Story and pictures by Garth Johnstone
Every child should be able to enjoy a heart-warming hot meal in winter. Every child needs proper nutrition to grow, learn and prosper. And surely, during difficult economic times, communities should bandy together to ensure that no child goes hungry. Well that’s exactly what Action in Isolation and its star team of volunteers are all about.
The point was driven home, even more so, because I happened to accompany their team to visit two of their projects on a grey, cold day earlier this week, just as a front was approaching KZN. It was freezing, a cold wind was blowing and it was so heartening to see the little ones being dished up a hot meal of stew, plus fruit, milk and yoghurt. Some of them were so small they looked just out of toddling, but, wearing their face masks, they clutched their containers of food and milk with determination, those not too shy sneaking a smile in my direction.
When I asked the founder of Action in Isolation Robyn Gruijters how it all started, she said the foundation was that she and her family had lived in the area for 12 years and she had worked on a number of projects in local communities and had got to know members of the communities relatively well.
“On the 16th or 17th of March when we had the first presidential address on Covid-19 and they announced the school closures, I just knew immediately that if the schools were closed that the nutrition programmes run by the schools would be non-existent. So many kids in these communities are so reliant on their meals at school.”
But most important to Action in Isolation, she said, were the amazing people in the communities who were already running projects, whom she knew she could work with by providing extra support, fundraising, goods and food for cooking to ensure the children did not go hungry.
But more about the nitty gritties of how it all works later and back to my experience of the work being done on a daily basis.
The first stop was Lidgetton, where Nokuthula Dlamini has been running Angel Ruth’s Soup Kitchen in Lidgetton Village. Nokuthula regularly provides 17 children with a nutritious meal three times a week. Since the lockdown began and the school feeding programme went dormant, however, that number has swelled and many of the children will continue coming to Nokuthula for months yet, as the return of different grades to school are phased in.
She is clearly proud of her work and with a warm smile tells me that she is, with assistance from her daughter, cooking for about 80 children each day. They get up at 5am to prepare meals which are served at about 9am.
Every day, with assistance from Action in Isolation and generous donors, each child gets a warm meal (veg, starch and protein), yoghurt, fruit and milk. Once a week, they are each given 2 litres of maas in a container to take home. Nokuthula and Veronica Mnguni, a volunteer from the St Raphael Anglican Church centre in Zenzani Village, near Nottingham Road, are trained care givers and keep an eye out for any health issues among the kids.
On the day we visited, Farm2You was delivering and overseeing the distribution of 2l maas bottles to each child. Co-owner of Farm2You Ali Smeeton and outreach co-ordinator Luthando Ngcobo were on hand to help. Ali said they had converted part of their operation to maas production when lockdown hit and the demand for some dairy products dipped. They also run a training academy for people with disabilities at their property near Midmar.
Julz Norton of Drummond Tor farm was on hand to provide and serve fresh milk to the kids.
The children were all warmly bundled up and waited with great discipline for their meal. Before they started, one by one, to walk up to the soup kitchen and receive the food, they said a prayer together. Some looked nervous, others managed an impish smile here and there. One youngster who had a burn injury was treated by Veronica and Nokuthula, who will continue to check that the wound heals.
Next we moved on to Crystal Springs Creche, near Lidgetton, where Musa and Mpume Zuma help co-ordinate a community creche and feeding scheme that has grown four-fold during lockdown.
When we arrive, Ntombifuthi Duma, Mpume Zuma and Nonkululeko Mthalame are hard at work preparing to dish out a hot meal of fish stew to about 80 kids. Initially there were 20 but the need for a healthy, nutritious meal has taken off with the Covid-enforced lockdown. They have employed Nala Maphanga to assist with security at the creche.
Musa Zuma explained that a farmer had allowed them to build the creche on the land and that there is high demand as many in the community need care for their children when they are at work. As the local primary school is closed at the moment, the need has grown and a lot of the kids have been missing out on a regular meal there.
Robyn said Action in Isolation was trying to find extra funds to improve the facility. The structure is in need of insulation, safe heating and a revamp of the flooring. The building, which has tin walls and roofing, gets very cold in winters. New gas cookers have been provided, so the ladies preparing the meals can work safely.
Piping hot meal
Here the children were boisterous and clearly excited at the prospect of a piping hot meal. Before they each approached the serving table, Musa issued orders to ensure discipline.
Later I asked Robyn to expand on how Action in Isolation worked.
She emphasised the importance of the connections she has built up over years and the acceptance and help she received from key members of the communities they work in.
“I used to work at Michaelhouse and have always been involved in their Community Partnership programmes – I used to run the adult learning programme, I still run their IT training programme (thus work a lot with local schools). So I have got to know a lot of people in schools, but also on an ad hoc basis.”
Robyn, who currently works at Cowan House school and runs the school’s foundation, said she had also independently worked on community projects in the Midlands over the past decade.
“Action in Isolation came about when the schools closed. My main focus right now is that we have to feed the children. It’s a name that people can relate to and connect with on social media and under which we get things done.”
“The name came about when I thought, well what can I do with my own kids while we’re all at home that can benefit our community. It started off with, well, I can make soup and sandwiches, and it’s also a good lesson for my kids. I thought a lot of my friends are in the same boat, so let me get 10 friends and we’ll work together, and it’s grown from there.
Develop a plan for healthy eating during lockdown
“It’s crucial to mention that without existing relationships with key community roleplayers I could never have done this: Veronica Mnguni and Nkosi Mahlaba at Zenzani Village; Nokuthula Dlamini in Lidgetton and Musa Zuma at Crystal Springs Creche. I said to them what do you think, and that I couldn’t do it without them. They know who in the communities most needs the help.”
When she got the green light from Veronica, Nokuthula and Musa, it was time to get going and very rapidly the project swung into action.
In terms of sponsorship it started with soup and sandwiches and has rapidly turned into a broad variety of assistance. “If you offer people a simple avenue to give and show them it is going to the right place, people will give. I really believe that,” says Robyn. “The way people have given has been very varied and all vitally important. Cash donations, donations to trolleys at Spar; goods, fresh produce and dairy from farmers, masks, blankets, even a website.”
The farmers in the Midlands and Mooi River have been amazing, she said.
In some of the food relief initiatives, such as in Rietvlei and Hilton, Action in Isolation has provided advice and connected people but has not always been directly involved with distribution.
“We have to also consolidate and focus on what we can do.”
Transporting items is always a challenge but between Robyn and her volunteers they get the job done. Drop off points in PMB, Hilton, Howick and Nottingham Road have been established. Mooi River Truck Stop has been very generous and assisted with a bakkie and driver, who is available when required.
“Every little bit of help is so necessary and so appreciated. Some people are struggling so much themselves and yet they offer to donate, make meals etc,” she says.
Their main projects are the Lidgetton soup kitchen, which provides meals to 80 children each day; Crystal Springs Creche, 80 children each day; Lions River, where they feed 200 kids, split into 100 per day; Rosetta (Ntuli Farm and some families in railway properties), where 160 people receive a meal three times a week; Zenzani “tin town” – not always food, they often provide nappies, clothing, blankets as well as excess food; in Mooi River they work with structures already in place through the municipality and Lighthouse organisation.
Database of needs
“I have done a lot of work with the Mpofana municipality, through its community workers, to assess the needs of each home, which they are well familiar with. We have now established an accurate database of needs and have set up consistent criteria by which families can be assessed as accurately as possible. The Rietvlei area also falls within the Mpofana municipal area and Action is Isolation provides support to the team out there.”
It also works alongside the Mooi River Farmers and One Life Foundation in supplying The Lighthouse, Bruntville, with items such as masks, sanitisers and groceries. “They are extremely well established and regularly feed hundreds of people each day. We are just providing what support we can to further boost the amazing work they do.”
The work is set to go on for many months yet, while kids remain out of school.
If you’d like to take “Action” and help out in any way, get in touch with Robyn and her team.