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A (t) Heart for their communities
Some of atHeart’s counsellors. In the front row (from left) are Mashiela Cupido (Kylemore Clinic), Cebisa Velani (Cloetesville Day Hospital), Johan Oliver (Don & Pat Clinic, Jamestown,) Olga Jacobs (Cloetesville Aan-het-Pad Clinic), Bulelwa Kabane (Cloetesville Day Hospital) and Lydia Malan (Idas Valley Clinic). Middel row: Nonzukiso Dangisa (Kayamandi Clinic), Siphokazi Makangela (Kayamandi Clinic), Carrie Smorenburg (Social Worker and Mentor), Samantha Peter (Klapmuts Clinic) and Sithembele Nqothole (Kayamandi Clinic). Back row: Christine Steyn (Cloetesville Day Hospital), Zola Dalani (Student Intern and LGBTIQ+ representative), Masande Nyanga (Groendal Clinic, Franschhoek). Photos: Elmarine Anthony

The most important and satisfying part of Bulelwa Kabane’s job as HIV/Aids counsellor is seeing a patient return to good health after counselling and helping them obtain the necessary treatment.

Kabane is one of 16 counsellors at local NGO atHeart.

Before becoming a counsellor she pursued HIV/Aids-related volunteer work in the Kayamandi community, because she enjoyed working with and helping people.

Asked if it’s difficult for her to tell someone that they have tested positive for HIV, Kabane says because she has been trained well she knows exactly what to do. “I have the skills. I know exactly what to do when the results come back positive.”

Lynette Rademeyer-Bosman, Executive Manager of atHeart, says the organisation was founded under the name the Stellenbosch Aids Action Group in July 1998. It is still registered under that name, but trades as atHeart.

The NGO was a joint initiative of various stakeholders, including the municipality, Department of Health, Stellenbosch University (SU) and other community members. It used to operate under SU’s Matie Community Services, but was registered as an autonomous non-profit in 2002 to broaden its scope.

The core focus of the organisation is HIV/Aids and Tuberculosis (TB) counselling, but it also has various other programmes.

Through its counselling programme atHeart reaches approximately 6 000 people monthly, and its community counsellors are located at all primary health-care facilities in Stellenbosch and sub-districts, which include areas such as Groendal, Klapmuts, Kylemore and Jamestown. The services they render at the facilities are free of charge. According to Rademeyer-Bosman, counsellors primarily test for HIV and counsel patients.

She says they are well-trained and mentored by professionals, falling as they do under the supervision of the operational managers of the facilities they work at. “They test, counsel people and assist them with information.”

However, a big part of the counsellors’ work is to take their services outside the clinics. “For instance, they will go to a farm and deliver that service there. With that we are trying to get people who wouldn’t usually go to clinics just for testing to test for HIV.”

Christine Steyn, one of atHeart’s counsellors, conducts an HIV test.

Outreach work is done, for example, in factories or on street corners. They provide the service on big days, such as public holidays, when booths are set up for people to be tested if they so wish. Rademeyer-Bosman sums it up: “We take the service to the people.”

This work is not just about HIV/Aids counselling, Rademeyer-Bosman points out. “At some point there are other issues that call for counselling. People living with HIV could also be facing gender-based-violence, money matters, other family issues or depression.

“Counselling is quite a task. We try to get the best people to do this work. We need to take care of the counsellors very well because they are in a job where they don’t know who or what is going to walk through their door. There are very difficult situations. Almost every day of their working lives they have to tell people they are HIV-positive. We still get a lot of new people testing positive.”

If there is something the counsellor cannot deal with they refer them to professionals such as Child Welfare or a psychologist.

One of atHeart’s other programmes is called the Key Populations Programme for various vulnerable groups. This includes services for people with substance dependency, for farm residents who live far from clinics and other services, youth in general as well as the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, gender diverse, intersex, queer, asexual and questioning (LBGTIQ+) population.

For the LBGTIQ+ population, atHeart has a programme called Pink Umbrella with different activities within that programme. “These include support groups, social clubs, community dialogues, collaborative efforts with other organisations and one-on-one support, especially for the transgendered females in our programme, a group that is especially vulnerable for various reasons,” Rademeyer-Bosman says. “Especially vulnerable are young lesbian women, especially in our Xhosa culture. We try and support them because they are often misunderstood, bullied, and their families often don’t understand their sexuality.”

One of the other programmes is workplace wellness. This is one of atHeart’s social enterprise initiatives, where people are charged a fee for certain services.

“We use the counsellors for this programme as well, but we also make use of contract workers,” says Rademeyer-Bosman. “We go to a factory, for instance, or to a farm, depending on the need of the employer, to deliver certain services.”

These services include HIV, blood pressure and cholesterol testing. The money made is ploughed back into the community.

“We don’t charge for HIV testing because we get the material for free from the Department of Health,” according to Rademeyer-Bosman. “We only charge when we get someone in that has to perform the tests. The test itself is free.

“Don’t be afraid to get tested,” is Kabane’s sage advice to the community. “Get tested so that you can know your status, and benefit from knowing your status.”

Besides having the option to be tested at all primary health-care facilities, members of the public can also be tested by atHeart counsellors at the Economic and Tourism Corridor in Kayamandi and at the organisation’s offices, in Room 1008, Old Lückhoff Bulding in Banghoek Road.

V If you would like to get in touch regarding counselling, or to make use of atHeart’s services for wellness days, contact Rademeyer-Bosman on 021 808 2931 or atheart@sun.ac.za.

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