One thing stands out from this lockdown period: how community organisations have proven their importance in our society. Despite the limiting but necessary regulations that were instituted by government, community organisations stepped up to offer much-needed poverty relief to those at the most vulnerable positions in our society – the homeless and destitute. One such organisation is the inner city NPO Mould Empower Serve (MES) which has so far provided over 148 000 meals and distributed over 3 000 food parcels to vulnerable individuals and families in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Kempton Park and Port Elizabeth.
Leona Pienaar, CEO of MES says that there have been many new lessons learnt during their lockdown operations. “We made the decision to continue with our operations throughout the lockdown as more and more people came knocking at our shelter doors for assistance, and this has given us the opportunity to learn about ourselves as an organisation, and especially how we are able to achieve a great deal by working together in times of crisis,” she says.
The NPO states that collaboration with the Department for Social Development (DSD), the City of Johannesburg, other NPOs and service providers, individual and corporate donors, has contributed positively and allowed for them to accommodate more homeless people in their shelters.
“In addition to clients we had received prior to the lockdown, more were brought to us by the SAPS and JMPD directly from the streets, and others had recently fallen on hard times due to job losses resulting from the crisis,” says Pienaar.
“Through collaboration with various stakeholders, we have been able to refer some of the people in our shelters to rehabilitation and local clinics for further treatment and have successfully conducted family reunifications for those who could not find their family members for many years!”
Changing operations to keep everyone safe
The Coronavirus COVID-19 has made people more aware of hygienic practices to promote cleaner ways of working and interacting particularly with groups of people. “We have become very stringent on our processes of welcoming people into our shelter, particularly those delivering food parcels and donations – it has been important that everyone coming into our shelter adheres to the lockdown regulations of maintaining social distancing and wearing protective gear.” MES uses a thorough intake process that includes documenting every person and providing a meal, whilst adhering to regulations of maintaining social distance, exercising WHO hygiene practices and wearing protective masks.
Social work services and health screening have been an integral part of the services MES has delivered so far during the lockdown. “Although it has been a challenge to deal with clients who are dependent on substances like tobacco, alcohol and even drugs, they’ve learnt how to maintain order and are doing their best to ensure that the virus does not spread,” says Pienaar. The Western Cape has so far seen the quickest rate of infection across the country and can attest to being the epicentre of the national COVID-19 pandemic. “By working with the vulnerable in Cape Town we have witnessed just how in need our people are and how easily the disease can spread, especially to those who are most vulnerable,” states Pienaar.
MES has been operating overnight shelters that require clients to check in for a small commitment fee of between R15 – R20 for the evening, providing them with a hot shower, warm bed and safety, and allowing them to check out the next morning. However, during this time, they converted into stay-in shelters and waived the commitment fees. “This has been challenging. We have vulnerable people from different backgrounds housed together for weeks, but it has been incredible to see our people learning to be patient with each other, learning new skills and supporting one another,” she explains. Staff continue to play a very important role to ensure this happens. In all the shelters, the clients show their utmost appreciation to the MES staff by writing letters of gratitude. “They take every chance they get to show their gratitude by taking part in the upkeep of the shelter and even writing letters to the staff,” Pienaar says.
It takes a community…
MES started as a faith-based organisation stemming from the Dutch Reformed Church but now include many denominations as partners. Their initial goal was to provide poverty relief to street children in the inner city through feeding schemes combined with outreach programmes to take care of their spiritual, psychological and emotional well-being.
“In all our programmes we ensure that there is not only medical counselling, but also emotional counselling through our social workers and spiritual counselling through our resident Pastors. MES is built on faith in everything we do and we make every effort to help our clients build a spiritual relationship without discrimination and judgement and this is what holds our community together,” she says.
According to Pienaar, most beneficiaries have embraced the lockdown period with such positivity and have started taking part in activities they have never done before such as reading, beadwork, needlework, making their own masks, and playing games. “All of these activities might seem small for you and me, but they are huge milestones for our beneficiaries, as they are unearthing potentials, they never knew they had and they are also developing new hobbies that might help them create better lives after this lockdown period,” she says.
MES made a request for the donation of activity items to help the vulnerable living in the shelters keep busy whilst on lockdown and received a large donation of wool. This led to the start of a knitting project at one of the women’s shelters. “The knitting benefits the ladies at the shelter because they are knitting items for themselves especially for the winter coming up. The nice thing is that they are also knitting some baby stuff for two ladies who are pregnant,” she said. MES has now started buying wool to keep the project going, keep the women motivated, and aims to expand the project to sell the products for the women to make money for themselves, as soon as the lockdown regulations are lifted. Clothing products made by homeless women at the shelter include; scarves, hats, gloves, bags, and jerseys. As the project grows, MES would appreciate a donation of sewing machines to encourage the women to make masks and also to start making more clothing items.
Other donations from unexpected places have also added value to the NPOs relief activities. “We have seen pensioners giving from their already meagre earnings, and people as young as 14 years’ old who have given from their hearts and their allowances,” she says. “With these donations we managed to buy drug replacement therapy, hand sanitizers, clothes, blankets, toiletries and food items so that the destitute can have their medication on full stomachs. The blessing of the financial donations has enabled our teams to be able to pay the fuel costs for pick-ups of donations and the drop-offs of food parcels donated to the needy families we serve,” she adds.
Volunteering is the mark of Ubuntu
Pienaar says that the number of people who came forward to volunteer has been overwhelming. “We thank God for sending us over 55 volunteers in Cape Town alone, who have put themselves out there as first respondents – they cooked and served food, they managed queues of hundreds of street people. They brought love and care,” she says. Furthermore, a shelter client in Port Elizabeth who is an experienced auxiliary nurse has taken on the role of first respondent in the shelter and is said to graciously take care of health screenings for both beneficiaries and staff.
Caroline Pule a medical scientist and aspiring philanthropist, joined the MES volunteer team in Cape Town and admits that serving the destitute is such a priceless blessing. “I never thought I would be brave enough to volunteer especially during the COVID-19 pandemic battle, with the knowledge of how serious the disease is. But I’ve learnt a lot about what it means to have a heart of service, to be selfless and care about the health and well-being of others. We ensure we practice good hygiene and take the WHO precaution measures to safeguard ourselves and those we serve,” said Pule.
“We are especially proud of our Cape Town colleagues who are providing over 1000 meals per day at the MES Safe Space. This mammoth task would be impossible without the volunteers who help us cook, clean, and serve every single day!” Pienaar exclaims.
“As a team we have learnt a lot of lessons through the challenges and the successes we have faced, which we will take into the “new way” of life going forward. On a personal level I have witnessed the humanity and Ubuntu demonstrated by our people regardless of their class and stature and we thank all our donors and supporters for their unwavering support towards MES,” she concludes.