Not many young people these days think of becoming a plumber. But Daniel Duda did and now he has the world at his feet.
The 23-year-old is preparing to go to Los Angeles to deliver a talk at the Leap Foundation at the University of California, Los Angeles. It is a youth leadership programme where, each year, hundreds of young people from around the world gather to spend a week learning life skills and inspiring one another by hearing each other’s stories.
“Leap’s goal is to help young people from around the world find professional and personal success by teaching them real-life keys to success, such as goal-setting, mentorship, self-motivation, professionalism, and effective communication skills,” reads its website.
Duda is friendly and confident, and smiles and laughs easily. And he has an inspiring story to tell: at the age of 18, he and his younger brother were orphaned. The two of them were taken in by the family of one of his friends from Grade 3. He had to repeat Grade 10, but he found his focus the second time around, and went on to finish matric. He looked at university options but saw nothing of interest, and then considered plumbing as a friend’s father was in the trade.
He took three years to get his certificate, and he will practise as a plumber for the next three years before he plans to open his own business. “At the moment I want to learn everything there is to learn and become somewhat of an expert.”
Life has given him a big share of challenges. He was born in Parkview in Johannesburg, an upper middle class suburb. He lived there with his parents and younger brother, Emmanuel. His mother worked as a house maid, and her employers put the two boys in good schools. But all was not well.
“Life at home was not easy either; my father was abusive and took his frustrations out on us,” he says. After years of this abuse his mother eventually left his father.
He was struck by how his wealthy friends were not satisfied with what they had. He asked himself: “Why did my family sometimes go to bed with no supper on the table, while some of my friends complained because they didn’t like what was on their tables?”
One of Duda’s gifts is that he is very sociable, and is able to make friends easily. But he struggled at school; he says he had “difficulty learning from the beginning”, and had to repeat Grade 1. “I made my way through primary school by the skin of my teeth. When I think back on those days, I realise that I had given up on my school career from a young age. I got into a repetitive cycle where a new school year would start and I would tell myself this year is going to be different. ‘I’m going to try harder than I ever have.’ I would fail from the start and simply give up. I have no idea how I passed Grade 7, but I did,” he explains.
High school offered a new beginning of sorts, and he felt “excited, nervous and didn’t know what to expect”. But he soon felt he was not coping. And to compensate, he got in with the wrong crowd, and started using drugs. “When I think about why I got into that phase, it was partially because of bad influences, but a lot of it was because I wanted to escape all the things I felt I couldn’t cope with. It was the wrong way of dealing with the situations in my life, and it didn’t help.”
He was shocked when he failed Grade 10. Watching his friends move up a grade made him depressed, and worse. “What hurt most was how disappointed my mom was with my failure.” But perhaps it was for the best. It made him re-evaluate his life. “Between all these thoughts, it became clear that a lot of my problems were because of the way I looked at things. I chose to only view the bad side of things, and that made me make even more bad choices. It made me see that I didn’t believe in myself. This led me to the most life-changing choice of my life.”
That choice was to prove to himself that he could achieve what he set his mind to do. “I just had [to] trust in me, and stop giving up so quickly every time I tried something.”
A bad time
So he tackled Grade 10 again, this time asking for help when he needed it, dropping the undesirable friends, and spending his afternoons studying. But it was also a bad time in his life. His mother had become very ill – he had to nurse her, cook meals and care for his brother. She was admitted to hospital and passed away in August 2009, when Duda was two-thirds through the academic year. “It felt unfair to me because I had decided to make her proud of me, to show her that all her sacrifices for me weren’t in vain. I never got the chance to do that. I told myself that even if she was gone, I would still do her proud,” he says.
Despite the upheavals, he passed Grade 10 but had another crisis – finding a place for himself and his brother to live. He was lucky – the family of his friend from Grade 3, Ben, offered the two a home. “I was relieved and so touched that they would even consider to take us in without a second’s hesitation. I owe them so much for what they have done, and are doing for me and Emmanuel to this very day,” says Duda. “It is these moments that have shown me that there are miracles and God-sent people in the world.”
Those people are the Alexander family in Parkview. His foster mother, Mary, says: “Daniel and Emmanuel have been a part of our lives for most of theirs, being good friends of my two sons, who are the same age. When their mom died their prospects were bleak: they had nowhere decent to live, and they were still in high school. It took about half an hour’s discussion on the evening we heard of their mom’s death for the three of us – me and my parents – to decide to take them in. It was the right and only thing to do. And they’re such great kids.”
The loss of his mother
He says it took him a year to adjust to the loss of his mother. “It was very difficult, my brother was 13, and I felt responsible for him.”
But he coped. He finished grades 11 and 12. “I matriculated with marks I never thought I would be able to accomplish, and was so proud of myself. It just made me even more eager and confident to see what else I could do.”
He then explored colleges where he could study plumbing. He found one and started training but was dissatisfied with the institution. At this point he took a bold move. He applied to the Tomorrow Trust, a non-profit organisation that provides educational assistance to orphaned and vulnerable children, encouraging them to become self-sustaining people.
“We believe in a hand up that empowers and emancipates them from poverty rather than a hand out that keeps them entrenched in charity,” says founder and chief executive Kim Normand-Feinberg.
Established in 2005, the Tomorrow Trust focuses particularly on supplementing primary school education, inculcating in children a “passion and respect for education at an early age that will develop these children into academically aware students who will be able to obtain a matric pass that enables them to study a post-secondary degree/diploma”.
The programme involves providing nutritious meals, stationery and course materials, and transport from township schools to host schools in the suburbs. At present there are 870 children participating in the programme, which takes place in the school holidays. A similar programme runs with children from grades 8 to 12.
Its record is impressive. In 2012, 32 students graduated, including three doctors, two accountants, one with a maths science honours degree, one with a BSc geology honours, five with BSc degrees, in computer sciences, actuarial and financial mathematics, biochemistry, regional and town planning, and physical sciences – and, of course, a plumber.
The trust took him on board, paying for his college fees and giving him life skills classes. Normand-Feinberg says of Duda: “He is an exceptional kid. He is committed and extremely mature. He has made up his mind to change his life for the better and nothing will change that. He has overcome major challenges, which shows that he has grown and developed – he has shown all these character traits as we have built a relationship through Tomorrow Trust.”
He switched colleges to one in Soweto, where he excelled. After he qualified he was asked if he would take on teaching a student. Although nervous, he was thrilled that they recognised the effort he had put into his studies. The student did well. He went on to teach six students at the beginning of 2013, and decided that he would one day open his own trade school, where students “would learn to become qualified plumbers, electricians, painters, carpenters, bricklayers, plasterers and so on”.
Along the way Normand-Feinberg gave Duda a challenge: he was to deliver a talk about himself and his achievements to a school audience. He says it took him almost two weeks to write the four-and-a-half page talk. “It was one of the most difficult things to write,” he smiles.
He was videotaped giving the speech and Normand-Feinberg sent the video to the Leap Foundation. Delivering the talk was a very different experience for him. “I got into my own world; I just started talking to the kids.”
He was chosen, together with another three candidates, to go to Los Angeles for two weeks in July and August.
Contact with his father
Duda has re-established contact with his father. When his mother was still alive his father made contact, asking to see his sons. Although his mother hesitated at first, she allowed it, and now he sees his father once or twice a month, and they talk regularly on the phone.
“I respect him and the person he is now. He can learn from his mistakes and what he has achieved,” says Duda. His father has become an entrepreneur, running his own carpet cleaning business.
Alexander says of her adoptive sons: “They’re loving, interesting, clever, funny … Daniel has a way about him that just makes everyone like him. Walking the length of our local shops with him is like being in the company of a celebrity. It’s uncanny: he gets a warm greeting from every second person we pass. It’s not simple charm: he just likes people.”
A powerful force
His mother is still a powerful force in his life. “Everything my mom had done for me – I’m putting my mom to rest, giving her peace.”
He wrote of her in his talk: “She taught me the greatest life lessons that I will never forget. She will live through me and my lineage and every success that I have accomplished and will in the future, is in the deepest thanks to her.”
His involvement with the Tomorrow Trust is ongoing – he will always be a student of the institution. “Once they have been a student of Tomorrow Trust they stay within the fold as alumni. We assist them with coaching, jobs and workshops. They build strong relationships with the other students so a support system is always available,” explains Normand-Feinberg.
Asked what she thinks his most promising qualities are, Alexander says: “He’s a pragmatist. A problem with being young is you often have grandiose expectations of what life will give you. I was like that. Daniel isn’t. He knows life is tough, so he knows he has to plan and work hard to get ahead. His decision to become a plumber is an example of this. When he made the decision, he was at an age when most young people are convinced they’ll become rock stars, investment bankers or bestselling novelists.
“His emotional maturity, his talent with people, will also help him in the years ahead.”
He demonstrates this maturity when he says: “I made choices that led to where I am today. I believe in making one’s own destiny; you’ve got to make the choice. I feel there is no way for me but up, I want to make a mark in my time.”
By: Lucille Davie