Ria Abel is 75 years of age and has served the ACVV as a volunteer for 45 years – commitment, generosity of spirit, and humility forms the essence of her story. She has been the National Chairperson for the past 11 years (the same period that the current CEO Shanie Boshoff has been in position) but prior to this was involved in the management boards of a number of the ACVV homes, and regions.
Reflecting on how she got involved so many years ago, she recalled as a school girl in Std 9 and 10 helping out the social worker at the ACVV office in Upington, two days a week. The involvement of her mother-in-law in the organisation also inspired her. She was a voluntary bookkeeper for the ACVV for 28 years. Her husband was in the banking business so they moved often as he was transferred regularly. In each new place she got involved in the ACVV. In the earlier years she focused mostly on aged care services, but since being the Chair she has focused on all the ACVV care and family services. She remains very involved with the creche in Delft, where the management board walked out, and their volunteers needed to pick up the reins and keep the crèche open. She continues to serve on several of the homes’ boards of management.
The ACVV is an amazing family welfare organisation, caring from birth to the grave, and is celebrating its 111th birthday on the 1st September. It was started just after the Anglo Boer war. To what does Ria attribute the organisation’s sustainability, endurance and success of more than 100 years of serving the community? She unhesitatingly says it’s the passion – both of the organisation’s members (all volunteers) and their staff, all of whom have the urge to do something to help others. It is also Christian love – the love and faith of women that drive the organisation. All the board memebrs are very “hands-on”, involving themselves in day to day operations, functions, regular two monthly inspection visits, and every board member is expected to build a relationship with a group of residents, get to know them, visit them regularly, remember special occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries etc.
The ACVV is busy currently undertaking a GAP analysis together with GERATEC, among a majority of their homes. For Ria, this exercise has meant getting involved in some of the assessments with the staff and residents. In conducting carer assessments, she sees it as an opportunity for on the job training and a chance to reach out to individual staff members. In assisting residents with the quality of life assessments, she has been getting to know the residents and building relationships. She enjoys being “hand on” and getting involved and giving of herself.
The biggest challenge of the ACVV is financial. Ria believes you can do so much more if you have the finances. Another obstacle is trained staff, especially care staff, and most particularly in the rural areas. The ACVV home in Calvinia benefits from a partnership with a local hospital which seeks placement for trainee occupational therapists, nurses, social workers, physio’s, but the majority of rural homes struggle always to find adequate staff.
The succession planning for both board and senior management will be a challenge. She is attempting to recruit younger board members, but often these younger volunteers will get involved in a once off ad hoc project eg a big bazaar, but do not currently have the time to invest more of themselves on a more regular basis. Their senior management team at head office is small and difficult to create deputy positions for leaders to mentor, but there is always someone on the team who can “stand in”.
Ria was recently reading an ACVV report of 85 years ago in which was stated “It is a struggle to recruit volunteers”, so the same struggles persist today! Ria is of the opinion that they need to recruit the “young old” as volunteers, those recently retired, as younger people do not have the time to commit. The ACVV focuses on training their volunteers so that they get something back for their volunteering – they can “grow”.
Leadership for Ria means to motivate, to take people with you on your journey, listen to them, get everyone involved to “do it together”. Her advice is – don’t work alone, and keep everyone informed. Within the organisation, Ria sees the leader’s role as one of nurturing and motivating. She believes everyone ion the team needs continual affirmation and needs to eb told how special they are.
Regarding conversations we should be having in the care sector, more discussions need to be held with government. Ria believes her organisation has a good working relationship with the government in the Western Cape – they struggle in some of the other provinces. The ACVV is active in the Western Cape, the Eastern Cape, Northern Cape and the North West. In the deep rural areas, their struggles are funding and staffing. On a recent visit to Upington she was inspired by the positive outlook of the residents, despite their incredible frailty and vulnerability.
Ria reflects on her own mindset shift in terms of Who decides what you must do? She now encourages the staff to to focus on the resdients’ right to choose and decide about aspects of their lives. In the old days she says, “we took over” – we must not do that. Though it was done with good intentions to protect and help our residents, it in fact creates dependence. We also must include family more – they must take on their responsibility in being a care partner. Ria believes the different generations of “old” have different needs and we need to respond to those.
Involved currently in Magnolia Home, she wants to see the bookkeeper’s office turned rather into a coffee bar! She acknowledges that residents also need to make a mind shift in terms of doing for themselves, and not expecting to be “waited upon” in old colonial style.
For Ria Abel, the shadow across the care sector is the comfort zone so many rest in – organisations need to come out of it, think differently. She has been inspired by many people throughout her life, most especially Mara Koornhof and her predecessor Mrs Ina Rens. She is inspired by people who are energetic and get things done. She enjoys training and wants to avail herself of every opportunity to continue learning and implement new ways of doing things.
Outside of the ACVV, Ria Abel is a mother and grandmother. She was widowed six years ago but acknowledges her late husband’s encouragement and support always for her ACVV involvement. He never complained about her high telephone bills and the car that was always empty of petrol!
She has a son and two daughters, and 7 grandchildren. She will be watching her grandson play rugby and captain a Craven Under 18 team on Saturday! She enjoys gardening and is always ready to travel, especially to go on the next cruise!
The home in Ysterplaat was re-named after her last year – Huis Ria Abel. A gracious yet quite formidable lady, Ria’s strength of character and humility shines through. The word “retire” is not part of her vocabulary! You have much still to contribute to the care sector in South Africa. The South African Care Forum salutes you Ria Abel!