Portrait of a Hero: Thulani Madondo

Updated 5:30 PM ET, Tue November 27, 2012
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Thulani Madondo struggled as a child growing up in the slums of Kliptown, South Africa. Today, his Kliptown Youth Program provides school uniforms, meals, tutoring and after-school activities to 400 children in the community. "We're trying to give them the sense that everything is possible," he said. Jonathan Torgovnik/Reportage for CNN
Kliptown, a district in Soweto, South Africa, has long suffered from high rates of unemployment, crime and school dropouts. But Madondo's program is helping to change things. "There are more than 10,000 children in the community, so working with 400 might seem like nothing," Madondo said. "But if (they) are dedicated ... we can make a difference." Jonathan Torgovnik/Reportage for CNN
Madondo grew up in a family of nine, and financial pressure forced all his older siblings to drop out of high school. "We didn't want to see other young people going through what we'd gone through: no uniforms ... feeling hungry in class," Madondo said. Jonathan Torgovnik/Reportage for CNN
Madondo washed cars and worked as a stock boy to earn money so he could become the first member of his family to graduate from high school. But he couldn't afford to go to college. "It was hard. ... You feel like you have no power over your future," he said. Jonathan Torgovnik/Reportage for CNN
A tutor works with students in the after-school program. Students and their parents have to sign a contract saying the child will stay in school and attend mandatory tutoring sessions twice a week; in exchange, KYP agrees to provide uniforms, books and school fees. Jonathan Torgovnik/Reportage for CNN
Madondo spends time with volunteers who prepare food for children in the program. The organization opens the doors to its headquarters every weekday at 7 a.m. to hand out sandwiches for students to take to school. Jonathan Torgovnik/Reportage for CNN
At 2 p.m., when students flood through the gates after school, everyone gets a hot meal. Jonathan Torgovnik/Reportage for CNN
"Thulani's big smile and energetic character are infectious," photographer Jonathan Torgovnik said. "He is their hero and a symbol of hope in a place ruled by unemployment, violence and poverty." Jonathan Torgovnik/Reportage for CNN
It's not always work for children in the program. On Fridays and Saturdays, students play sports or enjoy cultural activities like drumming or dancing. Jonathan Torgovnik/Reportage for CNN
Teachers report that the group's members have increased confidence, greater participation in class and better grades. Over the past four years, nearly every member has passed his or her matriculation exams. Jonathan Torgovnik/Reportage for CNN
Madondo holds his son at the Kliptown center. Jonathan Torgovnik/Reportage for CNN
"It was amazing to see Thulani interacting with the children and the respect they have for him," photographer Torgovnik said. "They know that with his help, they can fulfill their dreams. He's very demanding of them, and they respect that." Jonathan Torgovnik/Reportage for CNN
Madondo believes that each student who succeeds is paving the way to lift their family and their community out of poverty. The program provides some financial assistance for higher education, and it also tries to help members find internships or jobs. Jonathan Torgovnik/Reportage for CNN
Madondo is passionate about his "Kliptown helping Kliptown" philosophy. "Helping them, I feel excited," he said. "We want them to realize there's something they can contribute to this world." Jonathan Torgovnik/Reportage for CNN