Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion will bestow the 2009 Roger E. Joseph Prize upon Helen Lieberman, Founder and Honorary President of Ikamva Labantu – Future of Our Nation, in recognition of her exemplary work in providing programs and hope for the future for youth, the homeless, blind, aged, and disabled in South Africa. With more than 1,000 current projects assisting more than 70,000 people of all ages, including 45,000 children, Ikamva Labantu is the largest community-based, non-profit, non-governmental organization of its kind in South Africa. The presentation will be made at Ordination and Investiture Ceremonies at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York on May 3, 2009 at 9 a.m.
Trained as a speech therapist, Lieberman said she began her community work by accident. Some 35 years ago she was working in Cape Town’s Groote Schuur Hospital. She went into a nearby black township in search of a young patient who had been discharged from surgery, but whom she felt needed follow-up care. Her shock at the living conditions there was the start of her deep commitment to the communities she now serves. Beginning during the worst of the apartheid years, she built up programs and endured risks, threats, and harassment from the authorities, including the murder of some colleagues in the townships.
Being Jewish was pivotal in her work. Lieberman said, “To live in South Africa and see what you see – after the Holocaust and all other things – and not to get involved, what have we learned? What example are we? It’s about whether you live a life that extends itself to those less fortunate than yourself.”
She began her grass-roots activism to address overcrowding, unemployment, lack of social infrastructure, and social services. By 1992, apartheid had been abolished, but this unprepared society lacked basic literacy, job skills to support the new system, and understanding of health care issues. Lieberman’s projects advancing skills development and education so proliferated in numbers and strength that it became necessary to establish a coordinating umbrella organization, Ikamva Labantu. Today, Ikamva Labantu addresses rural community development, builds schools and trains teachers, offers sports programs, and has over 500 day care centers, scores of youth and senior centers, and disabled children centers. It sponsors job-training centers and factories that employ its graduates, who produce products sold around the world, with profits used to train and employ more workers, thus fulfilling the mission of economic empowerment and self-sufficiency. It brings to the schools anti-drug and anti-violence programs, health education, self-image enhancement, and mentorship. Adults benefit from life skills education, and home care workers are trained to provide home care service of the elderly and frail. With the motto “Nothing about us without us,” Ikamva Labantu’s multicultural staff – program specialists, social workers, teachers, and university and health care researchers – looks to local leaders, who are responsible for the success of these programs. The goal is self-reliant and sustainable community-based organizations facilitating positive social change and achieving effective and efficient delivery of Ikamva Labantu’s core services. This organization, which serves as a model for programs elsewhere in Africa, receives no funding from the South African government and its ultimate hope is to become redundant as all programs become government sponsored and mainstreamed.