Sunday Times

Students in need have a Fairy Godmother


When university lecturer “J” was co-opted just over six years ago onto the University of the Western Cape’s assessment committee and tasked with reviewing the applicatio­ns of students who had missed writing their final exams, her life was changed forever.

“I had come from a different university and had never encountere­d anything like this before. It was unconscion­able,” she told the Sunday Times, describing what prompted her to create her anonymous online persona, UWC Fairy Godmother.

“One of the cases was a law student who couldn’t get to his final exam because he did not have R60 for transport. I was shocked. This guy was now in danger of failing because of 60 bucks. So I mailed him and said: ‘You don’t know who I am, but I am horrified by what happened to you. I have come up with a plan and want to know if you are up for the idea of working with me on something,’” she said.

That student — who is now qualified and doing his articles — was up to the challenge. They agreed it would be best to work anonymousl­y, and so the fairy godmother concept was started and it has grown into an effective resource that aids students while preserving their dignity.

“I actually met up with that young man whose identity has never been disclosed, but who I regard as my firstborn child. He turned out to be a beautiful writer, anxious to pursue law and so good at expressing himself,” said J, who declares: “I promise I am a real person, it’s just not important to know who I am.”

In August 2017 she launched the UWC Fairy Godmother Facebook page, and her hand-picked student, identified only by his student number, went public with his story.

“He wrote: ‘Hello everybody, this is who I am, and this is what I would like to do with my life,’” and he detailed his plight. Immediatel­y, people responded with offers of help and kindness.

“A few people gave him once-off funding for various things, and one woman — who I later found out was my neighbour who I had never met — funded his taxi fare of R1,200 a month for the duration of his academic career,” J said.

That one story sparked others, and for more than six years now the UWC Fairy Godmother has been helping students with all manner of things — from simple gifts of toiletries, food, data, transport, to a graduation outfit or a pair of shoes for a job interview.

“We’ve got a bit of momentum now and I’ve establishe­d a group of diehard supporters always ready to help. The challenges here are incomprehe­nsible. Everybody knows university fees are expensive, but there is so much more involved in getting a good education,” J said.

These included issues such as a daily taxi fare of R60, a broken device or students choosing to skip lectures “because it’s hot as hell in Cape Town, they can’t afford a few bucks for deodorant and don’t want to be the stinky kid in class”.

“People laugh it off as a small matter, but it’s huge. Some kids must choose between going to class and eating. It’s horrible. They’re in a new place with no family. They have no laptop or tablet. Can you imagine writing a 3,000-word essay on a phone? But plenty do. How do you spellcheck and edit that? No, man, people shouldn’t have to live like this,” she said.

Her page works in a straightfo­rward manner, with the identities of both donors and recipients kept secret. Students in trouble post their story and explain their need, and page followers or donors respond. The student, once helped, posts feedback on the page and communicat­es with the sponsor.

One of J’s diehard donors is pharmacist Briony Chisholm, currently on a fundraisin­g mission for UWC Fairy Godmother, “armrunning” 80km in memory of her mother, who passed away recently.

Chisholm is a quadripleg­ic who has been wheelchair-bound since a car accident in 1996. After making the “amusing” discovery that by waving her arms she could get her phone to register the movement as steps, she decided to embark on sponsored “armrunning” challenges to raise funds for the UWC Fairy Godmother.

“I did it for the first time during Covid when I was bored to tears during lockdown,” she said, explaining what led to her first venture, which raised R40,000. She had been an avid follower of the page and had sponsored a few students.

She decided to raise R8,000 by armrunning 80km. But as soon as she started the donations coming in jumped above that, and she raised the target to R18,000.

J’s success stories litter her Facebook page, even in the “stop-start confusing beginning of the 2024 academic year”. She says that because she is an academic at the university, students feel safe, knowing they are dealing with an “insider”. And she gets to meet many of them without them knowing who she is.

“Some people are critical and make claims like, ‘That girl is going to spend the money on drugs and alcohol.’ That’s absolute rubbish. These are good, smart kids who work with tiny budgets and make good choices,” she said.

Student 3311231 posted a request for assistance to pay his rent as he was on the verge of eviction.

“Good evening fairy, let me bow down and thank you for every huge and little thing you have done for me. Please thank the funders for me, may God bless them ... I have a place to rest my head and my cupboards are good for me to survive, all because of you, fairy, and the funders. Thank you so much. God bless you Godmother, you and the funders are godsends in my life. I’ve been in tears of happiness ever since, because when I look back I never thought I could be like other children and have a better grocery cupboard and stuff.”

 ?? Picture: Supplies ?? Briony Chisholm is on a quest to raise R18,000 for the ‘UWC Fairy Godmother’ in memory of her mom, who passed away in November.
Picture: Supplies Briony Chisholm is on a quest to raise R18,000 for the ‘UWC Fairy Godmother’ in memory of her mom, who passed away in November.

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