Harrison Nash: Award-winning social work in South Africa
Harrison Nash

“I am certainly seeing the socioeconomic challenges here,” says Plymouth graduate Harrison Nash, when he reflects upon life in South Africa. “It saddens me what children are exposed to at a younger and younger age.”

Speaking from his adopted home in Port Elizabeth, Harrison’s words are not those of someone resigned to the hardship and inequality of life in the country, but a reminder of the daily challenges he faces in his work with children and teenagers. For, since 2012, the BSc (Hons) Social Work alumnus has been using all of his skills and expertise to lead developmental, recreational, therapeutic and caring services for the youngsters on behalf of the Maranatha Streetworkers Trust.

“It is a lot of work and long hours with weekends included as I strive to know all the children and keep myself available as a support for all of them,” he says. “I do therapy myself, assist with homework and studying for our older children, and do my own activities with them where possible as well as carrying out home visits to townships and engaging in ongoing fundraising.”

There are around 32 children, aged between 5 and 19, at the residential youth centre in Port Elizabeth, called Siyakatala, where Harrison is part of the management team. Many have been removed from their homes for their own safety; others have been orphaned or were found begging on the streets. In most cases, Siyakatala will work to find family members for the children to stay with, but for many, the centre is their home.

Through the centre, the children attend weekly scouts and cadets sessions; learn to swim, dance and carry out life-saving techniques; and undertake musical and occupational therapy, in addition to receiving counselling and remedial therapy. The boys can play for the football team in a local league, and there are group outings as well.

“Of course there can be challenges with children addicted to substances, for example,” says Harrison, “but we work holistically and have seen some incredible success stories. And I have been blessed to have friends come and volunteer, because it is wonderful to have new role models for the children – we desperately need that input.”

Harrison says:

I have been blessed to have friends come and volunteer, because it is wonderful to have new role models for the children – we desperately need that input

Harrison first developed ties with South Africa in 2007 when he volunteered as a teacher and activities coordinator during his gap year in order to “broaden his horizons”. It proved a transformative experience.

“I was struck by these children so much, especially having never worked with kids before that point,” he says. “Their resilience and zest for life, despite all they had been through, resonated so deeply with me.”

A second gap year followed, and a rethink of his degree plans: marketing was supplanted by social work so that he could use his skills directly to benefit the people. During the first year of his degree, Harrison founded the Maranatha Care Children charity to help fundraise for some of the projects he had been involved with, such as Protea Primary and a new community project in a rural area of Nieu-Bethesda. And he also supplemented his degree with training on play therapy and other counselling techniques.

He says: “As a newly qualified social worker leaving university with statutory placement experience at Plymouth City Council behind me, I knew that I had many opportunities locally. But I still felt my passion would be to make a difference in an international context, and so I threw caution to the wind, sold my car, and relocated. In the first instance, it was obviously a challenging decision and transition.”

Harrison has since developed what he describes as a “wonderful support network of friends”, with whom he socialises on a weekly basis. His parents also flew out to see him last Christmas, and took part in celebrations at the youth centre. And his work has earned him recognition at the highest level, as in January 2016 he was presented with the British Citizen Award, an honour which left him “truly overwhelmed”.

“Since being in South Africa I have been able to share in many amazing experiences with the young people I work with on a daily basis, and they are the real heroes,” he says. “My most valuable achievements are seeing the development of such children who came from the worst circumstances imaginable to actually become successful independent adults in their own right.

“So yes, there are great challenges,” Harrison adds. “Yet at the same time, I have seen young people go on to function so well in society, which shows you that there is always hope. They are the ones who will shape the future of the country.”

Inspired by this story?

For more information about studying social work, please visit our BA (Hons) Social Work course page. For more information about our range of health profession courses within the School of Health Professions, please visit the school page.

Want to find similar alumni?

If you would like to find out what other relevant alumni are currently doing, please visit the health and social work interest area.