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It is this we celebrate – II

Part 2 of a Keynote Address by Dr. Thom Garfat delivered last year at the 15th Biennial Conference of South Africa’s NACCW (See Part I here)

Murphey & Joffe have said that “Creating a caring relationship requires genuine curiosity.”

I was riding along in a car the other day with a mother and her young child, and he began to ask the ‘why’ question. Why is the truck there, Mommy? Because it needed a place to park. But why did it need a place to park, Mommy? Because the man had to go in to the store. Why, mommy? Why? Why? Why? And on and on it went. Children have a natural curiosity about things – they want to know – to explore – to understand.

There is something special about curiosity. For me, it is one of the great Child and Youth Care skills – to genuinely ‘be curious’.

Now, this is special indeed. For when someone is genuinely curious about you, it causes you to be reflective, to wonder about yourself, and you have a sense of ‘being special’ – for just that moment.

The other night someone asked me a question which went something like this ... “So, now that you do what you do, what is that like for you? How do you experience yourself?” And it got me reflecting, and thinking, and feeling, just for that moment, special. If that is what it is like for me, still after all these years, imagine what it might be like for a young person who has had few experiences of someone being curious about who she is? Who has, perhaps, never been the centre of someone else’s curiosity.

Becky eating from the floor
Becky was one of the first kids I ever met in residential care. When she arrived at the residential centre, she was dirty, she seldom washeD. When given food, she put the plate on the floor and ate from it like an animal, guarding her plate with one hand while stuffing food quickly into her mouth with the other. All the while her eyes watch frantically to see if anyone was approaching her.

For years Becky had been used by her father, and uncles, and brothers, and god knows who else – used as an object for sexual release. She was beaten constantly; raped regularly, fed her food on the floor, never loved, and seldom heard a nice word about herself. But somehow she survived. She didn’t die; she didn’t kill herself; she wasn’t killed by someone else in a rage.

And here is some of my curiosity ...

And she did have a sense of self. Hard to imagine but she did.

Now. Aren’t you curious about how that happened? And aren’t you curious, simply about how she survived? Aren’t you curious about how someone could do this to a child? Or how you could help? Or what it might be like to be her?

Curiosity ... one of the greatest assets of a Child and Youth Care worker. Curiosity about why things are; curiosity about what happened?

And so this too we celebrate – your curiosity, and your wonder. For it is this curiosity which leads to new insights, new ideas and new ways of being, with self, and with other.

Merle Allsopp and Zeni Thumbadoo in an article entitled Towards an African Child and Youth Care Practice said that ...

“There appear to be three elements common to child and youth care practice ... which are particular to an African expression of the profession of child and youth care. They are:

Creativity, too, then is central to effective Child and Youth Care Practice:


It has also been said, within our field that “Creativity represents the most authentic expression of the Self” (Fewster & Garfat). If this is true, then surely the ‘self’ of Child and Youth Care is authentically present because our field is filled with wonderful examples of creativity.

Craft Night
Kelly was a child care worker in a small rural community. She had tried hard to connect with the family she was working with – but there never seemed to be time. The mother was always busy, the kids were off somewhere with their friends. There was only one time, during the week, when the family was all together and that was in the early evening of a particular night of the week. This was family time, and the mother and her children always spend this night together working on crafts of some kind. It was something the mother insisted on and it had many benefits. It drew the family together, engaged them in doing something, and, as an aside, the mother sold the finished products to make a little extra money for the family. They were, after all, poor.

Kelly was hesitant to interfere with this time the family had together, but she needed to meet with them – they had things they needed to talk about – that’s for sure – but more importantly, Kelly had to connect with them as a family, not just as individuals.

So, she asked if she could come around on the evening when they did crafts together. The mother was hesitant – she told Kelly that she could not interfere with that night – that it was too important. Kelly told her she was hoping that maybe the mother would teach her how to paint on wood. With some caution the mother agreed.

When Kelly arrived she was dressed in casual clothes, ready for ‘craft night’. And as the family got into their crafts, so did Kelly. She asked the mother to show her how to paint; she asked the daughter to help her choose a good piece of wood; she praised the son’s efforts. And as the evening wore on, Kelly became, simply, a part of the group, doing crafts. She watched how the family interacted; noticed how they responded to her lack of skill; laughed with them as she made mistakes; saw and experienced the love in the relationship.

As the evening came to an end, and no-one had spoken for a while, the mother reached across the table and gave Kelly a gentle, little slap on the hand, laughing ... “I hope your boss doesn’t find out you spent the evening doing crafts,” she said. The kids laughed along with the mother. Kelly laughed too.

“Oh, I hope he does,” she responded. He would be proud. Here we see a Child and Youth Care worker, creatively using her self, and the opportunity, to be with, to connect with, a family. To meet them on their terms; to be with them as they lived their lives, the way they lived them. And in the course of the evening, she learned so much: about what was important; about how they were together as a family; about what they needed to do to help each other a little more.

Probably a lot more than she would have accomplished in an hour in an office.

Courage. Another characteristic shared by Child and Youth Care Workers the world over. For ultimately, without courage, our field would not be what it is today. First, as before, we will look a little at what our field has to say about courage ...

Ross & Hoeltke (1987) in describing the characteristics of effective Child and Youth Care Workers defined courage in our field as “an ability to express emotionality in a positive, genuine way and a willingness to risk rejection.” Linton. and Forster (1988) described courage in our field as “the willingness and ability to engage with always stressful, usually challenging, and sometimes dangerous youngsters”.

But these types of descriptions are too simple and somehow distancing from what I think of when I think of the courage of Child and Youth are Workers. Perhaps I am more interested in courage as it was described by Ghandi, who said:

“Courage has never been known to be a matter of muscle; it is a matter of the heart.”

There are many forms of courage, and courage shows up in our field in many different ways. But the field is painted with courage. Like these for example ...

“To be” means to stand up, open yourself up and say ‘this is who I am’. To be yourself wherever you find yourself, not to change with the passing wind, but to be consistent in who you are, wherever you are. It takes courage to be.

The courage to talk, the courage to seek a different way, the courage to become the me I need to be in order to be helpful to others. Surely this is the finest of courage.

Let me tell one last story before I close.

Sindi was 12 years old. He was a bright young man. A young man any parent would be proud to call their son. And he was dying. His parents were bright people as well. Perhaps too bright because they seemed to spend all of their time living in their heads, working things out, thinking about things. They always had.

But Sindi was dying. And no matter how much they thought about it, or how much they planned, they couldn’t escape their pain. Or their fear. They needed help and so, for whatever reason, they ended up seeing a Child and Youth Care Worker.

And like all people who are afraid of losing someone, they drew him close to themselves – too close it seemed to the Child and Youth Care Worker who was working with them. And one day, as they were talking about how they were all doing, the worker asked them to ‘show him’ what it was like in their family. He asked them to create a family sculpture. And he asked Sindi to be the sculptor.

Now family sculpting is a form of intervention where you ask people to place themselves in physical positions that represent the family, and themselves and the others in the family, as the sculptor experiences them. So, for example, if someone in the family is abusive, the sculpture might represent this by showing one person ready to strike the other person and they might show the other person cowering down, trying to protect themselves. Or if someone in the family is dominant they might be represented standing on a chair, with the others in lower positions. It is a way of representing in physical form, that which we experience.

And so with some hesitation, which is normal and to be expected – and some trepidation, perhaps because of what he had to say, Sindi made his sculpture.

First he placed his mother and father facing each other. And then he asked them to embrace and hold each other tight, which they did, and as they did this you could feel the desperation as they clung to one another. Then Sindi told them not to move – no matter what he did, they were not to loosen their embrace. And then with great effort, he squeezed himself up in between them, in a space so small he could barely breathe. And that was his sculpture. As is customary in family sculpting, after it was over the worker asked Sindi to interpret the sculpture for the family. And this is what he said.

“You are suffocating me. I know I am dying but you are suffocating me. You are holding on to me so tight I can’t breathe”.

Afterwards, the family and the worker talked about what Sindi had said, and the parents realized that in their fear, and in their need to hold him as close as they could, they were preventing him from living whatever life he had left. And so they made changes to ‘give him a little more space’, as the mother put it.

Well, eventually, of course, Sindi died. And some time later the mother returned to talk to the Child and Youth Care Worker. And this is what she said. We were suffocating him. I know that. We were so afraid we just wanted to hold onto him as much as we could. But that day, when he did the sculpture I knew that we were suffocating him. And so we had to let go a little bit – and because we did, we found it a little easier to be together.

And so I just came to tell you thank you. Thank you for having the courage to help us find the courage to let him live while he was dying.

This courage. Your courage. This too we should celebrate. For as another Child and Youth Care Worker, quoted by Merle and Zeni in their paper, said, you are,

“— these courageous workers who with tender care minister to the needs of these children, who swallow their pain, who wipe away their tears and move to the next child who needs attention.”

And this, my friends, is courage.

So, it is time for me to end. And as I do let me just say, that I know that all these comments, all these stories, – they all say the same thing. They are all, in essence, a part of one single story – the story of Child and Youth Care Practice. The story of our work with children, young people and families in need. And the story of your courage in helping them to find ways to live their lives with, hopefully, just a little less suffering and pain. It is, ultimately the story of your relationship with those who need you.

And so, we celebrate – we celebrate the Caring, Commitment, Curiosity, Creativity and Courage of this field, and you who work within it. As Lesley duToit has said ...

“You and I now hold the future of the profession and the future of our ‘children at risk’ in our hands. Let’s respond with courage and integrity.”  


Allsopp, M. and Thumbadoo, Z. (n.d.) Towards an African Child and Youth Care Practice.

Austin. D. & Halpin. W. (1989). The caring response. Journal of Child and Youth Care. 4(3). 1-7.

Jerome Beker Volume 15 (2000) and Volume 16 (2001) Welcome Home! Some reflections from the Cleveland Conference on the future of our field.

Krueger. M.A. (1988) Intervention techniques for child and youth care workers. Washington DC: CWLA, pp,11-15.

Linton. T E. and Forster. M. (1988). The child and youth care workers: Who needs them? Journal of Child Care, Vol.3(4) p.4.

Laursen, E. (2002) Seven habits of reclaiming relationships. Reclaiming Children and Youth. Vo1.11 No.1 pp. 11-13.

Mayeroff, M. (1971). On Caring. New York: Harper Perennial

Murphey. E., Joffe S. From Creating a Culture of Retention: A Coaching Approach to Paraprofessional Supervision. Paraprofessional Health Care Institute.

Ross. A. & Hoeltke. G. (1987) A interview tool for selection of residential child care workers. Child Welfare. 66(2). 175-183.

Watson, J. (n.d.) Transpersonal Caring and the Caring Moment defined. Available at:



This feature: The second part of Thom Garfat’s Keynote Address to the 15th Biennial Conference of South Africa’s National Association of Child Care Workers held in July 2005, celebrating thirty years of the NACCW’s foundation. Reprinted from Child and Youth Care, Vol. 23(7), pp.6-9. [See part 1 in our May 2006 issue] .