‘Everyone who is in a position to help should do so if they can,’ says UP engineering graduate on a mission to make a positive change through community projects

Posted on June 09, 2021

During Gerdus van der Laarse’s final year at UP in 2020, he took office as the Head of Projects for Engineers Without Borders (EWP) UP. This is where his path first crossed with Moja Gabedi, the dumpsite-turned-urban garden located close to the university’s campus. He shared some insights on what he learnt through this involvement, as well as on Youth Month.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your educational qualifications?

I am 22 years old and am an enthusiastic people-person with a love for learning – not just in the academic sense, but I also love learning languages and about different cultures and people. I graduated in 2020 with a Bachelor in Electronic Engineering (cum laude) and finished second in my class. I am going to do my master’s degree in engineering and policy analysis at TU Delft in the Netherlands in September, to learn more about how we can make socio-economic development a sustainable and integral part of society.

How has Youth Month had an impact on your life?

I find that Youth Month has a twofold benefit. Firstly, it reminds us of our past and where we come from. Youth Day commemorates the day where the youth stood up for themselves to make a change. It commemorates the costs that are associated with bringing necessary change, while giving praise to those who are brave enough to do so. Without knowing our past, we cannot determine our future. 

This is the second benefit of Youth Month: it reminds the youth and society as a whole that the future is significantly dependent on the youth, and that we, as the youth, have an immense power and responsibility to bring about the positive changes we want to see in society.

How are you involved in helping your community?

During my time at EWB and Moja Gabedi, my main role was managing and connecting people. There were always projects to be done, and people who wanted to help, but they did not necessarily always know about one another. This experience showed me how something as simple as facilitating communication can bring about real and good change in the communities we find ourselves in. While the different projects like installing gutters, building benches, or fixing fences help the communities directly, something else also happens during community projects: people get into contact with each other and ideas and perspectives are shared. The projects that we did not only helped the communities, but also helped the students doing them.

What is your motivation for doing this?

I believe that everyone who is in a position to help should do so if they can. Life is unfair. Some people are born with privilege and others are not. I believe people who have the luxury to not have to worry about things like food and shelter should try to help others in their own communities as well as others. All of us need help at some point or another in our lives. If you are not currently in a place where you need help, why not give it instead?

What advice do you have for young men and women about helping their communities?

I would remind them of why they want to help their communities and what it is all about: the people. While the time people spend on community projects is temporary, the time you spend with the people will stay in their hearts and yours forever. If you let the people you are helping into your heart, you might find that they are helping you in different ways too. Understanding the communities better will also let you help them more effectively.

What advice would you give to people about perseverance and overcoming adversities?

That is a tough one, but I'd say two things. Firstly, remember you are not alone. Every single person on earth faces adversity and challenges, albeit of different kinds and types. It is okay to face challenges, and speaking to others about those challenges might just give you some insights you never had before. We need each other. Secondly, all challenges are temporary. It may last longer for some, and shorter for others, but for the most part it will end sometime. If things seem too much right now, that is fine. Because later it will seem just a bit easier, and that is already a good start.

Read more about the Moja Gabedi project

- Author Masego Panyane
Published by Hlengiwe Mnguni

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