For the past week I’ve been staying in a rented house near South Africa’s Kruger National Park with my family. Our brick house has a thatched roof and is surrounded by African bush, home to many wild animals, and dense enough to hide any signs of civilization.  For the past half hour I have been watching my 17-year-old cousin, Casey, coaxing a wild zebra to eat an apple from her open hand. She was very patient; carefully tossing chunks of apple out onto the dusty red dirt, taking slow small steps forward, and waiting. He watched her closely, his eyes never wandering, his tail twitching. He was obviously tempted by the apple but uncertain about her. Eventually her patience paid off and the zebra accepted the apple.

Building trust takes time. My first couple weeks working at the township primary school were challenging and went by slowly. The kids were unsure about me, and remained shy, quiet and reserved. I didn’t have a lot of interaction with them as they kept their distance, but I could feel their eyes on me from afar. I was excited about being there and anxious to start working with them, but I had to remind myself that building relationships takes time, no matter where you are in the world.

One of my Child and Youth Care (CYC) professors at the University of Victoria, James Anglin, stressed the fact that “relationships are the heart of CYC practice.” To make any progress with clients, CYC professionals first have to take time building the helping relationship. Trust is the heart of relationships, but trust needs to be earned.  Being a privileged white person travelling from overseas to work in a township school for a short period of time, was an additional barrier that needed to be addressed. I felt I needed to prove myself and show that I wasn’t there to participate in “voluntourism”. To make any progress in my work with these kids, I first had to gain their trust.

The language barrier and cultural differences made things challenging and forced me to be extra sensitive and thoughtful in my interactions. It was often hard to understand each other and difficult for the kids to express themselves well in English. Although it was frustrating at times, it didn’t stop me from trying. Every free moment that I had, I spent sitting with the kids asking them questions, so I could better understand them. There was so much I needed to learn about their lives and culture in such a short period of time. In the end, it was genuine curiosity that was one of the most important pieces in building relationships. I asked the kids about their families, their interests, their language, their culture, their dreams and fears. This made them feel important and cared about.

Another relatively simple but hugely important component of early relationship building is learning a person’s name. Not so challenging when working back in Canada, but a little more so when you are trying to remember 1,300 Zulu names like Sbgongekonke, Menenhle and Zamangwane. Attempting to pronounce their names and greet them in isiZulu usually resulted in a fit of laughter at my expense. “You have such a soft tongue Emily,” one of the kids told me, in reference to my deplorable attempt at making the “click” sound that is so common in their language.

The second step of relationship building that comes after showing interest, is listening. There are many ways you can show someone you are listening, and true listening requires much more than just your ears. Active listening is a key skill used in basic level counselling. The way you position your body, the intensity and consistency of your eye contact, the tone of your voice, your facial expression, and your responses to whatever information is shared, are all components of active listening. Using these methods in my interactions made the kids feel fully and completely heard. As kids watched my conversations with others at lunch hour and in the classroom, more and more started to gather around, watching me intently and sometimes contributing to the conversation. They began to see that it was safe to talk to me.

Once this foundation has been established, the relationship moves into the maintenance stage where trust is solidified. This is when my relationships with the kids really started to flourish. They opened up to me in ways that I never expected. I had several girls share heartbreaking stories about traumatic experiences that they had endured. These were stories that they had never before felt safe enough to share with anyone. I listened, comforted, reassured them, and thanked them for being brave and for trusting me. I referred them to the school counselor who was starting work in August so that they would continue to be supported once I was gone.

About halfway through month three, we started to enter the final stage which is closure. People often avoid this stage in work with kids, assuming that they won’t notice their absence or won’t be bothered by it. Kids are incredibly observant and are hurt, just like anyone would be, when they feel abandoned. They just can’t verbalize it in the same way. It’s crucial to talk about saying goodbye in advance, to ensure that the kids understand and are prepared. If closure isn’t done properly, the hurt that emerges from your leaving may overshadow all the positive work you’ve done with that child. In the end, you may have done more harm than good. This was a concept that I worried about before I even left Canada. I questioned: What is my role in being here? What is the point in forming these relationships knowing that I’m leaving after 3 months? Is that fair for the kids? Am I doing more harm than good? I started talking about my leaving with the kids weeks in advance, to avoid any confusion or hurt feelings, but I don’t know if anything could have prepared either them or myself for how hard the last day was.

I wasn’t expecting the kids to be as sad as they were on that last Friday. Some of them were truly heartbroken. I could see their sorrow as tears streamed down their cheeks and they asked me if they could please come back with me to Canada. The guilt was overwhelming when they asked when I would be back, and when they would see me again. I was given beaded jewelry made by older sisters, an old book that was most likely the only book they had ever owned, letters, candy, and trinkets that they had used their lunch money to buy. I have three folders packed with about 400 handmade cards from all the kids we taught:

“The whole school is very proud of you, listen to me when I say that Canada is lucky to have people like you”

“Think of me when the sun goes down and I will think of you.”

“I wish that you will do the things you have done for us to others, and treat them the way you have treated me. I wish you love them and care for them as you have for us.”

These comments bring tears to my eyes every time I read them. I didn’t stop hugging kids all that last day.  They were the type of hugs where you can feel the person clinging on for just a few seconds longer than normal; the hugs that say a thousand words on their own. It was the most emotional day I have ever had, and I am still recovering.

This is an ethical dilemma that I will continue to encounter in my future practice as a CYC professional. Building trust is a crucial component of building relationships, and building relationships is the heart of CYC practice. Reflecting on the kids whom I grew so fond of over the past three months, my heart aches when I think about how I may have hurt them by leaving. Thinking about how deep my relationships were with them on that last day, and remembering how shy and timid they had been at first, I realized how deep the level of trust between us had become. It’s hard to know if the good will outweigh the bad, but I have to have faith that it will.