This is the story of Deborah Norton
starting Cross Over. We didn't edit it
to a short version. So sit down,
relax and enjoy the read.
Hi – my name is Deb Norton – wife of Alan and mother of four.
Cross Over was really born out of my combined experiences of developing children’s programmes in poor communities for my church and of home-schooling our own four children over a period of 11 years. It has been supported and influenced throughout by the compassionate and committed heart of my friend, Cath Oldreive, who has spent many years serving vulnerable children in various capacities.
My experience with children in poor communities began with my work as a district pharmacist in the Ministry of Health where I found myself increasingly drawn to preventative practice in the public health arena rather than curative intervention. Later I moved with my husband to live for 7 years in a communal land in Zimbabwe whilst he worked on an agricultural development project. This experience further reinforced the sense that preventing problems in vulnerable communities was far more important than trying to fix them afterwards. It also opened our eyes to the fact that community development is a complex matter where the needs of individuals must be considered holistically and where individuals can never be separated from their families and communities.
During this time I worked with participatory learning approaches in the community, developing materials that would support semi-literate decision-makers to retain their authority in a new environment through understanding the new technology and opportunities that came with the agricultural development.
Developing teaching vision and skills
From here we entered the commercial farming sector which brought me into contact with farm compounds (villages), farm schools and pre-schools. Here we encountered full on the devastating impact and implications of the HIV/Aids pandemic on the children and families of this nation. I began developing materials to work with children in the farm schools and in our church. I found that the majority of materials available to us then were very Western in context and not strongly relevant to the children and situations we were involved with. We also wanted to make sure that whatever work was done among the children was followed up into the family since the family has by far the greatest influence in shaping the lives of these children.
We started home-schooling our 4 children in 1999. We saw it as an alternative way of providing the type of quality education we wanted for our children at a price we could afford. Private schools were outside our budget and the public sector schools carried a teacher-student ratio that we could not accept as being beneficial. It turned out to be quite an adventure and a steep learning curve for me! We ended up home-schooling for 11 years, during which time we tackled everything from pre-school to Cambridge International exams and my oldest 2 children studied for their A-levels from home as well. Through home-schooling I began to encounter different approaches to education. It took time for me to realise that this was not just ‘school at home’, but a different way of teaching and learning with a different set of opportunities. It made me stop and think.
As I continued to work with children from vulnerable backgrounds and saw the difficulties they and their families encountered with education, I began to wonder whether there was not some way to enable poor communities to benefit from some aspects of the home-schooling approach to education that I was involved in. Over the years this has grown into a conviction that we can find a different way to empower poor communities to start and develop educational initiatives for themselves without waiting for expensive infrastructure and staff to come from elsewhere.
Our nation began to go through a time of huge economic upheaval and political turmoil which had a devastating effect on our schools. I began to notice a disturbing drop in academic ability year on year among the children I was involved with and saw families experiencing increasing difficulty to educate their children.
By 2007 my concern over the breakdown of education, family structures and good character and the negative impact this was having in the community, particularly among children and youth, was acute. Dropping out of school was a crushing experience for many children and for girls, especially, it marked the end of any further opportunity to develop themselves. These young people with nothing to do and nowhere to go would frequently end up in early sexual relationships often resulting in unplanned pregnancies and the further spread of the HIV virus.
Together with Cath and a young volunteer who shared this concern, we began to pray and talk through ideas of how we could do something to help. We felt that as the church we had to bring a practical response to this situation that would re-establish godly role models for young people and provide a way for them to find a hope and a future through living productive and useful lives. This was about more than literacy and numeracy, it was about helping a lost generation to find a foundation on which to rebuild their lives. It was about values and character. We needed to teach young people to work with their hearts and with their hands, not just with their heads.
What guides us
These verses from 2 Peter 1 : 3 – 8 became the principles that guided us in what we set out to do:
His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness.
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to your goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly-kindness; and to brotherly-kindness, LOVE.
For if you possess these qualities, in increasing measure, they will help you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our LORD JESUS CHRIST.
We felt that in these Scriptures God was telling us that if we wanted to end up with young people who were effective and productive (not just educated) then we needed to begin by establishing faith in our students and then build strong godly character onto that foundation.
From the start the whole project was submitted to local church eldership and the elders have maintained a keen interest and given constant support and encouragement and counsel throughout.
We followed 2 early principles promoted through the world-renowned Foundations for farming programme:
start small and do it well
be faithful with the little you have
We started Cross Over Study Groups with nowhere to meet, no furniture, no blackboard, no money… and no experience except what we had gained in working with poor communities and teaching our own children…
Just 3 volunteers with a longing to help young people reach their full God-given potential, 4 out-of-school students aged between 13 and 15yrs from very vulnerable situations and a cardboard box with a few pencils, exercise books and textbooks shared with the home-schooling family.
But we had faith that God had called us to do something and that in our weakness and lack He would guide and provide.
We met wherever we could: on the floor of an empty room when one was available and outside on the grass under a tree when one was not. At first it was only 2 days a week, then a third day was added to include a day of practical work in the F4f plots and now we built up to a 4 day study week with a fifth day for team meeting, prayer, training and lesson preparation.
We made sure we put God first everyday spending time with His Word to allow Him to build our characters.
We placed a high priority on practical skills training and working out godly character in real life situations.
We worked hard to build relationships with the community and with students and their families through regular family meetings and home visits. We knew from prior experience that it is critical to address the family as well as the child.
Where we are today
Today in 2014, by God’s gracious leading and provision, we have:
57 child students engaged in 4 Cross Over Study Groups meeting 4 days a week from 8 – 4.
1 voluntary leader with 2 supporting volunteers - one heading up the mentor training and one heading up the practical farming skills
5 mentors and 2 mentor assistants
a dedicated resource centre with a wide variety of learning resources and more than 200 members of the local community have found their way through its doors for various periods of time.
In addition we have:
the beginnings of a character-based curriculum that is relevant and practical including our first resource packs
the prototype of a "pop-up classroom"
a small but growing network of friends and who pray and give both financially and of their time and talents