CARE, CAREER, CONNECTION
"Life has been a blast. It's been a journey; it's been tough. But it's been a blast." Ingrid smiles and shakes her head a little. "We have a lot of laughs. I wouldn't change a thing." Ingrid de Jager has crazy, curly hair that is fiery red and can talk a mile a minute. She is one of the most incredible women I've ever met. To hear her talk, you wouldn't guess how much she's given up to live on the outskirts of some of Paarl's most underprivileged communities and turn her home into a school for young adults with special needs. And it's not just her home -- Ingrid has turned her entire life into this mission. She doesn't sugarcoat how tough some of it has been, but she says it with a smile. It's been a blast.
No!" Ingrid shouts. The four young women hesitate. They look at each other out of the corner of their eyes, and at their feet. “No,” they finally say.
"Again -- no!" says Ingrid. "No," the girls repeat, a little more firmly. "Again -- no, no, no, NO, NO NO!" They're all shouting now, louder and louder, a crescendo that vibrates through the kitchen. "No, don't touch me again!!" One girl shouts, on her own. Her words hang heavy in the air.
Today is these four young women's first day under Ingrid’s tutelage at Care, Career, and Connect, and the first lesson is about personal space. Ingrid draws a bubble around each girl and gives her permission to control that bubble. “Your bubble can be as big as you want it to be,” she says. “You get to decide — no one else. When someone breaks into your bubble, you can say no,” she says. No, I don't want to go with you. No, you can't speak to me like that. No, you can't touch me again.
Each of the girls in Ingrid's class has an mental disability or intellectual challenge, some more severe than others. Although South Africa is a party to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) as well as the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, ensuring access to basic human rights and life opportunities for people with disabilities continues to be a challenge across South Africa.
Progress varies greatly among different communities due to socio-economic inequality in a developing nation with a history of apartheid. In wealthier cities, people with disabilities may have access to a wide range of assistance and opportunities. But here outside of Capetown in some of Paarl’s most underprivileged communities, the disabilities these young women experience have the power to define their entire existence.
Ingrid describes the difficulty of even finding participants for her training at first, as parents often wouldn’t want to admit that they had a child with a disability. Instead, the child would be kept shut up in the house. Sometimes, relatives and neighbors would not even know they existed. Now young adults, they have been deprived not only of education and employment — but also of basic knowledge of social interactions, communications, and boundaries. For too many, the rape, abuse, and exploitation they have experienced is the only existence they know.
That’s why Lesson 1 on Day 1 focuses on a basic understanding of owning personal space and belongings, and respecting the personal space and belongings of other people. Having convinced their parents to allow them to attend her training for six weeks, Ingrid will also delve into personal hygiene, basic life skills like cooking, cleaning, and conversation skills, and ultimately career training in each young adult’s field of choice.
“Too often, young people with disabilities are placed in any unskilled job that can be found for them,” says Ingrid. “But, like anyone else, they are individuals with their own talents and passions and giftings. If we can help them find a job they enjoy, and are good at, that’s what we call a success.”
This is all part of the highly individualized process that Ingrid uses, as she develops a one-on-one relationship with each student, to learn their passions and their natural proclivities and teach them the skills they need to succeed. This includes not only “hard skills” specific to their chosen field, but also “soft skills” like conflict resolution, work ethic, customer service, and self regulation.
Life has been a blast. It's been a journey; it's been tough. But it's been a blast. We have a lot of laughs. I wouldn't change anything.
-- INGRID DE JAGER
Today, there’s a waiting list of eager young adults who want to experience Ingrid’s training at Care, Career, Connection. While the training is currently run out of Ingrid’s house and limited to four young women and four young men per each six week session, she is training two other young women to lead other branches in neighboring communities and hopes to have an official headquarters under construction soon.
Looking around Ingrid’s living room, which has been turned into the office and headquarters for Care, Career, Connection, I can’t help but marvel at this one woman’s dedication and resolve. Papers are scattered across multiple desks. On the wall, hangs a giant whiteboard with an organizational chart — next to black and white family photographs. Ingrid has joyfully and ferociously invested her entire life into this mission, which became her personal mission when she and her husband were blessed with two beautiful girls with special needs.
Shocked at the lack of resources available to her family, Ingrid spent years conducting rigorous research on the United States and Australia’s systems for supporting citizens with disabilities before founding Care, Career, Connection. Not content with that, she moved her entire family out of Capetown and into a home on the outskirts of some of Paarl’s most underprivileged communities. This puts her and her ministry right in the center of those who need her services most.
Even with Ingrid’s training, these young people face a steep uphill battle when they enter the workforce. It is estimated that on average, eight out of ten persons with disabilities in South Africa are unemployed, ‘making discrimination in terms of the denial of employment opportunities one of the most daunting challenges faced by persons with disabilities in South Africa,” accord ing to the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC). Unfortunately, the employment of people with disabilities is currently decreasing at all levels — with even the unskilled sector recorded a decrease in representation from 1.4 percent in 2014 to 0.8 percent in 2016, according to SAHRC.
The biggest obstacle though, that Ingrid says she has faced, is in the minds of the employers and fellow employees. “People with disabilities further continue to experience exclusion from the economy and education system. A major obstacle to the social inclusion of people with disabilities is the stigma that still attaches to disability,” according to Johnathan Kenneth Burns, writing for the Equal Rights Review. A lack of integration into society only perpetuates the stigma.
That’s why Ingrid’s organization doesn’t stop with just job placement. Instead, they offer the gift of a continued relationship with the student, serving as mentors throughout their careers as well as a constant resource for the employer, checking in consistently to see if things are working out or if there are any needs for improvement. When conflict or misunderstandings arise, they work as a mediator between the student and their employer. It’s time consuming. And there’s no expiration date on the relationship. But Ingrid is convinced that it is the only way to truly build sustainable opportunities for her students and begin to win over the hearts and minds of employers.
"Dare to dream, for in the daring there is defiance to live beyond your circumstances.” This quote by Su Williams, Dream Weaver is featured on the Care, Career, Connection’s website and it sums up Ingrid’s indomitable spirit, and the spirit she unleashes in her bright, enthusiastic students. Against a mountainous weight of systemic inequality and cultural stigma, she stubbornly dares to believe she can make a difference and is willing to spend her life trying. And for her students, that one woman’s belief in their ability succeed against all odds is what makes the difference.
PARTNER WITH INGRID
Care, Career, Connect defines their mission as "making workplace integration happen" by not only preparing individuals for the workplace by developing skills and strengths in line with their dreams, but also assisting and preparing organizations to integrate a intellectually challenged person into their business and culture. If you'd like to support Ingrid's work financially, you can donate directly through her website at www.carecareers.co.za. Additionally, Ingrid's organization operates under the umbrella of a South African nonprofit called Valcare, an impact funding platform focused on sustainability and local partnerships and you can click here to support Ingrid through Valcare.