Investing in ability over disability

Did you know that there is a special needs school in Cape Town where lives have been changed, and, thanks to the learning opportunities and therapy interventions, miracles are not unusual.

Friends Day Centre in the grounds of the Alexandra Hospital in Maitland, Cape Town, has been providing care and learning opportunities for children and adults who do not have the ability to care for themselves for the past 58 years.

This Centre is a registered Non-Profit Organisation which provides education to children with special needs from all over Cape Town.

“We are determined to keep providing excellent care for our learners,” says Centre manager Johann Opperman. “We are managing for now, but we need to step up our fundraising during 2018 so that we can continue to provide the vital therapy and care that is so desperately needed.”

Learner fees, and grants from the Departments of Health and Social Development cover 50% of the costs of providing care and therapy for the learners, all of whom have severe to profound mental and physical disabilities including cerebral palsy, spina bifida and epilepsy amongst others.

The Centre can cater for 120 learners ranging between the ages of 2 and 44, and currently there is space for another 17 learners.

“I think our Centre is the best kept secret in Cape Town,” Opperman says. “Especially as, by the time they come to us, many parents have seen their child turned down by school after school. We want people to know that we are here, and there is hope for a better life for their child.”

Opperman and his team of more than 40 staff members diligently attend to the needs of learners, focusing on their abilities over their disabilities. “Because we know each child is unique, we don’t try to fit them into a box,” says Opperman. “We would rather they do NOT fit into a box, because that means our physios, occupational and speech therapists can work with the teachers and programme implementers to unlock solutions that bring results.”

“I will never forget how I felt when my son Kyle was able to go from drinking out of a bottle to using a cup, and he took his first independent steps at eight years old,” says Jenny Wells, a parent and Board Member. “It may not sound like a milestone, but when you are a parent of a child with special needs, these are huge achievements for you.”

The intensive therapy offered at Friends Day Centre means that “miracles” like these are often seen.

The children who attend Friends Day Centre are not able to cope in schools for the disabled, provided by the government. At the Centre they find a learning environment which allows them to develop life skills and achieve whatever their individual potential may be.

“That’s why the story of Simphiwe – one of our ex-learners – is so inspiring to us,” Opperman says. “We all celebrated with him and his family when the intensive therapy and intervention he got here at Friends Day Centre meant that he could leave us and go to Vista Nova where he will be able to follow the national curriculum and perhaps even get a matric.”

“When the learners arrive in the morning, there is such excitement and joy. A third of our learners come on our buses from all over Cape Town, and I love to see their happy faces as they arrive,” says Opperman. “Our concern is that our fleet is ageing. Two of the three buses are now 15 years old, and we would like to be in a position to update this fleet”

Imagine what it is like for a mother to hear for the first time that her 14 6 year old son loves her. Thanks to a special programme by the school’s AAC Facilitator on a tablet, Ismail, one of the learners at the school, was able to do just that.

“For a child who was totally unable to communicate, this opens so many doors,” Opperman says. “With funding, we will be able to bring in more technological solutions like this to our learners, many of whom are reliant on alternative communication techniques.”

“In order to continue the amazing work done at the Centre we require funding to assist parents of learners pay for their fees. A number of them come from single-headed households. We also need therapy and classroom equipment for the next year,” says Wells, who has drawn up a list of needs with the input from the Head of Classrooms and the Therapy Department, ranging from a bucket to specialised therapy equipment. In addition, the school has a wish list for the larger projects which would make a tremendous positive impact on the learners.

“We are appealing to the public for support in keeping the Centre going and taking us to new heights,” says Opperman.

If you’d like to help Friends Day Centre you can SMS FRIENDS to 49226 at a cost of R20; Sponsor a Learner through the donate button at; nominate Friends Day Centre through the MySchool programme or contact Johann Opperman at 021  511 5801, 073 551 2325 or email for the list of needs.


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