Postal Address:
c/o Sue du Toit
Child Welfare
13 Albert Street
PO Box 83

Physical Address:
Heights Road
Wilderness Heights

+27 (0) 44 874 0424
+27 (0) 84 922 3639
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Many of the people who volunteer and benefit from the Wilderness Heights Community Centre has no idea that the woman who is changing their lives used to be one of the most famous faces on television.

To the children living in the dusty roads behind the seaside village, former news reader and presenter Gillian van Houten is "juffrou" (teacher) or, according to her, "the crazy white lady" who reads books to them in the streets outside their homes.

Van Houten moved from the conservation initiative Tiger Project in the Karoo to Wilderness in April 2004. She had been involved in conservation and eco-tourism in Mpumalanga and the Free State since she left the SABC in 1989.

"My children - daughter Savannah, 11, and twin boys Tao and Sean, six - had up to that time lived an abnormal, isolated life on a game farm with a private tutor and a group of tigers. I wanted them to be properly socialised and, for at least a little while, live an ordinary life."

In the holidays the family return to the farm near Colesberg so that the kids can see their dad - world-renowned wild cats expert and eco-tourism fundi John Varty from whom Van Houten is separated.

At about the same time, I heard the actress-story teller Gina Mhlope say that we should tell stories to others and the thought came to me that I could read stories to the children."

For more than a year, Van Houten would drop her kids off at school and then drive into the township where she would go sit in a clearing and start reading her children's story books to the youngsters in the streets.

"They would come from all over and sit with me for only about 15 minutes a day. I would have to explain much of the English story in Afrikaans, but also used the opportunity to teach the children basic English words such as greetings and 'please' and 'thank you.'"

When the twins started school in George at the beginning of this year, Van Houten decided to not only stick with reading to the township kids but also try to actively work towards their upliftment in other ways.

"I had noticed an old, abandoned school building and started inquiring about how to get it re-opened for the purposes of a community centre. It was a long and complicated process but we have finally secured a section of the buildings."
The school building had been shut down in 1990 due to a lack of numbers and had been rented out to several community projects through the years.

Van Houten has subsequently linked up with the George Child and Family Welfare Society, who has provided support and resources such as long-standing relationships with the necessary government departments.

"With the help of a generous Wilderness community, we have cleaned up the place and have started upgrading the facilities. We still need a lot of funding for things like proper fencing, playground equipment, a working septic tank system and renovation of the water capture system for the start of an organic food garden.

"Volunteers help provide a soup kitchen once a week to about 60 children, as well as regular sport activities such as soccer and netball. The smaller children can watch videos or draw inside one of the old classrooms.

"I also bring my children to the centre to play and assist at the centre. They have always had contact with less-privileged children on the farm, but their involvement is different here and I believe it is good for them."

Van Houten's next big mission is the opening of a pre-school, with a government-paid teacher, to assist in school preparation. "Some of the school-aged children were this year turned away from school because they could not hold a pencil properly and were not school-ready. If we can just ensure that all the children are ready for a proper education, I would already feel that we have accomplished something.

"We are in the process of applying for a teacher's post from the provincial department of education, and desperately hope that we can start next year with our pre-school. Ideally, we would like to be able to also open classes for Grade 1 and Grade 2 so that the children are a bit older before they have to leave their secure environment for the 'big school' in George."

Van Houten sees the community centre as a place where different projects can successfully run within the premises, providing to the specific needs of the people of Wilderness Heights.

"We have already had offers of free medical services for the children, and we would like to provide office facilities to social and community workers who service the people in the settlement. We hope to eventually secure all the buildings and facilities on the property and provide the opportunity for other organisations and projects to join us in helping the children and families."

While her work at the community centre is keeping her very busy, she is intimately involved in her children's school and extra-curricular activities.

"I still try to write articles and there is some involvement with the Tiger Project, but my new life and the centre is starting to demand more of me than I originally had in mind. It is a huge challenge and a major learning curve, but I am enjoying it and believe that getting involved in the upliftment of others are important - it is what I should be doing at this stage of my life."
Gillian van Houten
Wilderness Heights Community Centre
A couple of weeks after she started driving her boys to pre-school in Wilderness Heights, Van Houten noticed a group of pre-school kids wandering the dusty roads.

"I thought it totally unacceptable that these kids float around society without any assistance towards school preparation, physical activities or entertainment.
Wilderness Heights Community Centre
Care at the Community Centre in Wilderness