As a little boy, Darren Hartlief dreamed of only one career path –  to become a teacher.

Every afternoon after school, he’d return home and immediately get lost in a make-believe classroom of his own.

“I’d gather bricks in the backyard, place them all in a row, give each one a name and ‘teach’ them all the lessons I’d learned at school that day,” Darren recalls with amusement.

While his dream didn’t play out quite the way he imagined, Darren believes that his job as youth worker at Salt and Light Kids in Paarl has sent him on an even better trajectory.

Saved by the (church) bell

“When I got to high school and saw how many of my acquaintances were getting involved with bad things, the idea of becoming a teacher no longer appealed to me,” Darren says. “I saw how my teachers struggled with the kids in their classrooms and I didn’t want to have to do that.”

Growing up in the Drakenstein Weg community outside Paarl, where poverty and unemployment are rife, it is not unusual for children to get involved with drugs, alcohol and gangsterism from a young age. In many cases, this offers them a sense of worth and identity that they are unable to get elsewhere.

When asked how he escaped these pitfalls so many of his peers had succumbed to, Darren cites an active involvement in church activities as his saving grace.

“Growing up, my whole life revolved around church. I never missed a Wednesday night prayer meeting. Isang in the choir, attended Sunday school and was always involved with youth ministry,” he says. “Even now, I sing in our church’s worship band and am also one of the team leaders.”

Working through a painful loss

It is also this strong sense of community combined with a close-knit family that helped carry Darren through one of the darkest periods in his life so far, the death of his beloved father.

For Darren, the day will forever be etched in his mind – 10 September 2012. He was midway through his Grade 11 exams, which are crucial for tertiary education applications, and he had a very challenging history paper coming up.

“On the day my dad died, I went to school and managed to get through it quite peacefully,” he recalls. “But when I got home and had to start studying, I just couldn’t do it.”

Sitting at his desk, he stared at the words running across the pages of the history textbook in front of him, but simply couldn’t make any sense of them.

“Eventually, I just started writing one sentence and then another and somehow managed to get my studying done.”

In is determination to pass his exams and graduate from high school, Darren was able to work through this tragedy. But not without the loving support of those around them.

Blessed with a large extended family, Darren, his mother and three brothers were never without a helping hand, an encouraging word or arms ready to receive them in a timely embrace.

Discovering his values and purpose

Despite the challenging circumstances in which he had to complete his last two years of schooling, Darren graduated successfully and set off into the wide world of after-school studies.

After trying his hand at one or two courses that weren’t quite the right fit, a friend suggested that Darren sign up for a three-month training course at one of Valcare’s member organisations, First Step Academy.

During the first two months of the course, the students attended classes covering a variety of topics: from what to wear to a job interview to setting up a good CV.

“From his first day here, Darren showed himself to be a leader,” says Karini Viljoen, Managing Director of First Step Academy. “Being a spontaneous person, he doesn’t shy away from sharing his opinions. He’s also an excellent team player who inspires others to participate.”

For Darren, learning about his values and the importance of nurturing them in the future was one of the highlights of his time here.

“Basically, each person has five main values they live by. One of the things we did during our time at First Step Academy was find out what each of ours were,” says Darren. “Mine are: gratitude, care, appreciation, love and respect.”

A calling to work with children

Upon completion of their classes, each of the students were placed at different organisations for a month-long internship, which is how Darren ended up at another of Valcare’s member organisations, Salt and Light Kids.

“When I found out it was children’s ministry, I wasn’t that excited. It didn’t really sound like something I wanted to do,” he recalls. “But when I arrived here and we went to our first school, I immediately knew I was at the right place. This is what I had dreamed of as a kid!”

Darren’s internship went so well, that he was offered a job at the organisation afterwards. This year, he is celebrating his third anniversary as part of the team.

“He’s an absolute natural when it comes to working with children and has the knack of balancing fun and discipline,” says Lounel Strydom, Marketing Coordinator at Salt and Light Kids. “The children also relate to Darren easily an see him as a role model in their community.”

Future vision

Working in children’s ministry has also kindled a passion in Darren to continue helping and inspiring young people in his community.

He dreams of, one day, opening a youth centre in Drakenstein Weg that will be a safe haven for those growing up there.

“It will be a place where children can come and do their homework after school, but also where teenagers can come and have fun on weekends,” he says.

Darren envisions Saturday evenings filled with music, dancing, gospel karaoke and even colourful non-alcoholic cocktails.

“Basically what I envision is a club, where everything we do will be in worship of God” he smiles.