• Celebrating the gift of giving this Mandela Day - JOCK Dog Food

If it’s true that the greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated, as Mahatma Gandhi once put it, the pupils of Edenglen Primary on Johannesburg’s East Rand represent a tiny universe of animal heroes.

Launched on July 18 in 2009, the annual Mandela Day — or “Nelson Mandela International Day” as it’s formally known — marks the famous South African leader’s birthday and extraordinary lifetime of sacrifice.

To observe his legacy as part of this year’s event, the school’s 1 250 pupils collected donations for organisations across the city. But with so much hardship everywhere in the city, how did they decide which organisations most needed their help?

“We gave the kids a selection list: from organisations dealing with animals to babies, to general social welfare,” says principal Heather Broodryk. “They then had to create a presentation with a speech and poster, advertising why their charity should be chosen.”

“Animals appealed to the little ones,” says Heather. “So we decided that our pre-primary school, as well as grades one and seven, would collect donations for the nearby Edenvale SPCA and other animal shelters.”

Once the parents were notified, it was “full-steam ahead”. But with 500 pupils assigned to the operation, it was no modest undertaking.

“We placed huge boxes in the classrooms, which the kids filled with supplies like biscuits, wet food and blankets,” she said.

It wasn’t long before the class containers started overflowing with dog goodies, and the school’s staff had to heap it all at a collection point in the hall.

“One or two parents even got their companies to sign up,” says Heather — but adds that this “giant effort was all based on the kids’ initiative”.

It was so ambitious, the final offering pile weighed close to 500kg, or several bakkie loads — not only for the local SPCA, but the South African Guide Dogs Association and Paws R Us, an animal-rescue and rehoming group.

“It’s been phenomenal. Our staff actually had to make some of the deliveries before Mandela Day because we couldn’t keep it all on the premises. It was just getting too big,” she smiles.

One delivery was made at the end of June, and the others will be made after the school holidays towards the end of July.

Maureen Robinson of the Edenvale SPCA adds: “The dog food has ensured that each animal got a delicious bowl of food daily during the harsh winter months. Donated blankets have provided cozy spots, helping to give warmth during these cold days and nights.”

One lucky dog who benefited from Edenglen’s entrepreneurial spirit was a “beautiful girl called Dusty”.

“She and her pups had been dropped off in front of the SPCA. They were all very thin, especially Dusty. The donations helped us build her up. Her pups have all found a wonderful home. Dusty is still with us but we feel positive she’ll soon have a home of her own,” says Maureen. “Without public donations, we would be unable to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.”

The 500 participating pupils took to the project “with such heart” that one or two even adopted their own shelter pets.

The SPCA’s motto is ‘Adopt, Don’t Shop’ was taken to heart by Connor in Grade One who adopted two little dogs, including a Jack Russell-type terrier, with his mom’s help. “He was so excited,” says Heather,  “when his class had to do a project on their favourite thing, he chose his new dogs.”

Heather suspects there’ll be more adoptions. “We took a few children for adoption visits, so I’m sure more will be forthcoming once everyone returns to school.”

It’s inspiring to consider the difference a single school can make to the wider community. Edenglen’s Mandela Day drive also collected toys, clothes, toiletries and baby food —“whatever was on that organisation’s priority list” — to social causes at the Johannesburg General Hospital, as well as the Forest Town School Foundation for children with special needs, among others.

Reflecting on how the experience shaped the children’s worldview, Heather echoed an observation by the French poet and novelist Anatole France — that the “soul remains unawakened… until one has loved an animal”.

“The big thing is they weren’t aware of people or animals in need beyond their household. This has created a broader social consciousness. Now they’re volunteering services like, ‘Can we walk the dogs, can we go and pet the dogs, can we clean the cages?’” she comments. “When children immerse themselves in the well-being of animals, it deepens their humanity.

“I’m hoping it won’t stop here. That the experience has inspired them. That the children will continue to give of their time, effort and resources.”

Visit Guidedog.org.za; as well as ‘Paws R Us: SA’ and the Edenvale SPCA’s Facebook pages to support their work.