Celebrating 60 years of care

Care centre for the frail at the Helen Keller Society.

The Helen Keller Society in Pinelands, which provides accommodation and care primarily for people who are blind, visually impaired and hard of hearing, is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year.

The society is registered as a non-profit organisation and is dependent upon the generosity of both individuals and the public sector for financial support. It employs 55 staff members who work tirelessly to provide a good service while its 182 loyal volunteers also plays a big role in uplifting the morale and spirits of the people living there.

Their longest serving volunteer, Norma Christopher, 83, has helped the society for 33 years and has been living in the independent living section at the society for the past 10 years.

Ms Christopher initially assisted with collecting funds through tin collections in the mid-1980s to the 1990s. She also began working in the bookstore at the society in the early 1980s and is still doing so today.

Books are donated by the public along with other useful items such as clothing, furniture, linen and white elephant items. These are sorted, marked and sold at the society’s annual fund-raising fete at the end of October each year. The fete is their main fund-raiser.

Through her volunteer work, Ms Christopher has also recruited a number of her friends who have become volunteers – some of them for more than 20 years.

“I never wanted to come here, though I am happy to be here, as it is nice to live in a place where the people care,” said Ms Christopher.

One of these people is Matron Jackie Grieve, who has worked at the organisation since 1990, managing all the nursing staff, liaising with the residents and handling all accommodation enquiries.

Even though Ms Grieve has herself developed macular degeneration in recent years, it has not stopped her from carrying out her duties at the society.

Another resident Ms Pam Redman, 88, who developed macular degeneration 10 years ago, said she is happy living there and it is her “home”. She interacts with other residents, she attends prayer meetings and receives many visitors.

When American author, political activist, and lecturer, Helen Keller, who was the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree, visited South Africa in 1951, she appealed for building funds for a hostel for blind working women in Cape Town. The present Helen Keller Society site was acquired from the City Council and in 1957 the hostel’s foundation stone was laid.

Within a few years additional accommodation was required and in the 1960s a two-storey annex was added at the rear of the original building, incorporating a craft room and sick bay. The enlarged hostel then accommodated 40 residents. In the 1980s the veranda of the sick bay was enlarged and rooms were converted into wards, increasing the accommodation to 44.

In 1992 the Helen Keller Hostel became independent of the Civilian Blind Society and in 1993 it acquired an adjoining piece of land from the Pinelands Municipality.

The Helen Keller Cottages were designed for independent living and completed in 1995. In 1996 the hostel adopted a new constitution whereby its admission criteria was amended to allow for persons over the age of 60 and retired persons, in addition to the blind and visually impaired. The word “hostel” was dropped from the name and it became known as the Helen Keller Society.

Today the Helen Keller Society offers independent living in its cottages, assisted living in its home, and full nursing care in the care centre.

The society’s low vision community services outreach, which started in 1998, hosts nine support groups throughout the Western Cape for the visually impaired, and runs monthly eye clinics at Eersterivier, Tygerberg and Groote Schuur hospitals, as well as at the Athlone School for the Blind. The staff complement consists of two occupational therapists, one of whom has worked in low vision for over 25 years, and a social worker, who has worked in the department for more than 30 years.

However, it is not just about care and no fun for the residents. There are vibrant entertainment programmes and shows that are offered each week, as well as occupational therapy classes. There are many activities run by volunteers, some of whom are residents, which include a debating group, reading, shopping, the knitting group and many more.

The Rustenburg Girls’ High School has been running a visiting programme for the residents for many years. The society’s ministry committee attends to the spiritual needs and organises various church services and prayer meetings for its residents.

To further mark its 60th anniversary, the society will host a celebration and awards ceremony next month for staff, volunteers and community members who have loyally served the society for more than 20 years.

The society can be contacted at 021 531 5311 or email

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