Student athlete works to prevent gang violence

by Jennifer Johnson ,

Olivia Scott ’20 reflects upon interning with a program founded by a reformed gang member in South Africa.

  • Olivia Scott ’20
    Olivia Scott ’20 interned in South Africa for the summer.
  • Map of Heideveld
    She spent most of her time in Heideveld, a poor suburb about 10 miles east of Cape Town.
  • Scott playing sports with neighborhood children.
    Scott, a softball player, interned through Student-Athletes Abroad, a Willamette alumni-founded international education program. Student-Athletes Abroad, as well as program partner Great Commission United Academy in Heideveld, believe in using sports as a community building tool.
  • Scott on safari
    On the weekends, Scott and other student athletes went on educational tours but had some opportunities for fun, like going on a safari.

On a playground outside of South Africa’s most violent city, Olivia Scott ’20 was overseeing elementary students at an after-school program when a gang of young adults approached a house several yards away. 

Luckily, nothing happened — the group got what they wanted and broke apart – but that isn’t always the case. Adolescent and teen crime is high in Heideveld, a poor suburb east of Cape Town, where 1 in 12 children join a gang. 

Scott interned in Heideveld this summer for Great Commission United Academy, an after-school program founded by reformed gang member Mario van Niekerk. As Scott cared for the children that day, she realized they have no escape from violence — even on a playground. 

“As soon as you’re born, you’re going to see gang activity,” she said. 

Tutoring, feeding and serving 

Preventing youth violence through education and extracurricular activities is a key focus of GCU, so Scott’s internship required a broad mix of hard work, community service and leadership.

One of 12 student athlete volunteers, Scott, a softball player, tutored children, fed the community and played organized sports — a fun way for kids to be physically active and distracted from the streets. On the weekends, she toured places like the Robben Island prison that held Nelson Mandela and District 6, a former community of freed slaves and immigrants torn apart by apartheid in the 60s and 70s. 

Much of her energy was spent on projects supporting a better future for GCU. She co-authored a 26-page manual for new coaches — counseling Heideveld children is particularly challenging because of the impact of gang violence and drug use on their mental health — and raised funding for a playground fence. 

A new sexual assault center is being developed by GCU as well as more therapy for the after-school program. Heideveld’s need for both cannot be overstated. South Africa’s rate of sexual violence is the highest in the world, and Scott heard firsthand how one girl’s rape was so harmful, both the mother and daughter need therapy. There are maybe one or two counselors who are available to help the entire community, she said. 

Next steps

Before the internship, Scott planned on using her psychology major to pursue a career in criminal rehabilitation or sex offender treatment therapy. Now she’s changed her mind, she said. 

“It opened my eyes to another avenue I could take with my education — working with children and also preventing people from falling into the criminal justice system in the first place,” she said. 

Scott also hopes the internship won’t be her last experience with South Africa. Two weeks after she returned home, she said she’s already thinking about how she can go back.

Willamette connection

GCU is a partner of the international education program Student-Athletes Abroad, which was founded by Grant Leslie ’10 MBA’10 and Josh Erickson ’07 MBA’10.

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