Today Tashwell Baartman, 26, is an award-winning firefighter with a ready smile. Yet he might have become a school drop-out had he not encountered The Pebbles Project, which supplies crèches and after-school care to needy Winelands farm communities.
From Grade 10, Tashwell attended a Pebbles After School Club on the Stellenbosch farm on which he grew up: ‘I’d do my homework there every afternoon; the staff would help us. And we’d go on outings with them. It was lekker,’ he recalls.
An outing to the Stellenbosch Municipality Fire Department became a life-changing event. ‘I saw this was a great job – dangerous; I liked it!’ he laughs. ‘You had to be mentally and physically fit, and you needed to have matric, maths and a driver’s licence. I made it my goal to be a firefighter. I was motivated and did my homework every day.’
After passing matric, Tashwell was employed by his Pebbles After School Club as a sports coach for a year while he began volunteering as a firefighter at Stellenbosch Municipality. After five years he was made a permanent staff member, and this year proved his professional mettle by coming second in his age category in the national Toughest Firefighter Alive competition.
To the children on the farm, Tashwell has superhero status. ‘Most of the youth give up school, but now there are six who’ve finished matric. They’ve seen me with my job at the fire department, earning money,’ he says. ‘I tell them, “You must never give up. I never did, and I was glad when I was made a permanent employee. Don’t think that because you live on a farm you can’t get a job. If you get an opportunity, grab it.’