Horses grazing lustily in a lush meadow with a river running through it seems like a perfect rural scene. Except that it takes place in the middle of suburbia, opposite Delta Park in Craighall Park.
I have seen these horses for some time, when I ride my mountain bike along the tranquil Braamfontein Spruit. I have wondered where they are stabled, so last month I followed them home. I cycled over the bridge, and up the path to Marlborough Avenue behind them, and they clop-clopped into the grounds of the non-profit REEA Foundation, originally the Rand Epileptic Employment Association.
The rural fantasy continues because the horses and I have entered a small village with tall trees, a large nursery and vegetable garden, a book shop, a charity shop, a furniture restoration shop, a pet food delivery service, a bicycle workshop, a restaurant, and a recycling and car wash centre, with a pottery studio and an aquaponics place on the way. All enterprises contribute to the running of the REEA centre, a block or two away in York Avenue, home to 36 residents.
The horses amble into their slightly tumble-down but charming stables, built 14 years ago, from where they provide children and adults with the fun of riding a horse in the big city. Privately funded refurbished quarters, in face brick and timber, have just been completed for them. So Cloud, Flea, Gerry, Raffy, Fanta, Cookie and 13 others can continue their laid-back urban existence in their own bit of heaven.
Stable manager Jessica Markotter says 70% of the riders are children, with Saturdays devoted to kids with autism and Down’s Syndrome. She also takes HIV orphans from Nazareth House and two local boys who don’t pay for lessons. When they do rides around Delta Park they take note of missing manhole covers and litter and report them to the council.
REEA began 80 years ago in 1935 by two doctors who wanted to give epileptic people a way of living meaningful lives by working in vegetable gardens and tending to chickens. The 2,8ha piece of land was bought and still fulfils this function.
And, like all such enterprises, the secret ingredient is the people who run it. Alex Sheffield is the grey-flecked bokbaard manager, and he speaks with equal passion of bringing the whole enterprise back from the brink a year ago, to knocking heads with officials over issues.
Saying it is “a calling”, he is driven by a special passion. “We are trying to get away from the stigma of always having a begging bowl.” So last year he looked to have more enterprises on the property, and that’s how the restaurant, the bicycle workshop and the pet food businesses came about. He also felt the need to be less dependent on donors, although goods in the book and charity shops are all donations, and run by volunteers. “People are very generous,” he adds.
He speaks of the frustration of getting families to pay the almost R5 000 levy for their relatives in the home as the disability grant is just not enough to pay for their care. Most will spend up to two-thirds of their lives at REEA, and with 24-hour care, costs add up.
His vision for the place is to make it “a destination for families” which will be a safe hub and have something of “the old Joburg with a tranquil, quiet village atmosphere”.
REEA’s outreach programme involves teaching food security skills, run at the village, and a literacy programme for 3 to 6-year-olds at a pre-school in Hillbrow.
One of the many people who help him achieve his goals is Daniella Alexander. With a ribbon in her hair and wearing flip-flops, she is another secret ingredient. A scientist in a former life, with two teenage children, she devotes her considerable energies and warm spirit to REEA. She used to run a garden club at her home – she confesses to green fingers and the verdant gardens attest to this – but when she saw “how dilapidated it was here”, she started the vegetable garden and charity shop in 2010. With three gardeners, she has transformed a garden rubbish dump under tall trees to a luxurious place with lawns and flower beds which is now a function space for corporates, weddings and birthdays.
“I am a visionary,” she says with no pomposity whatsoever. She explains that she is “driven by chaos. I have an inherent need to fix things”. And a “thing for old buildings” – the heritage building on the site has become her greenhouse where she nurtures her seedlings and has her orchid rejuvenation programme. She also runs a home-grown vegetable competition and scarecrow festival at REEA, which has “created quite a bit of interest”. She runs a Crop Swop Initiative and Seed Savers Exchange, and on Wednesdays she sells vegetables from the garden.
She says she does this all for the residents, who help her in the gardens. “They have become like my family, they whatsapp me and call me. I am quite close to a lot of them.”
And in her generous way, she says of Sheffield: “He is like a dad to the residents, they idolise him. He has brilliant people skills.”
Over at the home I meet the energetic Elinor Demetrio, the resident social worker, who has worked there on and off for over 20 years. There are 18 men and 18 women residents, some with mild mental disorders, others with epilepsy of varying degrees. She says the staff try to create “a home away from home”, where they can do things like gardening, bible studies, baking, and enjoy music therapy and play bingo. “We have to constantly motivate them,” she explains.
One of her newest innovations is the adult education programme, where several residents are improving their education, while two residents have obtained their matric. They will now be placed in businesses and given responsibilities. “Our biggest challenge is the stigma. People just have a lack of knowledge of what it means to be epileptic.” In South Africa one in a hundred people suffer from epilepsy.
She says of her job: “I absolutely love it.”
The tall and gentle Paul Campling, who has lived at REEA for the past 14 years but now has his own flat, runs Paul’s Furniture Restorations on the site. He says he learnt woodwork and restoration at a craft village in KwaZulu-Natal, and has now been running his shop for the past two years. He makes toys, showing off his train engine, and miniature doll’s house kitchen.
Angus Rowe, a member of the REEA board, says: “So many people have made such an effort to keep REEA alive.” Board members include attorneys and chartered accountants, who give their time pro bono. “It’s a wonderful spot in the middle of Joburg.”
Back in the early 1900s there used to be a dam where the meadow is now, called Rattray’s Dam, where Joburgers used to go picnicking, duck shooting and fishing. The beautiful stone wall and waterfall off Conrad Drive are all that remain of the dam. Those days are long gone but the horses make it feel like the country still.