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Posts from the ‘Liz’s City Year in Los Angeles’ Category

City Year South Africa visit: I left my heart and bomber in Soweto

Out of all of the 76 Peace Corps countries I could have been sent to, I was invited to the only one with an international City Year site. What are the odds? You do the math — slim to none.

City Year is based  mostly in major American cities and in two international locations – Johannesburg and London. I came to South Africa a quick month after completing my City Year in Los Angeles. My corps year with CYLA means a lot to me, so of course I had to pay City Year South Africa a visit. Nelson Mandela Day – on July 18th – is a national service day in South Africa; I couldn’t think of a better way to serve than with City Year!

City Year South Africa gave me the opportunity to spend two days with a team – one regular service day and Nelson Mandela Day. City Year South Africa serves in townships around Johannesburg. Huw, the external relations manager, set me up with the Bapedi Primary School team in Soweto.

Of course the experience was phenomenal. I was welcomed onto the Bapedi Primary School team as part of their family. The team had that same type of familial spirit and love my Markham team had. Although it made me nostalgic, I also realized I now have two City Year teams!

Bapedi Primary School team 2013!

Bapedi Primary School team 2013!

I spent Wednesday and Thursday at Bapedi. Wednesday was a regular service day – team meetings, prepping for Nelson Mandela Day, after-school program and final circle. On Nelson Mandela Day, we cleared an area to make a recycling center for Bapedi, helped plant seeds in a garden the Bapedi team started in April and painted a playground set. On Friday, I watched physical training (PT) in downtown Johannesburg, showed pictures from my service year and did an informal Q and A with the whole corps.

Painting for our Nelson  Mandela Day project

Painting for our Nelson Mandela Day project

Clearing this space for a recycling center

Clearing this space for a recycling center

What’s so incredible about this experience is that I clearly see how everything’s somehow connected from these past two years of service. I met people at City Year South Africa who know people at CYLA. Huw – City Year staff – knows the area I serve in South Africa quite well because his dad used to live and work as a doctor there.  I stood in on team circles expressed completely in Zulu and understood a good gist of it. Everyone called me Mpho instead of Liz. I saw City Year culture fuse with African culture – team chants and readiness checks done in Zulu. I introduced myself in Zulu and got the silent applause. And best yet – how ya feelin’? SIYASHISHA FIRED UP! (We are fired up in Zulu). I saw South African learners perform PT. I never imagined that I’d get to experience City Year culture in my Peace Corps host community’s language. It’s a small, small, small world.

Power pumps!


I now feel a lot more connected to South Africa because of everyone I had the privilege to meet this week. I saw Soweto through the eyes of a local — Lindiwe, the Bapedi program  manager, gave me a tour, took me to her house and I met her family. I met people on the Bapedi team who talked about how much they love community service and are very involved in Soweto. One has already written a plan to start a non-profit that will give ex-convicts job training. It’s an unworldly feeling to know South Africans are doing the same work I’m doing and have that same idealistic hope for our world’s future. I’ve always known I’m part of a powerful movement, but now I know just how powerful. We all – South African or American – live for a strong purpose. Spirit, discipline, purpose and pride that is!


Reciting the City Year pledge

I traded my yellow CYLA bomber with Lindiwe and now have a red City Year South Africa bomber — a right of passage in my Peace Corps service country. Lindiwe said she’ll frame the CYLA bomber. I’ll definitely hang mine from my rafters in my hut.

Huge thank you to Lindiwe and Huw for making this trip possible!

Lindiwe, the Bapedi program manager. What an amazing, amazing, AMAZING woman

Lindiwe, the Bapedi program manager. What an amazing, amazing, AMAZING woman

Small heartYours in service,

Giving thanks 2012

I’m thankful for a lot of things, but mostly, I’m thankful for the education I received in America. Point blank.

I went to a decent public school in a middle class area. I dreamed to attend journalism school at USC as a young elementary child and did it, but I didn’t do it alone. I did it with the help of my parents and every educator who helped me develop my writing. I had parents who were involved in my education and spent countless nights with me in high school grueling through math problems or English essays. Enough said.

Education is so important to success and not repeating the cycle of poverty seen in my service communities. Without similar parental support that I received during my school years, the kids in my service communities may not  understand this and are sometimes robbed of a decent education before they can really take responsibility for their own education. Yet, even when they get older, like some of my 6th graders from last year, they still might not get the hint until it’s too late.

What about that little grade 7 learner who stole my heart when he dressed up as a news reporter and performed a skit as a journalist in front of the whole school the other day? Will he ever make that dream come true and get to report for the camera like I did?

His odds are sure far lower than mine were, especially considering his English fluency. However, there’s still hope for kids that attend struggling schools — and that’s one reason why I serve — so that students can understand how important education is, take ownership of their education and receive the education they need to achieve those childhood dreams like I could.

One day, like myself, I hope the students I work with and those who work with my City Year and PCV buddies will look back during the holidays on their childhood and be thankful for the education that helped them get back on track.  Education is everything. Don’t forget to be thankful for yours this holiday season.

Markham Middle School CST scores are up!

Markham Middle School increased 8 percent of students scoring proficient or above on both the English and math sections on the California Standards Test (CST) from the 2010-2011 to the 2011-2012 school year. Last year’s statistics state that 15 percent of students scored proficient or above in math and 19 percent scored proficient or above in English. Now, 23 percent of students scored proficient or above in math and 27 percent in English. Eight percent may be a small number, but to us it’s a huge gain! I may not agree with standardized tests, but it looks like all the emphasis my team and the school placed on the CST really helped and Markham can only benefit from this. My team and many teachers worked very hard last year to prepare our students for this test and the hard work paid off. This news made my week and gives me faith that Markham can keep improving (and therefore, get more funding!) Maybe when I come back into the states in two years Markham will make double-digit increases in test scores. Good job students!

So proud! Go Watts go!

We made our mark at Markham,


Ripples of hope: serving in the Peace Corps with another City Year Los Angeles alum

It’s a Small World has always been my favorite ride at Disneyland. Not because of the obnoxious music, but because of the message it gave young children: People are connected around the world. Sure, we speak different languages and have different cultures, but we have the same emotions, breathe the same air and well duh, are all humans. We’re all not that different.

Then I came to City Year last year and learned about a Zulu proverb called Ubuntu: I am because you are / my humanity is tied to your humanity. In other words, we’re all connected in some way, somehow.

As known, I joined the Peace Corps quickly after my City Year and found a fellow City Year Los Angeles alum — Katie (corps year 2008-2009) — among my group of Volunteers who served in the same South Los Angeles neighborhood I served in. When I arrived at the Johannesburg airport, boarded the bus and got my Pre-Service Training (PST) schedule, I called Katie’s name across the bus and said, “Katie! We have a training about Ubuntu! Ohhh City Year…” We both shook our heads and laughed.

I didn’t realize the similarities of Ubuntu between my City Year and Peace Corps service until now, but the concept of Ubuntu originated in South Africa. Katie and I are ironically learning Zulu in the same language group with only one other American.

Before Katie, myself and the rest of my Peace Corps Volunteer group were about to listen to a presentation on Ubuntu in South African culture from our Zulu language trainers, Katie and I were sharing City Year pictures and memories. I showed her some pictures from the end of the year. We had already gone through lists of student names to see if I had tutored any of her former elementary students, but today we finally saw how our paths crossed after she saw a picture of one infamous Markham student my team adored. Let me stress again that this is right before the Ubuntu session is about to start (for those non-City Year people, this is City Year’s favorite word).

One of our Markham kids, Sarah*, was one of Katie’s elementary school team’s former students. At the end of a City Year, whether or not some of these students are in a team member’s actual class, there are always a group of kids that every City Year knows and has helped in some way. Sarah was one of those kids for my team AND Katie’s team.

Bursting out in laughter as we flipped through the pictures I had of her, we started to share Sarah stories: Funny things she had said (she has no sensor and doesn’t care what people think, which makes her all the more fun to be around). I was so happy about this discovery that my eyes were tearing up — Katie and I can come from two completely different places in the US (Kentucky and California) and still somehow impacted a student’s life (or in my case, know the people who really did — my teammates Angie, Melanie and Becky — because I didn’t work much with her). This is clear proof that we are all connected through humanity and Ubuntu isn’t just some inspirational saying — it’s actually true.

I’ve written plenty of times throughout my first service year that changing the world isn’t as easy as it sounds and one might not always see results. I joined the Peace Corps expecting this, but can finally say that in rare circumstances change can be seen. Maybe Sarah still struggles in school a lot, but she was one of the first students who befriended my team at Markham, which I know had something to do with working with Katie’s team when she was a third grader. Now as a sixth grader, she’s confident, out-spoken, humorous and brave. I can’t completely credit City Year with all this, but the organization must have had some role in shaping who she is today if she decided to look up to the Markham team this year.

In South Africa, Ubuntu is practiced in all households. Batho pele, which means people first, stresses that one must take care of others — including guests and family members — before taking care of oneself when referring to eating meals or anything else. Food must be prepared in large portions in case guests show up to a family’s home. Family members must feed guests — regardless of who they are — before they eat. If one needs food or ingredients, one visits the neighbor’s house to get it. Food is for everyone and is shared. There is no such thing as individual food and it is disrespectful to deny someone food.

Likewise, people come before work. In America, we care so much about our jobs that they often comes before relationships. Here in South Africa, it is not uncommon for people to miss work (which is one major reason why teachers are absent a lot at the schools we’ll be serving at) because their culture emphasizes that they should go to a community gathering — like a wedding or funeral — instead of work.

Now, the South African government is trying to enforce Ubuntu throughout the country — blacks, whites, coloureds —  especially after Apartheid was dismantled.

I wouldn’t call Katie and I crossing paths a coincidence, but fate. I think things are supposed to happen for a reason and today happened to show me that people do impact each other and can make a difference in each other’s lives. In City Year, when one person’s thoughtful actions reach another person, it’s a called “ripple” of hope, which originiated from a speech Robert F. Kennedy gave in none other but South Africa — Katie and I together are the ultimate ripple!

Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu — a person is a person because of people. Any interaction that my City Year team had or my new PCV team will have with students will somehow direct and develop who the student becomes as a person today and in the future. And this is exactly why all of those I have met last year and this year chose to do the work we will do or have completed.

My life now makes a little more sense…


“Each time a person stands up for an idea, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” –Robert F. Kennedy

Yours in South African service,


Vote for Markham to get more school supplies!

Ran across this Target fundraiser the new City Year team leaders at Markham started — all you have to do is click a button to vote. If they get enough votes, Target will send school supplies and what not to Markham. And let me tell you, they need it!

Vote here.

Thanks all,

Teaching my students about South Africa as a farewell

During my last English class, my teacher allowed me to do a short presentation about where I’ll be living and what I’ll be doing next year. My students are pretty interested in it and actually know where I’m going (although South Africa isn’t that hard of a country to remember). I even got them to recite greetings in isiZulu in unison!

Here’s the short presentation I did:


20120608-103857.jpgSouth Africa is known as the “rainbow nation” because it is so diverse and so many languages are spoken

20120608-104003.jpg They were amazed that I won’t have running water and I might not have electricity. They told me to watch out for animal “droppings” and asked questions about how I’ll survive without electricity.

20120608-104111.jpg I explained to them that I am joining a government service organization that’s kind of like how you give years to military service for America, but instead I’m giving my time to help people.

20120608-104229.jpgThis slide generated a bunch of “ews” except one student said the sausage (known as Boerewors) reminded them of chorizo.

20120608-104534.jpgI’ll be honest, I can pronounce these greetings as well as my students, but we all tried together!

20120608-104607.jpg “You know how I always tell you to get out a pencil or pen? Well, this is what I’m going to have to say when I ask my new students to get one out.”

20120608-104646.jpg Sala kahle: goodbye. I can’t speak isiZulu yet obviously, so I added it into some English. The third isiZulu phrase means “see you later”

20120608-104832.jpgI made my students Hertzog cookies from scratch, a famous South African cookie I found online. I’m not sure if this is really village food, but apparently it’s a cookie that’s made often in the country (maybe urban areas or both? I’ll have to find out when I get there!) The cookie is a vanilla cookie with coconut, apricot and powdered sugar filling. The students enjoyed them and ate seconds!

It takes more than one person to change the system

Ten months ago, I started my service at Markham Middle School in the Watts section of Los Angeles. As a student journalist who covered public education, I thought I knew what I was in for. I started this year with the confidence that I would be able to bring my student’s reading levels up to where they were supposed to be. I soon realized though that catching up kids who were up to three grade levels behind was going to be harder than I’d expected.

After serving as a tutor and mentor for an entire school year I now view the world differently. I and the other City Year corps members at Markham learned that educators must ensure their students achieve despite plenty of distractions.

We couldn’t control the outside factors that plague low-income communities: challenging home lives, gang activity, and violence. Some of my teammates struggled with their students ditching school for days on end and getting involved with gangs. We also never knew when something that happened in the neighborhood would cause chaos on campus or in an individual student’s life.

Obstacles to learning lurk inside the school too. Fire alarms were always going off at Markham. As the alarm blared during my last week on campus, I didn’t cover my ears and roll my eyes at the interruption. Instead, my partner teacher and I still tried to continue the lesson with our students—even though eventually a student and I started to laugh over the situation.

No matter how hard my teammates encouraged, some students remained unmotivated to learn. Some students who wanted desperately to learn couldn’t because of disruptive classmates. Still, we didn’t lose hope. Regardless of a student’s situation, we knew deep down that all of our students had the ability to achieve.

We believed in our students in even the toughest times. We never gave up because it was our job to keep calm in all situations and never doubt that the kids could learn. Sure, my heart ached whenever my students would try and try, but still didn’t understand.

I learned to celebrate every victory. If a student accomplished something small like spelling “because” correctly or completing a worksheet, they still achieved.

I’m leaving Markham knowing that one student told me she wants to go to college so she can make Watts a better place. Other students significantly increased their reading ability, sometimes doubling their grade level. Still other students trust us enough to tell us anything, which shows me that we really made an impact.

However, throughout the year, I always wondered what it would be like for my students to be growing up in another, wealthier, area of Los Angeles. Would they still be so far behind grade level? Would they have to deal with those other outside factors that impact their behavior and attitude toward school? Probably not.

I learned that although it’s true that life is never fair, we can make it more just by serving in communities that need an extra hand. As the year comes to a close, the most valuable lesson I’ve learned is that changing the world isn’t as easy as it sounds.

The issues facing our public education system—and the communities City Year serves—are a cause bigger than ourselves. One person can make an impact, but one person can’t fix everything I’ve witnessed this year.

City Year taught me to give a voice to the voiceless and now that my year of service is over, that’s what I’ll continue doing thousands of miles away.

In July, I’ll start teaching English with the Peace Corps in South Africa. I will carry my Markham memories with me forever. I am grateful to the school and community for giving me a life changing experience and showing me a reality that too many other Americans aren’t aware exists.

Thanks to my students, I know that whether it’s a rural village in Africa or a neighborhood in Los Angeles, wherever I can make a difference is where I belong.

This article was originally published on