Almost 50 years ago, a group of parents of mentally handicapped children got together with the intention to start a facility for their children. Their strong conviction was that their children were capable of learning simple life skills and should be encouraged to lead as normal a life as possible and not end up in big Government institutions. Another driving force was the parent’s deep concern for the future, should they no longer be in a position to take care for their children. Thanks to the parents’ determination, various members of the public - including a businessman who manufactured shoes and boots for the military - responded and Aid Association was formed (later called the Lake Farm Centre Aid Association). This is a Welfare Organization, properly constituted to define the goals and all future operations.
During the planning stages the decision was taken to send an interested, dedicated couple and their children to UK for a year to view different types of facilities for the mentally challenged child. Ideally, they would work at some of the establishments to gain better inside into the training and needs of children in need of special care. A further instruction to the couple was to find 3 qualified staff members who would be willing to come to South Africa to help to establish a residential centre.
During 1958/59 the parents and interested members of the public organised various fundraising drives and staged a big fête at Grey High School. At the same time they viewed various properties and decided to buy the old and dilapidated Lake Farm Hotel, a country hotel on 6 ha of land which had been built at the beginning of the First World War. At that time, Lake Farm was literally in the bush.
In Sept. 1960 the three voluntary staff members arrived by mail boat after a 3 week voyage and renovations of the buildings started in earnest. This meant clearing of bush, erection of fences, repairing the corrugated iron roof, which was leaking like a sieve, renovating the interior and to demolish the leaking corrugated rain water tanks. There was no electricity or running water. In the evening lighting was from a 12- volt engine which powered a few dim bulbs. The neighbouring farm supplied us with water from their borehole at sporadic intervals. Hot water was a luxury and meant making a fire under a 44 gallon drum. Two galvanised tubs on the grass were used for the washing and the ironing was done with a cast iron which was heated on a Primus stove. We cooked on an Aga stove or with paraffin. An old paraffin fridge occasionally smoked and the pantry would be black with soot.
We were far from being properly organised when we were joined by the first 2 children. A father, who had taken long leave to assist with the renovations, was so stressed by the condition of his 4 year old daughter who was at a Government institution that he begged us to admit her. She joined us before we were ready or officially licensed under the Mental Disorders Act of 1913. The other was a 12 year old boy with whom the parents could no longer cope. Both residents are still in Lake Farm’s care.
On 11 November 1960 we received our licence and before long we had 15 children in residence. Two classrooms were renovated and the children were coached in the daily routine. They attended classes from 09:00 to 13:00 when lunch was served. After lunch they rested and from 15:00 to 16:00 was time for handwork. Classes started at 9:00 as the children had to learn to make their beds and tidy up their dormitories to the best of their abilities. Two of the staff members returned to Europe, discouraged by the continuing shortage of water, lack of electricity and difficult working conditions generally.
The parents paid regular visits and were thrilled with the progress their children were making as well as how well they had settled. They went home for a weekend once a month and for holidays. For each holiday, permission had to be granted by the Department of Health. Leave of Absence Forms had to be completed and, on their return, they had to be re-admitted.
After a years and a half enough funds were available to sink our own borehole and build a storage dam. The excitement was great! We had crystal clear water instead of brown water coming through the old pipeline from the farm next door. Soon electricity followed and life at Lake Farm became easier as modern appliances could be used. Additional children were enrolled and the first house parents were employed and trained. More excitement followed when, during the next summer, a Service Club built us a plunge pool.
In 1966 the van Wyk Commission was appointed by Government, their investigation found that the mentally challenged child who was not educable
might be trainable. Nine years later, in 1975, the Children’s Training Act was passed in Parliament. This entitled the children to an “education”, and Training Centres were established under the Department of National Education. We were informed that Lake Farm Centre could not be registered as a Training Centre, as it was out of town and the authorities felt it would be more beneficial to the children for them to grow up in society, as part of a normalisation program.
In 1970 Lake Farm Aid Association took up the option to purchase a further 12 ha of adjacent land. This proved to be a wise decision, as by 1978, all the children under the age of 16 had to leave and attend the Training Centre in town and Lake Farm started to transform into a centre for adults. Of the original group of over 30 children a nucleus of 14, who were bordering on adulthood, stayed behind.
With this transformation the face of Lake Farm changed. Outdoor activities and workshops replaced the classrooms. Piglets were reared, chickens appeared on the scene to supply eggs, a small vegetable garden was established. From the sale of the pigs we were eventually able to purchase our first Jersey cow and she was tethered to a pine tree for milking. More pigs were reared and sold and we used the proceeds to buy more cows at the local auction sales.
Lake Farm male residents were very enthusiastic and so enjoyed the farming activities that The Farmer’s Club was formed. Each week we had a meeting and, with the help of the Farmer’s Weekly, we improved our knowledge and skills. Running 24 cows, we came across a gem of wisdom which read, “a bad cow eats as much as a high producing animal.” This revelation made good sense and the decision was made to sell all existing cows and, with the money, buy 4 pedigree Jerseys. This was the beginning of our Jersey Stud. In 1982 with assistance from the Rotary Club of Algoa and Nomads we built a dairy, entered a breeding programme and our herd grew apace. Some years later we were invited by the Jersey Breeders’ Association to attend the Agricultural Shows and were proud to compete and win prizes. Gradually we began to produce more milk than we needed for our own use and we started to sell to Nestle and later, when we had managed to purchase a second hand pasteuriser, we offered milk for sale to the public. In the meantime, the workshop was doing well making carpets and knitting jerseys on knitting machines.
The old building was a constant drain on our limited financial resources and we made application to Government for a loan to erect more suitable buildings and housing units for our growing population. Eventually the Department of Social Welfare and Pensions approved the loan and 2 years later the Department of Community Development allocated the necessary funds. Part of this new development also included our own reclamation plant, as the French drains could not cope with 42 residents and staff. Lake Farm’s borehole could not meet the demand and the loan covered the cost of a municipal pipe line. Four years after the application was submitted, the New Buildings were opened in 1979. The loan repayments were very favourable: 5% of the residents’ income (Disability Grant) to be paid back over 40 years.
Our productivity improved, the pottery was opened and the Display Centre was built. The residents were thrilled to see their hand made articles in their “shop”.
Next, an application was submitted for funds to renovate the original building, to build extensions and add more workshops. In 1986, seven years later the renovation scheme was completed and we could accommodate 48 more adults and offer them a variety of skills training. The farm next door came onto the market, further negotiations with the various Departments proved successful and a quick response resulted in Lake Farm purchasing 200ha of land.
The Centre currently has 43 staff members, with 37 residing at the centre, ensuring the 24 hour support and care the centre requires. The Centre provides 10 separate work groups generating employment and the opportunity for residents to make a valuable contribution to the running and upkeep of the centre.
The Centre faces the challenge of making ends meet in a tough fundraising industry and slow economy.
From its humble beginnings Lake Centre had grown into a happy, productive Community where each individual is respected. Many of the foundation members are still making a meaningful contribution and appreciate the quality of life at the Centre.