The story of WEBA and strategic reflections on its progress
Although there have been many requests from other provinces, i.e. Bloemfontein, Gauteng, Eastern Cape and locally in Worcester to set up the aromatherapy training in these areas for visually impaired men and women, this has not materialized. This has been a fairly frustrating experience as the lack of funding is constantly the hurdle which needs to be overcome. Working with this particular target group requires great sensitivity as more often than not for the visually impaired, the disability grant that they receive is often the only source of income for a family which in cases includes an extended family. It is not possible for these individuals to pay for a course, which they know will provide work in the long term, but their short term demands of putting bread on their table outweigh their aspirations. A grant can cover so much and no more.
The frustration is that no matter what province you are in, the visually impaired men and women face the same barriers in terms of employment and accessibility. This is a tragedy in itself. In 2008 WEBA met with a group of visually impaired men and women in Bloemfontein who were extremely excited about the aromatherapy course, however when it came to the nuts and bolts and how and where, this enthusiasm soon died down and despondency set in. Sourcing funding prevented this training going any further than just talking.
Back home in Cape Town we tried to look into a Long Distance Training with an ‘each one, teach one’ philosophy. The idea was to give the trained aromatherapists the opportunity to visit Bloemfontein on a monthly basis. The therapists would be guided by the teacher in how and what to do for the lessons, especially on the practical level.
Locally, the impact of the Centre has been extraordinary as barriers of race, gender and religion have been broken down through the intuitive, caring touch of the blind and partially sighted therapist. In the case of our partnership with the WC Cerebral Palsy Association, it is a moving to observe as the blind therapist gently massages the rigid and often deformed frames of the cerebral palsy people at the Village Work Centre and Rosedon House. It has been reported that the effects of these massage sessions on a monthly basis are beginning to have a profound impact on this target group.
The aromatherapy training and subsequent employment as an aromatherapist, provide the visually impaired men and women the opportunity to explore their potential of ‘intuitive touch’ which has proven to be therapeutic and healing to all who enter into the space of the therapist Our experience has been that because of the rushed lives that people lead, rushing from one meeting to the next, deadlines, computer bound or simply needing to be touched, that time stands still in the darkened massage rooms. Clients succumb to the hour of relaxation and peace and leave feeling a whole lot more ready to face the world again. There is no doubt that, this form of therapy is much needed and therefore the more people we can train the more we will be able to bring wholeness into the lives of whom we touch.
Furthermore it has always been our desire to extend our borders if the funding was in place to do so. WEBA has the experience, the course material, the love and care and more importantly the people to embark on long distance training. WEBA has been inspired and challenged by the incredible ‘abilities’ of visually impaired men and women. Through this endeavour WEBA would not only touch the lives of ordinary people but more importantly to change the landscape for visually impaired people in terms of economic empowerment.
At a Strategic Planning Workshop in February 2012, led by the Board Members, it became clear that whilst the aromatherapy massage is a creative option of employment for the VI, there needs to be further growth and development in other areas of work. Not every VI person will be an aromatherapist. It also became clear that 90% of the Executive Director’s time was focusing on administration and Human Resources, leaving 10% for fundraising. Whereas fundraising should be 95%, this is highlighted by the fact that funding has been a major hurdle in terms of development. In the beginning, when WEBA was founded in 1993 by a group of blind and marginalized men and women, the main activity was to focus on human rights issues related to employment and accessibility. Although these aspects underpin the ongoing development at WEBA, the development has mainly been focused on the aromatherapy massage. In 1998 WEBA grew in numbers, more than 120 people, and although projects like, leather making, knitting, potter, material painting, Jaws Computer training, translations and transcriptions and factory piece work, never really reached the point of providing a living for the people. It became more a social gathering. Contributing to this was the fact that the competition of these outlets was of high quality and most of what was sold was bought out of ‘sympathy’ and not because of the quality. The aromatherapy was and still is the income generating arm of WEBA, whereby people can make a living and change their lives.
Between 1994 and September 2009 WEBA was under the leadership and governance of lkamva Labantu and as lkamva Labantu developed and strategies came and went, and as a project of lkamva Labantu, WEBA needed to align its operations within these processes. This had quite an effect on the future of WEBA, as much of what were the initial building blocks were underpinned by the development of lkamva Labantu. During this period Ikamva Labantu was instrumental in supporting, encouraging and financially carrying WEBA, without this kind of support WEBA would have struggled to reach the present stage of development. The outcome of the Strategic Planning workshop has injected a broader and wider perspective in line with the past intentions by drawing more people into the net, lobbying, research and developing new creative projects in which VI people can become skilled and enter the OLM as professionals. For this to take root a vigorous fundraising strategy needs to be explored. The intended purpose would be to get back to the roots of where WEBA began in 1994. To critically analyze what worked and what did not work. Research into how other organizations are able to sustain their programs. To reach out to the surviving community that existed in previous years and in so doing explore if there is a need to draw the individuals back into WEBA. In so doing the Aromatherapy two and a half training will continue to provide an enabling environment for potential VI to become skilled in massage.
Since 1999, nineteen VI men and women have been trained in Aromatherapy, reflexology and lymph drainage. Of these nineteen eleven remain in the centre and nine have left and either found employment within a Health and Wellness Centre or started their own business. Initially things developed automatically and the course material was adapted to suit the needs of the VI student. The course material has subsequently developed over the years as after every set of students WEBA evaluates what worked, what did not and what more be added. This has led us to the point of restructuring the process. From the first set of therapists in 2000 to the group of 2009 the process has been fairly flexible, which led to an enormous amount of dependency on the ‘office’ to produce the goods. This put unnecessary pressure on the admin staff to ‘ensure’ that the therapist have regular clients.
Unfortunately the nature of blindness is that the VI person will always require a sighted person to mix oils and maintain professional standards. This aspect creates a certain amount of dependency and is the reason why it is hard for the qualified aromatherapist to step out and become an entrepreneur. WEBA is faced with the challenge of how to turn this dependency into a positive step for the VI person once trained and ready to take on their role as aromatherapists and begin to earn a living. It is interesting to note that in the vicinity of Plumstead, where our office is situated, many health and beauty clinics are closing down and retrenching staff at an alarming rate in comparison to the Light and Healing Centre where prices have remained accessible for the “person on the street”.
The Light and Healing Centre has been mindful of the need to keep prices low without compromising the health and beauty fraternity. Over the past twelve years our prices have increased from R75 — R220 for a full body massage and have maintained a 40% commission for the therapists. Lessons learnt along the way have informed the process and have brought WEBA to a point restructuring the aromatherapy training course.
Due to the fact that out of nine students five have continued and will graduate in December 2012 WEBA has decided to interview each interested VI person before accepting them to start the course. The next group of 11 students will start up in July 2012 on one day a week. During this orientation period each individual would need to make a firm commitment and agree to confirm in writing their commitment to the course over the two and half year period.
Course material will be adapted to suit each individual in terms of accessibility. Due to the fact that the 2012/2013 group of students do not all have Braille, WEBA will need to explore audio assistive devices in order for each person to have equal access.
In the second half of the course the students are required to do “community service” in an organization and will need to complete this at the Centre.
After graduation, the “new” therapists will be given the option to work at the centre for two years in order to develop their skills, build their confidence and build a client base. After this two year period the therapist will be encouraged to move out on their own or work in the satellite offices. These satellite centers are still to be set up in 2013 whereby the existing therapists will be encouraged to work in these satellite centers in order to provide the space for the cycle to be successful. In July 2012 WEBA will be offering Self Help Workshops to the public at large as there has been a huge request over the years for this to be explored. The intention is to draw on the existing therapists to assist in these workshops on a commission basis.
Apart from the Aromatherapy, a Preservative Project has been established whereby a retired chef is sharing his skills in the making of jam, pickled onion, salad dressing, atchar and chutney. A small goup of four partially sighted men and women are the pioneers in this project. Ballroom and line dancing sessions will start in July on Saturday afternoon. These sessions are offered to sighted and partially sighted people, all interested people.
As mentioned HR issues have usurped the time and energy of WEBA over the past couple of years. During the period under lkamva Labantu WEBA and its members were subject to the governance, various policy and staff contracts of lkamva Labantu. This being the case meant that WEBA did not develop an understanding of the seriousness of having these policy documents in place. This shortfall cost WEBA dearly as this came up when staff members decided to challenge the management of WEBA at the end of 2011 demanding bonuses. This would have been a reasonable request if WEBA was in a more stable financial situation but as it were, the situation was grave. Eventually the matter ended up at the CCMA and since no contracts or policy/even guiding principles were in place WEBA was forced to pay out funds which it did not have.
This matter was discussed at the Strategic Planning workshop and since then contracts, policy documentation, grievance procedures etc are in the process of being compiled and completed. It is WEBA’s intention to have all these documents signed and filed before end of September 2012. It has become clear that in order for the staff to be motivated and content boundaries of authority and respect need to be clearly defined. This is in progress.
This period of conflict gave WEBA the opportunity to reflect and draw these boundaries before going back to ‘normal’. With the therapists either on probation, dismissed or waiting for the CCMA hearing gave WEBA the opportunity to evaluate its services. In all of the pain, conflict and unnecessary suffering it was a period of learning with very important lessons to be learnt. The greatest and most important learning curve thus far.
Due to the fact that transport and rental costs far outweighed the income and the fact that it was becoming a financial drain on the organizations income, WEBA was forced to make the decision to do away with the transport and encourage the VI to travel with public transport. This was not an easy decision for WEBA to make as public transport is dangerous and unreliable. Dial A Ride, is not an option during the week as it has a waiting list of thousands of commuters and can be extremely unreliable. However the therapists have embraced this with courage and determination and travel with public transport. It is not the best option but it has encouraged independence.
Although this house in Plumstead is the ideal venue for WEBA it is too costly. In order to reduce our expenditure an imminent move is predicted. Moving yet again will be costly and it will confuse our clients but it is a matter of priority. WEBA, with all the new developments and growth in numbers and will be need to expand their horizons to include everything. When all is said and done, WEBA continues to strive towards a society that recognizes the’ ability in disability’.