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All about developing people

- Wits University

Wits Hero Dr Lisa Ware has first-hand experience of what can happen when youth are without hope.

Wits Hero Dr LIsa Ware is committed to developing young people

As a young adult, she painfully watched as her brother, who had just come into adulthood, went into a downward spiral after losing his job. Coming from a working class background, the family had limited information on what to do with the hopelessness that engulfed him.

With her training in nutrition and health psychology, her research has focused on the prevention of chronic disease. When she came to work in Soweto and heard the stories from youth of how unemployment created major barriers to a healthier life, the experience had a profound impact.

While taking part in the Wits Health Consortium Great Leap Forward (GLF) programme to foster entrepreneurial spirit in academics, Ware a Senior Researcher at the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Human Development, with co-founders Lethu Kapueja and Dr Delan Naidoo approached the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA). The proposal for a new type of health intervention in Soweto. One that employed youth that were not in employment, education or training (NEET), that provided financial support, health education (NQF3 Health Promotion), positioned youth as advocates for health, and located them within their communities as health agents for change. This innovative health-social-economic development project in Soweto called the Wits Health HUBB opened its virtual doors to NEET Sowetan youth in mid-2020 with support from GLF and DBSA.

One of the major setbacks was the delay of the project which had been in planning for over two years. Originally set to commence around April, the programme didn't start until October 2021. Restrictions in movement and safety concerns meant finding new ways to reach the candidates.

“We had to figure out how to change our interview process so that we can find the young people that would benefit most from the programme,” says Ware.

Ware and her team were however determined to get the project going especially since the pandemic was waging a war on people and the future seemed bleak, especially for underprivileged youth.

Despite the lockdown and associated regulations threatening the rollout of this project and the multiple challenges of the pandemic, or perhaps because of these, the youth have flourished. The community have welcomed the support of the young health advocates at a time when the health landscape has changed in so many ways. Offering basic health screening, health promotion and health advocacy in the community, the 20 health advocates have reached over 5000 community members in their first year.

Forging ahead

Now entering year two of the programme, and with 30 places available for NEET youth, the Health Hubb have received over 1500 applications from young people highlighting the demand for such programmes. As restrictions lift, the team are hoping to reach more community members through 2022 and 2023. Meanwhile, the team are evaluating the impact of the programme on the health and wellbeing of the young people involved and of the broader community.

Ware is passionate about supporting youth and initiatives to improve health, wellbeing and the futures of youth and the next generations.

“I think from a young age, from watching my brother, he was someone who needed support. I don't think he ever got that, he had mental health issues, and he ended up taking his own life,” she says.

Connecting science and society gives her the greatest fulfilment but she admits that this isn’t easy.

“I've felt a greater pressure because of this to do more to raise more funds, do more science, to put in more grants.” With the founding partners and since the employment of Ms Mimi Mhlaba as an operations manager (who is also now doing her Masters at Wits and is described by Ware as a superstar!), the Hubb is going from strength to strength. In the next month, the centre of operation in Jabulani will open to the public and the Hubb will have a physical as well as a virtual home. The next phase, working in Jabulani with implementation partners in youth development and digital innovation is exciting.

“As academic researchers, the science that we do has to matter. We have to see that what we are creating is of benefit, creating good science, but also having an impact on the broader community,” says Ware.

About Wits Heores

The Wits Heroes Series celebrates staff and students who went beyond the call of duty at the onset of Covid-19 in 2020. Wits Heroes were nominated by members of the Wits community.