A bid to save one of the oldest houses in the George area, has lead to one of the most successful community projects in the Southern Cape.
Known as the Church House, the Thembalethu house and the three-hectare property surrounding it, has developed into a multi-purpose facility where several projects provide food and employment to otherwise helpless families.
It all started in 1992 when Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) Witness Commission (South Western Districts) minister Michiel Burger was called in to help save a house which was standing on church property on the outskirts of Thembalethu.
The house, which was built in 1796 to house a minister's family and also served as a church and school, was standing empty and in danger of being ransacked for building materials for houses in the neighbouring township. It was organised for a local elder to move into house immediately to ensure its survival, but its potential was immediately as a community outreach site.
Over the next few years, different church denominations united with local communities to ascertain the needs of the growing township. It wasn't easy going - for obvious reasons the local black community was not very trusting of the white men who arrived to change things.
In the late 1990s, the first vegetable gardens saw the light - until today still one of the longest running projects of its kind in the Western Cape with more than 50 families growing their own food.
The project offers local, mainly unemployed, people to plant a 28m² vegetable garden. Trainers Enoch Zakade and Nwabisi Make train newcomers to prepare the ground, plant and harvest the vegetables. Vegetable seeds are being provided by the National Development Agency, which support the project substantially.
Vegetables are grown organically, using wheelbarrows of cow manure provided by livestock that are allowed to graze on a part of the property. Roaming chickens are the only pest control being used.
If a particular family stops tending to their garden, the space is allocated to someone else on a very long waiting list. Except for the satisfaction of growing your own food and the obvious benefits of fresh vegetables, the families also sell excess vegetables to the larger community - for many it is the only income they have.
The project has received funding to drill a borehole and was given money to develop infrastructure for better electricity provision to pump water into the gardens.
The Church House gardens also have a nursery where small indigenous trees are being grown. The trees are then donated and planted where needed in mostly schools, crèche's and fenced-in community facilities.
Another project involves a local soccer team who showed exceptional tenacity by winning the region under-23 club tournament. It was felt that their commitment could be used beyond sport and it was organised for them to be trained in woodwork by the NMMU Saasveld campus. They started producing furniture to the local communities this year and have so far been self-sufficient.
The property also is host to a small bakery that provides standard loaves to shops in and around the township.
Overseen by Michiel Burger and retired minister Sidwell Thelejane, the Church House continues to be a source of hope to families in the township. The local people have grabbed onto the vision of the projects. They have used the opportunities that local churches could create through good business networks and skills.
Church House are immensely grateful for the continued support of all the churches in George as well as the continued interest of local businesses who want to make a difference. It is intended to use every inch of the property in due course as good, sustainable projects come along.