By Sherrie Negrea
Liz Ngonzi, MMH ’98 was running her own fundraising business in New York when she learned that a nonprofit in South Africa was looking for someone to lead its U.S. office. So she flew to Johannesburg in August 2014 to see firsthand what the international organization, Afrika Tikkun, had accomplished.
In Alexandra, one of the poorest townships in South Africa, she visited an Afrika Tikkun center that serves nearly 1,200 children in structured activities, including games and arts and crafts, and afterschool programs. She attended the school’s annual Sport Day, which attracted 4,000 spectators to youth competitions in dancing, soccer, and netball.
Liz Ngonzi, center, with children at Sport Day
“Imagine what it’s like living in an environment where you’re constantly reminded by somebody that you’re worth nothing, and then you compete in this event, and you’re great. Just that one day could give you the spark to strive for and eventually realize your goals,” Liz said. “Just seeing them running around and competing, I thought, ‘I want to be part of this.'”
Two months later, Liz was hired as the CEO of Afrika Tikkun USA to build the nonprofit’s presence in the United States and to raise money for its programs, which last year served 19,000 children in South Africa. With more than 20 years of experience in marketing, sales, entrepreneurship, teaching, fundraising, and public speaking, she saw the position as a perfect match for her skills.
“I realized that every single thing I had done to that point had prepared me for this opportunity,” said Liz, a native of Uganda who moved to New York when she was four. After graduating from the United Nations International School, she earned a bachelor’s degree in information systems from Syracuse University and a Master of Management in Hospitality from Cornell.
Afrika Tikkun—tikkun means “healing” in Hebrew—was founded in 1995 by the late Cyril Harris, who was then chief rabbi of South Africa, and by Bertie Lubner, a leading South African Jewish philanthropist, to address the consequences of decades of apartheid. The nonprofit developed a holistic “cradle to career” model that offers services to infants through adults in five high-quality community centers throughout the country.
photo: Laura Nielsen
Preschoolers can attend daylong programs in the centers, where they learn motor, literacy, and numerical skills and receive three meals a day. Children from ages six to 14 arrive at the centers after school to receive homework help in computer labs and libraries. They also have the option of studying an instrument or practicing a sport as a means to learn leadership, teamwork, and goal-setting. Older adolescents enroll in career readiness training in the Afrika Tikkun Services program to prepare them for jobs in hospitality, finance, and information and communications technology.
“It’s a proven model and something we’ve been refining for 20 years,” said Liz. “One of the things that excited me about it was that it can be replicated in Uganda and Rwanda and Tanzania and beyond, because youth unemployment is a challenge on the whole continent.”
In South Africa, the youth unemployment rate for 2015 is 52 percent—the sixth-highest jobless rate for young people in the world, according to a January report by the International Labor Organization.
“Our whole reason for being is to support these kids,” Liz said. “We’re here to be of service to them. And that is one of the things I learned about at SHA—service.”