TEN minutes with Lizard Nkonzo more than explains why The Mercury Hibberdene Children’s Holiday Home manager Bev Marais believes the project would flounder without his presence.

This 30-something young man began working with LoveLife, the national HIV/Aids youth prevention and education initiative and, in seeing how promoting a healthy, safe lifestyle was positively impacting on people’s lives, knew this was where he wanted to dedicate his life skills.

Several years ago he was working as a sub-contractor for the children’s home, assisting whenever underprivileged children experienced the joys of a seaside holiday. Marais recognised his potential and helped Nkonzo establish Servipro, the company now responsible for the educators who bring to life the school camps held regularly at the South Coast resort.

Working with an eight-strong team, Nkonzo is the guiding light behind the team building, leadership development and recreational activities that fill the children’s days. It is a fair responsibility given the home hosts between 3000 and 5000 children each year for its holiday and off-season camps.

Acknowledging that many of the camps happen outside the school holidays, he firmly believes education should be a principle focus for his charges.

“The key lesson they should take away is that school is essential and securing an education is invaluable,” he says.

Given these are South Africa’s most underprivileged children for whom the concept of a warm, secure home life may be an enigma, it is a powerful lesson he wants to impart. He also says there are fewer joys greater than walking down Durban’s streets to be greeted by cries of “Lizard! Lizard!” because he knows it comes from previous campers.

“One of my greatest challenges is saying good bye at the end of each camp. These children touch my heart – I may not remember all their names, but I never forget their faces, particularly the look of sheer wonder when they view the sea for the first time,” he says.

More honestly, he believes the opportunity to become a short-term father figure to the children is “my greatest reward” as it is his chance to empower the youth both from his community and from across South Africa.

The Mercury Hibberdene Children’s Holiday Home began as an outlet for Great War orphans and has hosted generations of children through its corridors. The annual Mercury Wine Week, this year being hosted at the Suncoast Casino and Entertainment World from August 28-30, raises funds for the home with this year guaranteeing R50000 in sponsorship from ticket sales.

However, the greatest honesty always comes from the youth. Gauteng youngster Thoba Khoza (12) says the time spent under Nkonzo’s guidance taught him respect for elders and the life skills for taking care of those smaller than himself, while 10-year-old Kitumetsi Molake [N1] thought she would “fall into the sea and drown as there was so much water”.

However, her memories on returning home will revolve around riding around the harbour and swimming in the sea, as “that was the best part”.

“Touching the sand for the first time was a thrilling experience, but more special was the feeling of safety and welcome I experienced while in this house,” Khoza says.