Robyn Hemmens: Operations Director
What has been a significant learning from your years of working with children?
To answer this questions I need to share a story. Before working for dlalanathi I worked for an organisation that served girl children who lived on the streets of Durban. When driving to work in the mornings I would slip off the highway and get caught at the robot before turning onto the road that would take me to the shelter. I was always glad to get stopped. This meant that I got to spend some time with a few boys who lived across the road in an informal settlement. They spent their early mornings begging before going to school and we got to know each other over time. We learnt each other’s names, I got to asked them about school, we spoke about their families, I sometimes shared my lunch with them, and we often laughed together. They finally stopped asking me for money. In that brief moment each morning there was an experience of shared joy for us. This was an important part of my day.
On one such morning only Sipho was at the robot. When seeing my car he left what he was doing and came to say hello. While hanging on the window of my car door he said “Robyn, if I look carefully I can see me in your eyes”. I looked at him and realised this was true. When I looked at him I could see me in his eyes and I told him so. We smiled, the robot turned green and we said goodbye.
As I drove on to work the truth of his observation hit me. Getting to know Sipho, hearing his stories, observing the struggles of his life, watching him play with his friends amongst the cars, watching how he would open up to people who treated him with care and shut down when he was glibly dismissed, I recognised how often my being with children opened a widow for me to see something of myself. Sipho’s vulnerability helps me recognise my own vulnerability. His playfulness my own need to play. His need to be loved and protected my needs too. On a deep human level we were not different at all.
I have learnt that if I can see myself in the other I will respond with greater compassion, show deeper empathy, hold greater faith is one’s ability to both grow and transform, be quicker to forgive, and be more ready to communicate value and worth. I want to see myself in the other and I want to trust that they will see something of themselves when with me.
As John Powell said “It is an absolute human certainty that no one can know his own beauty or perceive a sense of his own worth until it has been reflected back to him in the mirror of another loving, caring human being”.
And most importantly, I have learnt that children are my very best teachers. For them I am most thankful.
What motivated you to join the dlalanathi team?
My years of working with children on the street gave me a clearer understanding as to why children run away from home. Children run because of poverty, they run because of trauma and loss, they run when there has been abuse. What I did not realise was that all children on the streets had one thing in common in their story and that is that back home there is no adult that they feel safe with that will protect and advocate on their behalf when things go wrong and when life is difficult. Back home there was no emotional connection to keep them from running.
When leaving work with street children after 15 years I needed to find a place where the focus was preventative. Where energy was directed towards building the emotional connection between adults and children so that children had safe spaces and safe people to go to for help, and dlalanathi has offered me just this kind of space. I am motivated by working with a creative team, by the adaptive nature of the way that we work which means that things are always fresh and new, by the amazing partnership around the work that give generously enabling the work to happen and I am motivated by my deep love for children.
What keeps you going?
Hope keeps me going. The belief that what we do in dlalanathi is really important. And a great community of friends that love and support me, a lovely home, my yoga mat, and the time I find to do creative things.
What is a ‘typical’ day look in your working life?
My days always start early. I am normally the first person in the office at 7am and I generally brew our first pot of coffee. I like being early. I like being in the office alone. These early hours are often very productive. My role requires me both to lead and to serve. I am part of the management team that deals with all of the operational issues affecting the organisation. I am responsible for translating our strategy into a plan that is feasible and achievable for our field team and provide support that enables them to do the work that they do. I have a close relationship with my computer, I spend a lot of time in meetings, and time with individual staff. I maintain relationships with our international donors, write proposals and reports to local donors, and build and maintain supportive relationship with different partner organisations. I plan, schedule, rearrange, sort, create order, organise and try to make things as simple as possible for others. I try to remember the small things. I support Rachel our CEO who does an incredible job of leading us as an organisation. And I make salad most days for Rachel and I which we share together over continued conversation about work.
What has been a memorable moment in your work this past month?
A month ago all of our staff participated in 3 days of coaching training. Together we engaged and practiced the art of asking powerful questions. I value working with people who are risk takers, who are vulnerable and authentic, and who know how to have fun.
What is one challenge you have had to contend with in this role?
I spend a lot of my time communicating to people via email. I get work out quickly, like I walk. But things don’t always come back to me as fast. This can be a challenge as a lot of my work depends on what others need. This can be frustrating. But I also understand it. We are different. We work in different spaces, at different paces with different priorities. I need to keep finding new ways of asking, and patience to wait.
What 3 words best describe you when you are not at work?
Creative, faithful friend and companion on any occasion that has good food and good wine.