Parow youth refuge feels impact of both Spanish Flu and Covid-19

Bernard Engel lives in Lotus River.

Missionary Bernard Engel is the facility manager of a Parow Valley youth-care centre that was founded 101 years ago for children orphaned by the Spanish Flu of 1918. Now it finds itself facing a new global pandemic.

The Holy Cross Child and Youth Care Centre has 96 children, aged 2 to 18, mostly from the northern suburbs. It is a refuge for children placed by the court from violence and abuse.

With his eyes crinkling behind his mask, Mr Engel, who lives in Lotus River, says lockdown is the opposite of what adolescents want to do. They want to be outside, with their friends and at school. Some have grown restless during lockdown and a few have even tried to abscond, he says.

The centre has a three-story unit for its 85 girls and a house for the 19 boys. There is also a chapel and a swimming pool. Three social workers provide therapy.

Mr Engel grew up in a child-care centre in Kamieskroon. His father was an evangelist, one of his two sisters is a social worker, his brother a teacher. They all ended up in humanities, says Mr Engel who studied business retail management and theology in Cape Town. Mr Engel left the Northern Cape to manage Heatherdale Children’s Home in Athlone during its transition to become a rehab centre.

His wife, Karen, works at Valkenberg as a food-service aid. Their son, Stephen, 19, recently finished matric in Kamieskroon and moved to Cape Town earlier this year. Daughter Grace Lee, 10, lives at home. They couple have also raised three other children who have since grown up and flown the nest.

Before lockdown, parents could visit their children at Holy Cross and those parents who weren’t perpetrators could spend holidays with them under certain conditions. Mr Engel says it’s hard denying the children face-to-face visits with their parents and restricting their time outside.

Screening, temperature checks, routine hand washing and use of sanitiser are now a way of life at the centre, but Mr Engel says there’s no control over what staff do when they go home and while most of the children stick to the rules there are always a few who don’t.

The good thing about lockdown, he says, is that he spends more time with his family. They share chores, play board games or watch TV together in the evenings, and he and Grace-Lee enjoy cooking together. Both he and Karen are essential workers so when they get home they first have to wash hands, sanitise and change their clothes before they greet their daughter or touch.

He says he misses the freedom of visiting his family home in Kamieskroon. They usually go once a month. “It’s very quiet, peaceful and safe and the drive is therapeutic. We live in a quiet street. There are not even dogs,” he smiles.