“Psychiatric patients have been neglected by society at large, and if we only make a difference to one patient on one day, then we’re doing something worthwhile and making an important difference.”
– Francoise Robertson, founder of the Friends of Valkenberg Trust
It all started in 1994 when Brian Robertson, who was then Professor of Psychiatry at UCT and Head of Psychiatric Services, asked his wife, Francoise, to help him improve conditions for the patients at Valkenberg Psychiatric Hospital.
Together they decided to start by asking family members of hospital patients what they saw as the most pressing needs. Francoise invited three mothers to her home to discuss their concerns. In no time they agreed the old Admission Wards had to be renovated. For these mothers the most painful part of the hospital experience was admitting a loved one into a run-down, cold, and gloomy ward. They also felt that the overworked staff--battling with budgets--needed support. There just wasn’t enough time to give patients the individual attention they needed.
With the support of the Department of Psychiatry, Cape Support for Mental Health, and The Comcare Trust, Fran “called a couple of friends” and formed a team of concerned, caring, and practical people. Together they worked on plans to fund and build new admissions wards.
They were in the middle of an exciting programme of activities when the government announced in 1997 that everything should be put on hold as Valkenberg Psychiatric Hospital was to be closed. Put everything on hold? Just the opposite. Fran and her volunteers, the medical staff, and members of the public were galvanised into action and got a petition signed by service users and concerned members of the public. They organised a march with friends and patients to protest the closure. After two years of relentlessly challenging the government’s decision they were rewarded with a YES. The hospital would remain open.
Fran formed a trust and with support from volunteers, trustees, and hospital staff they began fundraising to build the new admissions wards and expand the range of services offered by the Friends.
Despite external and internal challenges the new “High Care Unit” was completed in 2005, but the work of the trust had only just begun. The dedicated group proceeded with enthusiasm and vigour in offering immediate service to fulfill patients' identified needs.
Friends works alongside hospital staff to offer a range of services which support the recovery of those admitted to Valkenberg. Perhaps more important than the skill or service which our volunteers provide is the warmth and attention they offer. Professional staff may not always have the time to chat, but our volunteers have the time to listen and enjoy conversation while bringing hope, life, and dignity.
“People have been wonderful, and even in the darkest days when continuing seemed improbable and frustration levels sky-rocketed, the generosity and understanding of friends, the public and business kept us going–-while there is a patient who is side-lined, feels ignored, or needs a train fare, we’ll be here.” – Fran.