Manager of the Jabez Aids Health Centre Goodwill Featherstone doesn’t know where his name came from, having not known his mother at all and his father only when he had become an adult himself, but he’s very thankful for the name and the guidance it has given him throughout his lif
Manager of the Jabez Aids Health Centre Goodwill Featherstone doesn’t know where his name came from, having not known his mother at all and his father only when he had become an adult himself, but he’s very thankful for the name and the guidance it has given him throughout his life. Here he tells his story of a boy from poverty who built a life for himself and his family through discipline and motivation.
I grew up with my grandmother in the location in Grahamstown, speaking Afrikaans and Xhosa. I went to St Mary’s Primary School where I was an altar boy, and then went to Mary Waters High School. I left in Standard 7, Grade 9.
My grandmother died when I was 10 or 11 and then my aunt who also lived with us and her six children brought me up. Nothing really changed after my grandmother died, except that we were much poorer. My aunt had always sold booze and then she had to become more aggressive about it because it was our only income. On Fridays I had to go and collect the money from those who bought the alcohol on credit.
I always struggled at school. I had no shoes, no uniform, and only one tie the wrong colour – yellow, and at school they called me “yellow tie”. I couldn’t compare with the other children, who were dressing well, having toys and bikes. We hardly had anything to eat and every day all we had was some bread and some italmodogo/ital drink. It was very hard.
My aunt was strict about cleanliness in the house and both the boys and the girls had to do all the same jobs. She was involved with a man from Port Elizabeth who was a tailor who used to come here to Grahamstown and visit her. He asked me if I wanted to go to PE to work, and at 16, that’s what I did. I left school and lived in PE for the next 25 years.
In PE I spoke only Afrikaans so I ended up with both Xhosa and Afrikaans as strong languages for me. I wanted ambulance work, I decided – the uniform, the siren, lights, macho image, and saving people. It was my dream job. It took me until I was 25, but I made my dream come true. I didn’t get in the first time and then I learned hard and prayed hard, and eventually became a junior ambulance officer.
One year later I was promoted to senior ambulance officer after an intense three months in Cape Town studying the paramedic course. I loved the work. I loved helping people and looking after them, taking them for treatment. I got another promotion to assistant officer in charge of the Port Alfred area for two years and then a managerial position came up and I was encouraged by my bosses to apply for it. I applied and I got it and moved back to PE.
After only two months I was sent to Grahamstown to replace the person in charge there and the position was offered to me permanently in 1992. It felt great to come back – to be in charge of all the ambulances in the whole area. I was 43 years old. I felt I could be a mentor to others who, like me, had grown up hard and poor.
They would be able to see that you don’t have to stay in those circumstances if you have discipline and motivation.
I couldn’t bring myself to go back to ‘O’ Street, though. I didn’t want to go back. I had married a nurse in PE and we had a child, a boy who’s 23 now, but my wife had a job in PE and she stayed there and I went home on weekends. In Grahamstown I boarded with her sister in the coloured area for two years until my wife found work at Settlers’ Hospital and moved to Grahamstown. The Group Areas Act was still in force and I had to get permission to buy a house in town. We still live there.
In 1994 apartheid ended and in 1995 people started dying. The ambulances weren’t well serviced, there was an equipment breakdown, no proper co-ordination and the ambulances began failing to provide a proper service. Taxis began overturning. I was in charge and I’d get to the scene in my own car and be first on the scene. But then another 10 people would be dying and there were no vehicles.
By 2000 I was stressed and depressed. I felt so guilty. People were dying because of our failure. I couldn’t take the daily guilt anymore and I medically boarded out. To this day when things start going wrong for me it reinvigorates my guilt. I feel responsible.
In 2004 I started the Medlife Private Ambulance Service to fill the gap. I had three ambulances including a response vehicle. Pastor Smit, who started the Jabez Aids Health Centre in 2004 as an outreach project from the Assembly Church, had phoned for an ambulance for a client but none had arrived. He rang me and asked if I could I help. I said I’d assist for no pay. I could see he was struggling.
Private businesses were supporting him with bread and food. I assisted through 2004 and in 2005 he asked me to be a board member. I thought about it, attended one meeting and then joined. They had applied for funding from the government but the project had no proper managerial structure and no policies. The funding depended on those things being in place.
Netcare bought my ambulance service in 2006, and I stopped serving on the board in 2007 and began managing Jabez. In that year I did a course in PE, one week in every month, learning about capacity building of home-based care.
2007 was a tumultuous year with conflict between the community and Pastor Smit, and the need to turn the programmes into ones with sound policy bases and a proper managerial structure. In the five years since then we’ve achieved a lot. We have 27 care workers, including some co-ordinators and a nurse.
We have fairly regular funding through the provincial health department for 17 of these positions, as well as some funding through the provincial social development department for the remainder, but everyone is only paid a stipend.
We all work here voluntarily, you could say, and we are driven by passion and commitment for people who need support, health care, health education, and life education in meeting the challenges caused by HIV/Aids primarily, but by anything really that makes a person vulnerable. Our basic principle is that we will service whoever needs us. Orphans and vulnerable children can come from any home where circumstances make them vulnerable to social and emotional breakdowns, and who are not coping.
I’ve had another dream for some time now and we’re near the start of it. We have some fenced land near here in Extension 9, which we bought from the municipality for next to nothing, so we could expand our service. My complete dream sees a bakery and an old age home on that land, offering employment to many local people, a safe and loving home for the old people who have no one to care for them and a bakery that will produce fresh bread every day for local people who may have little else to eat in the harder times of the week and the month.
The bakery will be here, in the location, so that the people can buy locally and buy while it’s fresh. This business will also create local employment. It would help the whole area to start to feel that it can get on top of its conditions causing hunger and hardship.
I have the plans for the old age home pinned up on my wall, and since they were drawn up I’ve had the idea to add the bakery onto them. I’d like to start with the bakery because it will be a business making a profit and that profit can be put into the building of the old age home. We can in this way begin to be self-sustaining.
This dream needs money from donors and the government to make it happen, and it needs time from me to do all the development work. I have little time though, since we can’t afford a driver at Jabez and I do all the driving, which is a lot – dropping the care workers off to their areas every morning, Monday to Thursday, and then picking them all up again in the afternoon and dropping them back near their homes.
The driving makes me tired and takes time from my other duties, but it just has to be that way for now. I am tired and disheartened now, after five years of struggling and fighting and making do with so little and asking the care workers to also do with so little while they give so much and have little for themselves in their own homes.
I feel guilty about this too, because I have more than they do in their homes. I’m not sure how much longer I can do this without the next level dream coming along to help me to see that we are getting somewhere, and we are making a difference.