It all began with a cup of tea.
“Never underestimate the power of Earl Grey” chuckles Nikki Brighton as she recalls her first meeting with Con Roux, commercial manager of N3TC. Unsure quite how to entertain corporate city types, she set the tea tray with a colourful mish-mash of tea cups, put the kettle on and decided to wear shoes.
A year or so earlier, Nikki had been asked by the Midlands Meander Association to ‘do something’ with a small grant for their newly conceived social responsibility programme. “I think they were sick of me asking how much paper was used to produce the annual guide and disrupting meetings with requests for donations to plant trees.” she says. “To be honest I was a bit daunted. I was a crafter, and used to spending my days painting fabric and being friendly to customers who ventured to the top of our hill”.
Trying to spend the money as sensibly as possible, she soon realised how huge the need for creative education in local schools was and was pleased when a mutual associate put her in touch with N3TC who were also just starting out on their CSI path. The Midlands Meander Education Project (MMAEP) and the N3TC Touching Lives programmes have blossomed alongside one another over the past seven years.
While the Meander was, at heart, committed to building community, limited funds meant that the programme would have had little impact without the annual grant from N3TC. Nikki is extremely grateful for the opportunity this provided her to contribute to local communities in a meaningful way. “Although, I didn’t think of myself as a leader and was not sure I had the necessary skills to run this project, I soon realised that leadership was more about inspiration and right action.” A great team grew organically, in response to the needs of schools. New talents and fresh ideas were incorporated constantly and ensured that the Midlands eco-magic just kept on spreading.
The project began with a focus on environmental education and tourism programmes in schools but it soon became apparent that a more holistic approach was necessary. Food gardens and creative lessons were added. Later, after observing the trauma many children face, the programme responded to address these issues too, with values based lessons, ‘quiet time’ in class and trauma counselling. “We couldn’t really expect a hungry or abused child to care about dogs and frogs and trees” comments Nikki. More recently, school libraries have become the focus of attention.
Being part of the creative Midlands Meander meant that things could be, and were, done differently. To create an unforgettable impression, facilitators become “Bugs” dressed in colourful costumes on special days and use brightly coloured magic hats to inspire and enthuse the learners and teachers. A philosophy that learning should be fun was the cornerstone of Bug activities, as there is no doubt that happy people learn better and are able to contribute more to a happy planet.
Nikki is renowned for remembering everyone’s names and teacher’s birthdays and sending cheerful greetings. “I believe it is the small things which really count. Often the little things add up to something big.” The MMAEP set an example of treading lightly on the planet -reusing paper, recycling everything, promoting food produced without harm and limiting travel.
Brendan Grealy, Board member of the MMA comments: “Nikki might say she wasn’t sure of her abilities, but the success of this project belies that. If something is working, it’s right. There are no rules. Fundraising is not an easy task, but funders are enchanted by the magic which surrounds the project and there is more money coming in than going out. Facilitators have grown in confidence and capability with new opportunities – many started out as volunteers, as Nikki did herself. I think it is an innovative business model and should be studied to help others avoid reinventing the wheel. Why do we have to do things the old way?”
Thami Sokhela, Principal of Nottingham Road Combined School adds “I remember when I met Nikki and I complained that our vegetable garden was too wet. I was so surprised when she said that we were lucky to have a wetland in the school and all we needed to do was move the garden! Our school is different now and it is all through the Bugs. You made us famous with newspaper articles about our achievements and now so many organisations are involved in our school. It is amazing how the Bugs can just make wonderful things happen – wherever they touch, gardens turn green. I have even planted the flowerbox in front of my office with spinach now. You have inspired us as teachers to do better, ngiyabonga my sister.”
Nikki believes that livelihood should embrace building wealth in one’s community, not only personal wealth. Since relinquishing the role of head Bug, she has time to give to other organisations – mostly the Midlands Conservancies and the Dargle Local Living initiative. A firm believer in ‘local is lekker’, she aims to protect biodiversity, increase food security and build resilience in her community so they will be better able to adapt to the challenges which climate change will bring.
Nikki also thinks she is the luckiest person on the planet – being part of a caring community, growing food, walking across the hills with her dog Dizzy and, of course, drinking tea on her verandah every day.