In 2013 Jaco van Schalkwyk founded The Character Company, an NPO with a mission to change SA’s culture of gender-based violence, corruption and abuse.
Fixing families and building communities
‘I looked at the world around me and realised: we’re dealing with the side effects of absent fathers. That’s what we need to fix.’ And so The Character Company, with its mission to raise boys to be good men, was born. 'Our big focus is to get boys to grow up differently,’ says Jaco. ‘To look at society differently – and to act.’
Through its mentorship programme for young boys (aged five to 10), The Character Company runs weekly activities for small groups, weekend activities for all the groups and families, and camps throughout the year. The organisation also offers support structures for single mothers, and advocates for better treatment of women and children. All mentors are guided by other mentors in the organisation, and all teach and share the same value system, based on respect, honesty, self-discipline, courage and kindness. (Read more on becoming a mentor.)
Walking the talk
‘The five-year-olds in our programme now have this value system, and know how to apply it. Moms and schools tell us that when these become part of the boys’ lives, it’s what they live and do every day. The success of that is phenomenal.’
The ideal is that the boys grow up and become mentors themselves. ‘We build accountability and create a healthy environment,’ says Jaco. ‘Positive masculinity is bestowed by positive masculinity. We reinforce that message. Not just by talking, but by doing.’
Inside the programme boys are growing up into young men, learning to speak up and to listen, to help others and to ask for help. Some results are more measurable: gaining confidence socially, improving and excelling academically, and winning scholarships to top schools.
Recently one of the boys was in a challenging situation, and he phoned his mentor to ask for advice and support. ‘If you ever want to know if the programme works, this is it,’ says Jaco. ‘This kid had someone who he could phone, to share something that was having a meaningful impact. We could also escalate it to the moms’ support structure, have a conversation with his mom, and provide security in his life.’
Raising funds to raise men
The Character Company is a registered non-profit and public-benefit organisation. It has long-standing medium-sized donors who support it on a monthly basis, but the bulk of funding comes from small donations. ‘We approach a huge number of people to sign up for various initiatives for small amounts,’ explains Jaco.
One of their recent campaigns, for example, is Bthat1, which asks for just R72 a month. ‘[For fundraising] you have to juggle the amount of work that goes into the administration, versus the risk, versus the return of that investment. So for us the best is having a large number of donors who give small amounts, and keeping that number growing.’
But there’s no end point, which makes raising money – and the work itself – that much more difficult, explains Jaco. ‘Typically, people want to support something that is easy, that can be measured quickly, to put in their annual report. Something that shows immediate results. But you don’t graduate from this process. You can’t do a six-month course on how to deal with an absent father. It has to be long-term, and it has to be intentional.’
Finding new ways to connect
How has lockdown affected things for an organisation built on community and connection? The pandemic has had a huge impact on children, says Jaco. ‘Lockdown has been a time when our boys needed us the most, but we were not allowed to get to them. Having to cancel camps has been devastating.’
But social distancing has opened some doors, too. The Character Company updated its monitoring system, so mentors can continue doing evaluations and feedback sessions with boys online or by phone; mentors can now visit others’ group sessions on Zoom; and new mentors can be remotely screened, vetted and inducted, and start their own groups.
‘With the programme, we’re not saying there’s no chance of something going wrong, but we’re putting that boy on a different path, one with more choices, opportunities and support.’
‘It’s opened up a different way of doing things,’ admits Jaco. ‘While online mentoring will never be the first prize – like sitting around a fire, playing ball in the park, a hand on a shoulder – we can’t say there’s no other option.
'We’re also working on an online initiative. We have many enquiries from moms with boys who are older than 12, or in places far away where we don’t have mentors yet. Without something like an online tool we’re missing a generation; that’s what keeps me awake at night.’
The idea is that it will give boys across the country access to mentorship and perhaps even discussion groups. Jaco is hoping that it will open up opportunities for dads and their sons to connect, and for dads to ask for advice from other fathers.
The meaning of mentorship
Founding the company has been a deeply personal journey for Jaco, who grew up without a positive male role model himself. ‘It has helped me more and more to understand the challenges of growing up with an absent father,’ says Jaco.
‘Imagining if I had a mentor in my life who was prepared to be there and be real, and how that could have made things different for me. Considering that helps me to understand the gaps, hurt and real challenges. If I can avoid that for just one kid in our programme, it would be worth it.
‘I have a deep appreciation for the privilege to be able to serve in this space. I get to camp, take hikes. I get to have deep conversations; I get to see lives change.
‘With the programme, we’re not saying there’s no chance of a boy making wrong decisions, but we’re putting that boy on a different path, one with more choices, opportunities and support. We want to teach our boys the consequences of what we decide to do in this life. We have to have the courage to consider those, we have to shoulder them, but we don’t have to do it alone.'