Photo of MacDonald
Fifteen-year-old MacDonald sleeps on the streets but spends his days studying for his Grade 7 exams in the hope of being one of the Presbyterian Children's Club students to be awarded a place in a boarding school.

On the second floor of the Presbyterian Church in downtown Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, fifteen-year-old MacDonald and a group of other children crowd around tables in the small room, leaning over their workbooks and following along as their teachers guide them through the day's lessons. Their uniforms are clean and worn with pride, and in many ways it would be difficult to tell this classroom apart from any other.

However, unlike most schools in Zimbabwe, this program has been designed to provide education to street children and other disadvantaged children, like those who have been orphaned by AIDS or whose parents are disabled. These are children like MacDonald, who lives at the Mbare bus terminal, a crowded, dirty and dangerous place for anyone, especially at night. The children who live here live among illegal vendors, thieves and prostitutes, and are under constant threat of being harassed and beaten, even by police.

MacDonald says that he started to face problems once his mother died (of reasons that were never explained to him). With his mother gone, his father stopped paying his school fees so MacDonald was unable to go to his classes. Once his father remarried, when MacDonald was twelve, he was forced onto the street because he was not welcome in the new family home.

After meeting an outreach worker from the Presbyterian Children's Club (PCC), he felt encouraged and wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to get an education. Since starting the program in Grade 5, he has excelled academically, is at the top of his class and will soon be writing his Grade 7 exams.

He spends his mornings at the PCC, where he receives his only meals for the day, and in the evenings he returns to the terminal where he sleeps on the ground. He hides the few articles of clothing he owns in secret places around town so that no one will steal them. In the morning, before classes start at seven, he runs 20 minutes to the river to bathe, so that he won't be late for school.

When asked how he can manage to get such good grades while living in such harsh conditions, MacDonald says, "A little extra effort makes me good in my classes. I like to read." At the end of each day, he takes his books with him to study at night in the market square with his other friends from the program. "We read by the street lights at [a shopping complex], but sometimes the guards chase us away."

The project, started in 1996, provides free education in the mornings, basic meals, psychosocial support, health care and clothing to the 73 children who come regularly to the center. Each year, the top three students from each grade are given the chance to go to formal school, and Grade 7s who successfully complete their exams will be given a space in a boarding school to complete their secondary education. Last year, Children First fully supported 17 of the 58 students who are now attending formal schools.

Even during the tense political situation in 2008 during the election run off, with the support of Children First, the program was able to continue to support its children, while most formal schools had to close their doors and turn away their students.

The PCC program proves that there is hope for forgotten children like MacDonald if the appropriate care, support and resources are provided. Of the program, MacDonald says, "There are people who care here, and other kids like me. It feels like this is my family."