Waitrose Foundation At Work

Interview with Valencia Lewies from Monteith Farm in Grabouw

February 2020

We visited Monteith in mid-February on a cold, rainy afternoon to have a chat with Valencia Lewies who has been working at the farm as Community Development Coordinator for the past 10 years. The Waitrose Foundation team has had the opportunity of working closely with Valencia and her colleagues over this period and have seen incredible growth and significant practical benefit to the worker community through projects run on the farm. Valencia has played a very important role in coordinating these projects along with the worker committee and her assistants at the crèche and aftercare facility. After 10 years Valencia is moving on to an exciting new project in Simondium and will be relocating to Paarl with her husband. We wanted to document her story before she left at the end of February.

Valencia grew up in Firgrove (near Somerset West in the Western Cape). After finishing school she completed her Educare training in early childhood development at Tygerberg College, after which she started her own business at home and also served as headmaster at the Playway Pre-School in Somerset West. During the period before Valencia joined the team at Monteith, she also worked a few contracts as an au pair in Switzerland. She joined YWAM (Youth with a Mission) and worked as family minister in Worcester for three years. In 2010, through an organisation called ‘Hearts for Men & Women’ who were involved in various projects on farms in the Grabouw area, Valencia first came to Monteith and started engaging with the farm workers. The focus was mainly on teaching and running camps, impacting the lives of the workers in the area in a positive, uplifting and practical way.

Jurie Erwee built a Community Centre with crèche class rooms in 1987 and it was time to fully equip the facility to operate as a proper well run crèche.

Through the Hearts of Men & Women organisation the connection was made between Valencia and Monteith’s ower, Mr Andries Erwee, who offered her the opportunity to come on board to pioneer a crèche project.

Valencia tackled the new project with lots of enthusiasm, determined to make a significant difference on the farm by making sure the crèche is fully equipped to accommodate the farm workers’ children. She had to process all the necessary applications and get the facility up and running. She was joined by three assistants who had no formal training, but were in fact farm labourers. The owners wanted to invest in their workers and give them opportunities for growth. These three ladies have since shown tremendous personal growth and some have successfully completed training up to NQF level 4. Along with Valencia they became a formidable team, successfully running the crèche and eventually other projects.

At this stage Monteith was already supplying fresh produce to Waitrose in the UK and the Foundation was therefore actively involved in projects on the farm through funding and support. Valencia noted what a massive, positive impact it had on her task as she could access funds to purchase educational material and toys for the crèche. She experienced the practical benefit of the Foundation’s involvement and built strong relationships with the regional managers who often visited the farm regularly and facilitated ongoing training.

By 2014 the number of kids accommodated in the crèche had grown significantly and there was also a need for an aftercare facility. At this stage kids in Grade R to Grade 3 were looked after in a hall at the crèche, but more space would eventually be needed. By 2016, Valencia also accommodated kids for aftercare from Grade 4 to Grade 6 in the Monteith office building. At this stage Valencia’s three assistants were running the crèche on their own and were fully trained and capable of handling their responsibilities without her direct oversight. This is evidence of the leadership development and capacity building that happened within that period – an inspiring story of growth.

Around this time, in 2016, Valencia also started projects for the pensioners and youth on the farm as well as giving employment seeking assistance to the young people finishing school. Ladies and Men’s social clubs were launched and activities arranged for weekends. Sport also plays a very important role in the life of a rural farming community, not only as a way to create constructive social gathering opportunities, but for the obvious health and wellness of farm workers. The sports coordinators also reported to Valencia.

A number of organisations and local service providers became involved in projects at Monteith and created incredible opportunities for the farm workers and their families – for example the Anna Foundation, Qhubeka Bikes, ABBA and Right to Care, to name a few. The kids and farm workers were even involved in the multi-stage mountain bike race, the Cape Epic, as well as the World Mountain Bike downhill championship. The Anna Foundation adds immense value in the training of aftercare facilitators in providing lesson plans for academic, sport and other activities. Many of these projects were made possible through partnership between the Foundation and Monteith’s owners for the benefit of the farm workers.

With all the positive growth came the challenge for space to accommodate everyone and with that in mind an existing building on the farm were renovated by the farm owners’ daughter (with help by the farm workers over weekends), and in 2018 it became the new aftercare facility for the farm’s Grade R to Grade 12 children. Currently between 50 and 60 kids use this facility after school.

All along Valencia continued to coordinate the monthly pensioners’ outings, youth projects and healthcare awareness days for the workers, as well as liaising with social services where more sensitive matters had to be referred to the local psychologist or ABBA.

Valencia also mentioned what an impact the Waitrose Foundation’s annual conferences had on her as it was an opportunity to come together and share experiences with her peers on other farms in Southern Africa and to be challenged to grow. The support from Monteith’s owners and the Foundation team was invaluable to her during this time. She also attended the ‘Walking with wounded children’ training course at Petra College which had a profound impact on her in terms of equipping her in her work. Foundation funds could be allocated for this course and brought direct benefit back to the kids in Valencia’s care.

From 2018 to 2020 more focus had to be placed on the youth finishing school and who needed assistance in applying for bursaries at colleges. Their parents, fulltime employed on the farm, are not necessarily knowledgeable about the application processes or they don’t have the time or capacity to assist their kids in this crucial next step towards tertiary education. In this respect Foundation funding could be used to get the youngsters to colleges in Cape Town to go through the necessary application processes. Valencia remarked that it was critical not to leave the parents behind in this process and for that reason they had to create an opportunity for communication (over weekends) to inform the parents of what the process with their kids’ applications entailed.

One of the most significant moments in our interview with Valencia was when she described the way in which the children’s aspirations had changed over the ten years she had been involved at Monteith. Initially they would say things like, “I want to ride with the white bakkie.” This refers to the fact that they were looking at the farm owners or managers driving with their vehicles around the farm or out to town. They associated that with a better life, freedom and advancement. But now Valencia says she hears something different. Now they will say: “I want to become a teacher / doctor / engineer.” Their world has opened up well beyond the limits of the farm, tucked deep into a beautiful, green valley in Grabouw. They now see a bigger world they can be part of and contribute to. And it is possible to get there. Now there are people and support systems in place to help them better themselves. It has been happening. More and more success stories are coming from Monteith and other Foundation farms where real change is happening in the lives of the workers (and their families) who grow, pick and pack Waitrose’s fresh produce.

An exciting 2020 is ahead for Monteith and a new season for Valencia. She is leaving a strong team of facilitators in place (with their supporting mentors) and she feels proud of what has been accomplished in the past 10 years in a very productive partnership between the owners of Monteith and the Waitrose Foundation.