Woineshet Bischoff’s big wish for Makhanda is for a recreational area in the city that’s exclusively for children. She was speaking to Grocott’s Mail on the eve of her retirement from 18 years of service at Child Welfare Grahamstown.
“There’s nowhere for children in our town to go and play safely,” Bischoff said. “And that’s so important.”
When she and husband Paul Bischoff move to the Western Cape at the end of the year, it will be her hope that someone takes a children’s park on as a pilot project.
“They should identify a nice place in town, set up a management system that can be replicated in other parts of town.
“More important is for parents and communities to then take responsibility for it and guard it so it’s not vandalised.”
Bischoff has left a valuable legacy in the 18 years she’s been with the organisation.
“We built Child Welfare up from nothing,” she said.
“When I arrived at Coles Lane, there were dilapidated offices with rats running over the social workers’ feet. There were bits of cardboard being used to divide rooms, and an outside toilet.”
Files in the attic went back nearly 100 years.
“We had to sort through all of them: it was particularly important to save all the adoption files.”
The receptionist sat next to the building’s single entrance, with one typewriter and a queue of social workers asking for their reports to be typed “asap”.
Bischoff realised care for the town’s children had to start with caring for the carers. By the time she retires, she will have left a clean and functional office space where each social worker has their own office with a computer where they type their own reports.
In addition, with the support of funders and the community, Child Welfare now has a place of safety for children – the Ikhaya Losizo Cluster Foster Homes – alongside a community pre-school (Nompumelelo) and hall.
“Rhodes students through Community Engagement raised funds to build one of the houses at Ikhaya Losizo. The community helped fundraise for two more.”
Next came three more classrooms and a multipurpose hall.
“The hall was built to be a community resource where parents could come and get skills training to help them support their families,” Bischoff said.
The other enduring legacy Bischoff has left is an organisation with a good image, run by capable and dedicated personnel.
“They are a very good team,” she said. “They are completely committed to their work.” Key to building trust in the organisation is a policy of transparency.
“We are open with the public and our funders, and it works,” she said.
The work can be very tough.
“You see horrible things as a social worker. But what’s worrying is that you become numbed to it.”
It’s the only way to deal with something as disturbing as a child being abused by a sibling, for example.
“You end up having to take the attitude of: “What is the problem and how do we deal with
Social workers in the current health and social support system are all-round problem solvers.
“There’s little backup support available to social workers,” Bischoff said. Ideally there should be a psychologist and/or a psychiatrist as part of the team. Here, a social worker has to be everything.”
It’s crucial not to let that weight drag you down, though.
“Our philosophy is, ‘We do what we can with what we have,” Bischoff said. It’s difficult in an environment where poverty has such a hold.
“We can’t provide a livelihood, housing, money – all the things a community needs to provide a good environment for children.”
Bischoff’s best moments have been seeing children make it in life, despite incredibly difficult beginnings. And the day Ikhaya Losizo opened.
“To see the foster homes completed and the office running well – from where we came from, this is a very happy time to be leaving.”
Bischoff walks to replenish her energy “and it’s my time to think”. She’ll be doing more of that. But she says she will definitely miss the organisation and will probably continue some of the work as a volunteer.
Sue Smailes, Chairperson of the Child Welfare Executive Committee, said, “No words will capture the essence of what Ms Bischoff has been to Child Welfare and we owe her a debt of gratitude.
“After many years of dedicated service to Child Welfare, she has truly earned her well- deserved retirement. She has been an inspirational leader at Child Welfare and I thank Ms Bischoff for all that she has done over the past 18 years. Child Welfare has thrived under her direction. On behalf of Child Welfare, I wish her and her partner Paul all the best in the next chapter of their lives.”
A dream and a vision
Mrs “B” as she is affectionately known by the Child Welfare staff took on the responsibility of a struggling NGO 18 years ago.
Her dream and vision for Child Welfare Grahamstown has always been for the organisation to make a difference in the community and this has been realised through sheer hard work and commitment.
Armed with a passion and determination to match, she quickly channelled her boundless energy into building our organisation. She started with a complete overhaul of our offices as well as the addition of three cluster foster homes, three brand new classrooms for the Nompumelelo Pre-School as well as a community hall in Joza.
Child Welfare has honoured her recently for this and all her fine achievements by naming the Nompumelelo Community Hall after her.
Woineshet’s strength is in seeing things clearly as they are. Her passion and pragmatic approach to life have helped her to follow her heart and her head. She believes in identifying and developing people’s strengths, thereby empowering them to be part of the solutions to the challenges in their lives, an approach which has served us well as we support our clients.
Our organisation has had to endure some tough times over the years and because of the nature of our work, perhaps more tears have been shed than in other ‘normal’ workplaces, but under Woineshet’s leadership, we have learned the value of working as part of a team, appreciating the support of others, and the importance of realising our limitations (“we do what we can with what we’ve got” is one of her favourite sayings).
You will be missed more than you know, Mrs B.
- Kim Wright, Social Work Manager, Child Welfare Grahamstown