Hout Bay Samaritan hailed a Lead SA hero

Joanne Chemaly.

Thula Thula Hout Bay founder Joanne Chemaly’s efforts co-ordinating disaster relief for victims of the Imizamo Yethu fire have seen her named Lead SA Hero of the Month for March.

The prestigious award recognises South Africans making a difference in their communities.

Since the fire of Friday and Saturday March 10 and 11, Thula Thula has been a constant presence at various points around Hout Bay, collecting and distributing food and other essentials to fire victims.

While the organisation was formed two years ago in response to fires in Hout Bay, last month’s inferno was of a scale no one could have expected.

Ms Chemaly described the Lead SA recognition as a “surprise and lovely honour”.

“To us, it means that a small idea, starting in my garage as a desire to be more helpful by pre-packing toiletries, clothing and groceries which would allow a more immediate response to the needs of those who have fallen victim to the destruction and devastation of fires, has had more of an impact than we thought possible,” she said.

What has made Thula Thula’s contribution even more remarkable is that it usually operates with only five “permanent” members, although these members also hold down day jobs.

“We are a very small organisation, but we walk among people with huge hearts. We have had the most amazing volunteers: Capetonians, tourists visiting at the time of this tragedy, corporate organisations, local business and retailers, schools, local government, City disaster management, law enforcement, metro police and SAPS have stepped up to offer support, hold our hands and carry our community through this devastation,” she said.

“Just one of our distribution days at the soccer field had the support of over 350 volunteers. It was amazing to watch all races, genders and nationalities come together for one single purpose – to uplift and help.”

She thanked Jessica Boonstra and the team from Alchemize for designing a registration app that had helped Thula Thula identify and communicate with fire victims.

“We are able to register a victim within minutes. Each victim receives a unique ID number and we are then able to communicate via SMS, advising families when and where they can collect clothing or groceries.”

On a personal level, Ms Chemaly acknowledged that balancing her corporate job with relief efforts had been “very overwhelming at times”, but she had had a lot of support.

“I am in an incredibly fortunate position that my director is very proud of the work we do within the community. I have also received incredible support from my family and friends, especially as the March 11 fire occurred within days of a knee operation.”

She said the way the Hout Bay community had responded confirmed her belief that the town was “like a true family”.

“We will squabble among ourselves over the little things, but when there is a crisis in the family, we put all differences aside and come together to do what must be done. I have seen volunteers work 15 hours straight in the baking sun. I have seen volunteers cry and laugh. I have seen volunteers offer the smallest gesture like offering a fire victim a lift from a soccer field on distribution day, carrying their bags full of clothing, and this gesture being received with such gratitude. It reminded me that there is no such thing as a small gesture of giving.”

Those interested in registering as a Thula Thula volunteer can visit www.thula-thula.org and follow the links,.

Tomorrow, Saturday April 22, Thula Thula will do another field distribution at the Hout Bay Sports Complex, from 6.30am. Victims of last weekend’s fire are also welcome to collect grocery buckets, kettles and stoves.