A hero, not a ‘crazy lady’

2017-04-18 06:00
Joanne Chemaly, founder of Thula Thula Hout Bay, is flanked by volunteers who helped after the devastating fires in Imizamo Yethu.

Joanne Chemaly, founder of Thula Thula Hout Bay, is flanked by volunteers who helped after the devastating fires in Imizamo Yethu.

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The volunteers of Thula Thula Hout Bay have been instrumental in helping the victims of the Imizamo Yethu fire in Hout Bay.

This non-profit organisation was born two years ago out of the need to help fire victims.

“A number of times each year, fires across Hout Bay leave many residents with little more than the clothes on their backs. Thula Thula was started by a group of residents who realised that there is a need to be more prepared to offer support when this inevitable tragedy strikes. Our experience as community volunteers over the years has shown us that there is a great need for not only centralised and coordinated collections and distributions, but also, very importantly, residents who generously offer support and donations want to know that their contributions have been given to those in need,” says Joanne Chemaly, founder of Thula Thula Hout Bay.

Through her work Chemaly has just been awarded as Hero of the Month for March by Lead SA. However, she says she is a bit bashful and insists this award is not hers.

“This award belongs to all those who have stepped up and said: ‘How do I help?’ Volunteers that have worked for 15 hours straight in the blazing sun, those who have worked tirelessly for more than a month now. If it wasn’t for the incredible support, I would just be a crazy lady sitting in a garage full of stuff,” she says.

The recent fires left over 15 000 people homeless and four people dead. The fire happened three days after she had a knee operation but that did not stop her from going to help.

“There isn’t a day that goes by that I am not deeply saddened at the thought of the senseless loss of life that occurred in this fire and for those who have lost almost everything, not only physical possessions, but also the sense of ‘home’ and ‘family’ and the basic need we all have to feel safe and secure, as fire has devastating post-traumatic effects on those who have met it face to face.

“Between all this heartbreak and devastation, there are moments of kindness, generosity and the selfless service of others that have moved me to tears,” she adds.

Thula Thula registers fire victims via an app, which allows the organisers to communicate with them via SMS to tell them when and where they will be doing distribution. On those days they send a unique reference number, which needs to be shown at the gate to get access to receive what is being distributed.

She moved to Hout Bay 10 years ago. Chemaly is employed full-time in a management position at a prominent financial institution. She says Hout Bay has changed who she is.

“It changed my view on the world. It has made me see that you don’t have to go far or do much to help someone less fortunate than you,” she says.

She realised that people wanted to help and that as a community they could use that help.

“At the time of a fire donations are dropped at the fire station and police station, two critically important resources that we were wasting to sort through mountains of donations for weeks after the fire. I realised there wasn’t much of a ‘formal’ manner in which fire victims were registered to receive these community donations and wondered if the right people were getting the kind of assistance they needed. Why were we waiting for tragedy and then sorting through donations for toiletries, clothing or grocery items? Why not collect all through the year, in advance? We know we have six to eight fires a year. Why not plan and prepare for the sadly inevitable, which would allow a quicker, more targeted relief offering,” she says.

There is no insignificant help, she says.

“It is not about the size of the donation or contribution, it’s about the intention with which it is given. With 20 minutes to help pack a grocery parcel or a R200 donation, you have so much you can think ‘Ag, what’s R200?’ or ‘What difference will 20 minutes make?’ But to someone who has lost everything and doesn’t have groceries, that packed parcel will mean the world.

“I started Thula Thula with the idea of packing a few toiletry bags and grocery parcels from my garage over weekends, ready to help when it is needed. Never in any world that I could have imagined would we have seen such devastation and destruction on our doorstep.”

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