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Helping students a continent away

A St. Petersburg High student, the granddaughter of a liberal South African politician, is a glimmer of hope for a primitive "shack school'' in a poverty- stricken township.

By LENNIE BENNETT

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 30, 2000


More than 7,000 miles due southeast, in a South African squatters camp outside Port Elizabeth called the Joe Slovo township, it is winter and cold.

Every day, several hundred children gather at a shack made, like the rest of the camp, from sheets of tin with no floor, no plumbing, no electricity. They come to this place to learn.

Eight time zones away, where it is summer, Jacqui Perlman learns, too.

Miss Perlman, 17, whose family hails from South Africa but who now lives in St. Petersburg, is learning how to raise money, supplies and awareness for the little South African "shack school," as it has been named. The school was started by Joe Slovo township residents after more than 150 children were injured during the last several years by cars and trucks as they crossed the busy Uitenhage Road to get to the nearest public school in another township. It has no government sanction and therefore no public funding.

The school's 15 teachers, all with college and university credentials, work most of the time as volunteers.

A small group of supporters in South Africa say they have been thwarted by government agencies that would rather pass along responsibility than help solve the problem.

Jacqui Perlman just believes that children should be able to attend school with adequate supplies.

She became involved after learning about the shack school from South African friends. She is donating almost $500 -- earnings from art and essay contests -- and trying to raise money and supplies for the school, which serves more than 300 children in pre-K through fourth grade.

"I have visited the townships and I could not believe how people live," she said. "It's complete poverty."

Jacqui Perlman's roots in South Africa go deep. Her grandfather, the late Les Dishy, was a City Council member for 20 years and mayor of Johannesburg from 1993 to 1994, a liberal politician who championed the end of racial segregation for decades. He staffed his sewing machine shops with former political prisoners. In the early years of Dishy's career, before Nelson Mandela's political ascendancy, Dishy's friendship with the statesman brought constant shunning, says Miss Perlman's mother and Les Dishy's daughter, Alona Dishy, who grew up in Johannesburg. "The family was threatened with everything, constantly watched," Alona Dishy said.

She moved to the United States as an arts school graduate, "for more freedom," she said. Les Dishy died in 1995 and Ms. Dishy, who is divorced, settled with her daughter and an older son in St. Petersburg several years ago. They visit their homeland at least once a year, where they have friends and relatives.

Miss Perlman, who will be a senior in the International Baccalaureate program at St. Petersburg High School, said she received $75 for an art contest at Ruth Eckerd Hall, $100 for the Tony Jannus essay contest, $100 for the Veterans of Foreign Wars essay contest, and $100 for the Vassar Club of Tampa Bay Award of Promise.

"I knew I didn't want to spend the money," she said. "It will go so much further over there."

According to stories in the South African newspaper Eastern Province Herald and correspondence between school advocates and government officials, the shack school is acknowledged as a good idea that the school system simply can't afford to support.

"Please be assured," Kader Asmal, minister of education, wrote to Shiralee McDonald, a supporter, "that I am deeply aware of the difficult conditions in which many of our children are forced to learn. ... However, in this process difficult choices will have to be made as we do not have access to limitless funds."

"It is outrageous," said Keisha Mayhew, a Web page designer who has taken up the cause of the shack school and who corresponds with Miss Perlman.

In a telephone interview from Port Elizabeth, Ms. Mayhew said, "The education people say it's a transportation issue and they should put up a traffic light. The transportation people say it's a provincial education issue. Meanwhile, the problem has to be addressed. Getting an education is a basic right. Children should not face death to do so."

"You have a situation," said Ms. Dishy, who as a young woman helped her parents with relief efforts for poor residents of the Soweto township, near their home in Johannesburg, "where the kids are on their own a lot because the parents all go into the cities early in the morning to work. You'd think children getting run over would be an issue, but there is so much poverty. They are one of many problems."

"The surprising thing to me," said Ms. Mayhew, "is how little support this is getting in South Africa. This is a school with no electricity, no toilets, no rubbish removal. Today is very cold and they will sit outside and have their lessons.

"This is the school's first year," she said. "Their dream is to have their own school in their township and have the government support it."

Ms. Mayhew has designed a Web site that is attracting international attention, even though students and teachers at the school have not seen it, as they have no electricity and no access to computers.

Miss Perlman said schools in Sweden and Japan, who learned of the shack school on the Web site, have sent supplies and money, and she hopes she can rally support at her school once it starts in August.

"I saw my grandmother organize book drives for poor people in South Africa," Jacqui Perlman said.

"I want to continue that. They need such basic things, nothing that requires electricity. They were thrilled when someone donated a manual typewriter."

-- Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

How to help

To see a list of needed supplies or to learn more about the school, visit the Web site at http://www.shackschool.co.za.

To donate supplies locally, call Jacqui Perlman at (727) 458-8037 or 896-8628 or e-mail her at alona@mindspring.com.

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