.
Confidente. Lifting the Lid. Copyright © 2015