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Saving The World, One Grandparent At A Time

FAST Heroes is an award-winning schools-based programme designed to boost public awareness of stroke. Its superhero theme is enchanting children around the world, but as these stories from South Africa show, its impact is turning some into real-life heroes.
Angels team 31 October 2023

Liam Gelderblom is a star goalkeeper, future architect and a FAST Hero. The 11-year-old was among the first learners at Brackenfell Primary School outside Cape Town to learn about stroke when his teacher introduced the FAST Heroes programme in the classroom two years ago. 

The goal of the programme is for young children to share their knowledge of stroke with their parents and grandparents, ultimately resulting in greater public awareness of the signs of stroke and the critical importance of seeking help fast. But the strategy has delivered an unexpected dividend – stories are trickling in from all over the world of children who have used their knowledge to save their grandparents. 

Liam’s grandmother Susan lives in the small farming town of Riebeek West, about an hour from Cape Town. Strict as well as caring and kind, Susan is described by Liam’s mom Annouska as “the one who keeps the family together”. Liam loves telling his “Oumie” scary stories at bedtime, and the two especially enjoy trips to MacDonalds for a Big Mac, chicken nuggets and fries. 

Liam Gelderblom and his Oumie.

Liam and his mom were visiting Susan when Liam was woken up by strange sounds coming from his Oumie’s room. Something was wrong, he realised, and went to investigate. Recognising one of the symptoms of stroke and remembering the number to call, Liam alerted the rest of the household, and an ambulance was quickly summoned to take Oumie to a hospital in a nearby city.

It had fortunately been a mild stroke and thanks to Liam’s quick thinking Oumie was soon back on her feet. He was proud of his role in her recovery, the FAST Hero said, because “she is the only grandma I have left”. 

Ms Alicia Louw's Grade 3 class learning about stroke. 

Work and conquer

Brackenfell Primary School’s motto is Possumus ­– Latin for “yes, we can” – and the school building reverberates with precisely this spirit of determined optimism. In Ms Alicia Louw’s bright and cheerful classroom, tiny fingers are busy cutting out superhero masks. 

This is the third year of FAST Heroes at Brackenfell Primary, and by no means the last. The school’s headmaster Mr Faffa Coetzee says everyone including the parents has enjoyed the child-friendly programme which offers a departure from routine while slotting neatly into the life skills curriculum through which South African school children are equipped to become thriving members of society. 

The principles taught through FAST Heroes have application beyond stroke, Mr Coetzee says. “The children learn that knowledge is power. They learn how to handle extraordinary situations and that they have the skills to make a positive impact in the world.” The programme may even inspire learners to some day enter the medical sciences, he believes.

Mr Faffa Coetzee.

Brackenfell Primary was founded in 1906, with a single classroom of 18 learners. It is now a culturally diverse, parallel-medium school with almost 1,600 learners drawn from an upwardly mobile middle-income suburb. 

Just seven minutes away, wearing almost exactly the same shade of navy-blue uniform, the learners at Petunia Primary School inhabit a different reality. Their prettily named school is located in the low-income suburb of Scottsville, in a community burdened by social and financial hardship. Many of its almost 800 learners live in informal settlements and are being raised by grandparents or in single-parent families. In this environment, life skills are also survival skills, and the school has an important role to play as a safe space. Close to half the children receive a meal at school, NGO-funded and prepared by volunteer moms, and the gates open early to admit children whose parents have no choice but to leave for work before sunrise. 

Labor omnia vincit, the school’s motto says – “work and conquer.” Until Petunia Primary was designated a no-fee school, parents who were unable to afford school fees had the opportunity to donate their labour instead. The school library with its tidy booklined walls is proud testimony to their effort. 

Mr Faizal Yon.

Changing up the beat

Petunia’s headmaster, the warm and wise Mr Faizal Yon, has a stroke story of his own. On 1 June last year, he received an anxious call from an aunt who said that his mother, Mrs Amina Yon, had fallen ill and was unresponsive. 

Mr Yon, who lived just two streets away, was there in minutes. As soon as he arrived, he remembered the acronym he had learned as the result of FAST Heroes being implemented at his school – Face, Arm, Speech, Time – and recognised the signs of stroke. 

“I could tell right away she had had a stroke,” he says. “I placed her in the recovery position and got the ambulance service on the line.” 

Thanks to his prompt action, the 82-year-old Mrs Yon made an almost complete recovery although she would afterwards walk with a slight limp until her death from heart failure at 83. 

When he shared the experience with his staff, the FAST Heroes programme appeared in a new light, Mr Yon says. A former teacher herself, Mrs Yon was well known to the Scotsville community. Her stroke made it personal and deepened their understanding of the programme’s objectives.

The FAST Heroes programme was introduced at Petunia Primary by Miss Charmaine Eloff and welcomed with open arms. He immediately recognised that it was something new and different that would benefit the children and the community, Mr Yon says. It didn’t only enrich the life skills curriculum; the song also found its way into creative education where the children were encouraged to change up the beat and invent their own dance. 

It was a new way to take the message into homes where many of the children lived with their grandparents. Mr Yon says, “They are very proud that they can now look after their ouma and oupa as well.” 

Ivanechia Jooste.

Becoming a star

It’s Ivanechia Jooste’s turn in the spotlight. The 10-year-old who lives with her grandmother, a food service assistant at a large state hospital, and her disabled grandfather, is about to become the first learner at Petunia Primary to be interviewed by an international film crew who have arrived to tell the story of FAST Heroes. Before school this morning her grandmother arranged her hair in tidy braids tied at the top, but during playtime the top knot has come undone. 

Ms Lelanie Rudolph borrows a comb from another teacher and quickly and expertly repairs the damage. 

She used to be in the beauty business, Ms Rudolph says. While working as a hairdresser it dawned on her that clients who came in after a “bad day” deep down were struggling with problems that originated in childhood. Realising her calling was to help children build good foundations, she started studying part-time to become a teacher. “All our children have challenges at home,” she says. “At school they must feel safe with their friends and teacher.” 

Ms Lelanie Rudolph.

When Ivanechia came into her grade 3 classroom in 2022, she was repeating the year. Ms Rudolph didn’t want her to feel like a failure, so she made Ivanechia, who was already familiar with the FAST Heroes programme, her FAST Heroes “wingman” and relied on her to help her classmates complete the tasks. 

At the first international FAST Heroes teachers’ summit last year, Ivanechia received Tanya’s Teachers Award, given to children who engaged with the programme in a way that inspired others and offered an example to their peers.

Wining the award definitely boosted Ivanechia’s self-esteem and made her less reticent, Ms Rudolph says as the film crew fall under the spell of Petunia Primary’s first international star. The FAST Heroes programme is on track to reach many more South African schools, but it has already lit a spark in a small girl’s life, saved a little boy’s only grandma for future outings to Macdonalds, and got Mrs Amina Yon to the hospital in time.









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