Despite being born blind, Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Arendse (53) has never felt disadvantaged by her lack of eyesight. Instead, she has used every opportunity to educate herself and give back to her community in many different ways.

When she isn’t supporting and helping those around her, she works as a switchboard operator at Paarl Hospital and fills the role of single mother to her son.

Journey of empowerment

Elizabeth’s journey of empowerment started as a young girl attending the Athlone School for the Blind in Wellington. She and her sister – who is partially sighted – were sent to the boarding school, where they soon made a wealth of friends and gained invaluable skills that have served them well ever since.

“From our earliest days at the school, we received mobility training – they taught us how to walk with the assistance of a cane, how to cross a road safely, and even how to navigate shopping malls with escalators!”

Elizabeth also made use of the opportunity to develop her talents for singing and performance by signing up for music and drama classes after school. Her love for music has continued to grow and she regularly sings in church and at special events.

Once she finished school, Elizabeth got a job as a weaver at the Cape Town Society for the Blind in Salt River where she assisted in making hand-crafted mats, handbags and wall hangings. Because of her positive attitude and performance, it didn’t take long for her to rise through the ranks and within no time she had signed up to train as a switchboard operator.

With these skills under her belt, she soon took a position as a receptionist at The League of Friends of the Blind (LOFOB) before moving to Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital.

Embracing independence

Getting to and from her home in Kuilsrivier with public transport however proved challenging, so she started keeping an ear to the ground for another opportunity. In 2008, her prayers were answered when she got a permanent job as a switchboard operator position at Paarl Hospital. Elizabeth gets up very early to catch multiple taxis where she then typically works a 7am to 7pm shift.

As a blind person, I’ve been navigating the routes and timetables of taxi services long enough – it’s second nature now. It also helps when there are kind people offering to help,” says Elizabeth.

Following her true passion

Even though she loves her job at Paarl Hospital, Elizabeth’s true passion lies with uplifting her community.

Currently, she runs a soup kitchen on a voluntary basis, which feeds scores of hungry children in her vicinity every week. Last year, she and a friend also hosted a Christmas party for them where each child received a pencil bag filled with back-to-school goodies. Amazingly, all of this comes out of Elizabeth’s own pocket.

I believe I am an EAR,” she says, laughing. “An Eagle Always Ready.”

This clever acronym works on many levels: spelled out, it refers to her surname – ‘arend’ being the Afrikaans word for eagle – and the fact that she soars above her circumstances; while ‘EAR’ points to her gift listening to the needs of others and finding ways to help meet them.

My dream is to be a counsellor and to help people in my community work through trauma and pain,” she says. “I would also like to do motivational talks and help people understand blindness better.”

Over the years, Elizabeth has made an effort to attend courses and workshops to equip herself with the necessary skills to be able to do this work to the best of her abilities. Recently, her paths crossed with Mariëtte Jacobs, the Managing Director of one of Valcare’s member organisations, Ezrah Community Training and Development.

About Ezrah Community Training and Development

Ezrah specialises in providing assistance to and strengthening of community-based organisations through capacity building, leadership development and training in effective programmes. They aim to promote ethical service delivery and quality education.

Since August 2018, Elizabeth has participated in three Ezrah workshops focused specifically on child protection:

  • Child protection empowerment
  • Parent mentoring
  • LEAD child participation

What I enjoyed most about attending Ezrah’s workshops, is the fact that they treat me just like anybody else. Nobody made a fuss about me being blind and I was able to slot in seamlessly with all the other participants,” Elizabeth says. “I would recommend it to anyone with a passion for their community, especially those who are differently abled. “Attending Ezrah’s workshops may just help open doors to new opportunities for serving my community and soaring to new heights,” says Elizabeth.

From their very first meeting, Mariëtte realised that Elizabeth was a remarkable woman with exceptional leadership qualities.

“Elizabeth made a real effort not only to attend our workshops, but she even arranged to record the workshops and had them converted to braille afterwards, so that she could refer back to her notes share them with others who are visually impaired. She is a true example of someone who overcomes all life’s obstacles with faith and optimism,” says Mariëtte Jacobs, MD of Ezrah Community Training and Development.

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Words by Nadia Krige | Photographs by Nadia Krige and Hailey Sadler.