On 23 March 2020, when President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a hard lockdown of 21 days that would start three days later, the staff at Bergzicht Training and Development immediately sprang into action to counter the impact that the temporary shutdown of the campus would have on its beneficiaries.

Thanks to this early intervention, of the 50 students registered with Bergzicht Training and Development for advanced courses when the organisation went into lockdown, 47 completed their programmes and only 3 dropped out due to personal reasons.

“As soon as lockdown was implemented, each staff member established a WhatsApp support group of students and started sharing information with the students on how Bergzicht Training and Development would support them during pandemic to finish their programme in spite of the campus being closed,” explains Nathalie Skippers, a registered social worker.

Skippers is responsible for Mentoring and Student Support at Bergzicht Training and Development along with Natalea de Ruiters, an auxiliary social worker.

Further support was offered by Bergzicht Training and Development’s longterm partners, the Hanns Seidel Foundation (HSF), who commissioned a graphic designer and videographer to produce infographics on health protocols that students could follow to keep themselves and their families safe during the pandemic, and short videos on mental health and self-care, how to manage stress, money, conflict and anger, addressing the stigma attached to testing positive for COVID-19 as well as informational updates.All of this information was regularly shared in the staff-managed WhatsApp groups and on the organisation’s Facebook page to empower students with knowledge and alleviate concerns amongst students about the COVID-19 virus.

Other than the WhatsApp support groups,sponsorships from HSF put Bergzicht Training and Development in a position to provide data and smartphones (on loan) to beneficiaries most in need of data or without phones to continue their training via the NGO’s home learning system.

Another major issue that Bergzicht Training and Development had to address was hunger amongst its students. In many of the households from which beneficiaries came, breadwinners had lost their jobs and families were therefore going hungry.

Donations from HSF, the TK Foundation and a few private donors made it possible for Bergzicht Training and Development to partner with Stellenbosch Unite, which has been providing food aid to vulnerable residents of Stellenbosch since April this year, to make up food parcels for its students.Stellenbosch Unite is a collaboration between the Stellenbosch Municipality, Stellenbosch University, Visit Stellenbosch (representing civil society), the Stellenbosch Civil Advocacy Network (which represents the non-profit sector), and the Greater Stellenbosch Development Trust.

“Students in need of food support were asked to submit motivations and each week we could give 50 food parcels to some of our beneficiaries to help them during the lockdown. We rotated this support amongst students in need to ensure that we were able to help a number of beneficiaries with food parcels,” says Skippers.

The list of students was then sent to Adrian Bezuidenhout, Training Manager at Bergzicht Training and Development, so that he could collect the food parcels from Stellenbosch Unite, and personally distribute it amongst students who were located in Stellenbosch and surrounding areas, stretching as far as Khayelitsha.

A total of1 746 parcels and vouchers were distributed to 237 students up to 20 November.

“We also kept an eye on the emotional needs of students,” explains Skippers.

Like many South Africans, beneficiaries were feeling the emotional effects of being separated from family and friends and dealing with other stressors.

“We particularly checked on those students who shared very little in the group to make sure they were coping,” says Skippers.

In these instances, Skippers would offer psychosocial support and refer students who were struggling with personal challenges and suffering from mental health issues to organisations like Good Hope Psychological Service, Child Welfare and the Department of Health.

In June, the Bergzicht Training and Development team – Ingrid Andrews, Adrian Bezuidenhout, Natalea de Ruiters, Abigail Barnard, Lusapho Tshemese, Phila Gadlomo, and Skippers – returned to the office, with Andrews taking on the role of COVID-19 Compliance Officer. During lockdown, Tshemese, who is usually responsible for gardening and maintenance at Bergzicht Training and Development, had also worked as a security officer for Bergzicht Training and Development. Gadlomo was appointed as a special protocols cleaner and official screener as soon as campus opened. Together this team prepared the campus for the return of students. This entailed sanitising the organisation’s offices, putting the necessary screening protocols in place, and setting up teaching venues to ensure that social distancing could be maintained. By mid-June, Bergzicht Training and Development was ready to open its campus to students and allowed students to return in a staggered fashion with groups of 10 students returning every two weeks.

With students travelling by public transport, in particular taxis, Bergzicht Training and Development had to find a way to address risks of contamination amongst especially frail care students who had to wear uniforms.

“We had to ask students to travel in one set of clothes and store their uniforms in their bags and dress on campus. Students had to also arrive with masks. A second mask was provided to them when they arrived here. We also had to provide something to eat to many of the students who had nothing to eat.”

“We had to train each group that returned to campus on the safety protocols to prevent infections and also do refresher sessions of our iPOWER entry level programme. Students had to get used to social distancing, to wearing masks throughout the day, and a different kind of teaching space.”

The challenges posed by hard lockdown amongst students and graduates have not disappeared with the relaxation of restrictions though. Many graduates who have not earned for months as well as currently enrolled students are struggling to cover transport costs to work and campus.

“The Hanns Seidel Foundation made funds available to help students cover their transport costs and we have also, where possible, placed students in areas closer to home to minimise travel costs,”explains Skippers.

“Honestly, the challenges our beneficiaries had to overcome during this time is nothing short of amazing.”

Photo: Here is the Bergzicht Training and Development team who have supported students during lockdown to ensure that they complete their programmes and that the campus is safe for students to return. In the back from the left are Ingrid Andrews, Adrian Bezuidenhout, Lusapho Tshemese, and Natalea de Ruiters. In the front from the left are Nathalie Skipper, Abigail Barnard, and Phila Gadlomo. (Lynne Rippenaar-Moses)