Kezia Jones founded Young & Free in 2015 in Mitchells Plain, Cape Town, South Africa. She started the organisation in response to a number of challenges in the Mitchells Plain community and to show that the youth can do something to provide solutions to their community challenges.
Young & Free is housed at a community church which Kezia attends; she negotiated with leaders of the church to allow her to utilise the facilities. The organisation provides a safe place and space to create a moment of impact in the lives of young people who are constantly faced with challenges, including gang violence, domestic violence, exposure to substance abuse, bullying at school and in their homes.
Through various interventions including 30-minute music and dance sessions, the programme provides these young people with a safe space in which they can express themselves and just be young and free for that moment, while they are away from the other spaces that pose danger to them.
It all started when Kezia observed that every time she went to her community church, there would be children just loitering around the streets looking lost. This was a weekly occurrence. Then one day she decided to speak to them, and the gruesome stories about their homes and backgrounds moved her to start Young & Free to provide them with a safe space to grow like other kids.
Her first event was a pamper day for all the children, at the time about 40. She arranged with the church to use the church premises for the pamper day and organised a group of her friends to support her in providing snacks and assisting with activities.
Having attended a youth group while she was growing up, she was motivated by the experience, and decided this could present a channel to give back to the community.
Every week, Kezia facilitates sit-down sessions with the group to present various topics of discussion, including sharing of experiences by these young people, responding to questions on shared challenges and brainstorming ideas for possible solutions to deal with some of the day-to-day issues that they face.
Once a month, she facilitates life skills group discussions, aimed at empowering these young people with basic life skills such as discussions on identifying issues, effective communication, self-awareness and respect, among other things. The sessions provide a platform for young people to learn and discover necessary life skills.
Initially the kids presented with a number of challenges. Their concentration span was very short to begin with, which affected them at school. They did not show respect for one another at all, their behaviour was very aggressive, they were angry and distant; and some just didn’t want to participate in any activities, but would show up at the venue (the church) and just decide not to participate.
Kezia says it is pleasing to see the progress that these young people have made, they have grown into mature and respectful youngsters, their self-esteem has improved, and they show a genuine care and love for each other.
Kezia shares that she was driven by a desire to prove that there are people who still care and who would go the extra mile and be consistent in holding their hands and showing them that they too can have a bright future.
She attributes her compassionate spirit to her upbringing, having been raised by a mother and grandmother who instilled in her strong values and taught her never to settle for less and to always see possibilities and never limitations in any circumstance.
When she fell pregnant at 19, these two women in her life did not push her away, they encouraged her to make the most of the situation to continue to follow her dreams, and show her child a better future.
Kezia says the journey has not been without challenges. There were times when some of these kids would be rebellious to a point where she had to call in social workers to intervene.
Her vision is to see the young people from Young & Free become the next young leaders who will drive change in their communities, spreading out across the country and continent to create change, and change the experiences of other young people who have faced similar challenges. She is working towards expanding the impact of Young & Free and growing it across other areas where similar programmes are needed.
Her view is that young people across the continent are the gatekeepers of our new and changed nation; and have a responsibility to change the current challenges to future opportunities. If one moment can take a life or scar you for life, then one moment of impact for good can change a life too, for the good.
Looking ahead, Kezia wants to see more young people look at the possibilities ahead of them and not the limitations, and begin to reach their goals and realise their dreams with a focused and positive attitude.
She says young people have a big role to play in uplifting and improving the lives of other young people through mentorship and any form of support; they just need to show up, start doing something and see it through from beginning to the end. They have an opportunity to make a change and contribute towards creating the kind of world they would like to see and one they can be proud of.