A group of people currently being treated at the Good Hope Psychological Service have made a beautiful safe space garden for people working through their struggles.
In South Africa, thousands of people suffer from trauma on a daily basis, but do not have access to psychological help.
Social injustices, poverty, substance abuse, a lack of education and unemployment are all factors that contribute greatly to a society faced with a myriad of mental health challenges.
In order to contribute to the healing and well-being of South Africans and our communities, one of Valcare’s nonprofit member organisations, Good Hope Psychological Service (GHPS), offers free professional psychological therapy to families, individuals, victims of crime and youth.
Support Groups for Psychiatric Patients
Amongst many of GHPS’s services, they also offer support groups for psychiatric patients who wouldn’t be able to afford psychological support elsewhere.
One of these groups was started by a passionate therapist, Sara van Tonder, back in 2005 and consisted of 35 people who had experienced severe trauma.
During one of her sessions that focused on sexual molestation, Sara realised that there were many people in the group who were sexually molested or raped. The patients started opening up and began formulating how people feel who went through such a heart-breaking and horrific ordeal.
The therapeutic experience was so effective that it opened a door for them to discover and express their emotions in a way that some of them have never managed to do before.
The group had a desire to physically do something that represented their paths, and decided to curate their stories and experiences in the form of a garden.
Establishing a Garden of Healing in Paarl
On an open, barren and unused plot of land next to the TC Newman Clinic in Paarl East, the patients started placing plants and objects that represented their emotions.
A path was developed through the garden and up until today, every single item in the garden symbolises something that happened to something in the group.
“As you walk through the garden, you are faced with real stories of survivors and you are also confronted with your own experiences,” says Sara van Tonder.
There are lots of cacti in the garden. Its sharp edges say; “Don’t touch me. Stay away.” A familiar feeling of being dirty.
There is also a frame with a window that says: “I am vulnerable, everyone can see that I have been raped.”
A skeleton of a man-made from wire, stands in the garden, an object, as he feels that his body is no longer his: “People just come and take as they please.”
The pathway full of rocks tells a horrific story. Whilst a woman was walking home, someone attacked her, strangled her and dragged her on a rocky path. She lost her ability to smell and taste food due to the brain damage she obtained.
A prostitute added her drug pipe to the garden: “I was sexually molested and became a prostitute and drug addict whilst searching for meaning.”
A Journey of Hope for All
Many people from all over the world come to see and experience the garden.
“I have seen so many victims of rape and molestation break down when, for the first time, they find the words to describe what happened to them,” says Sara.
The garden is both a therapeutic and an informative training space. People who have been through these traumatic ordeals can associate with what they see in the garden, whilst others experience compassion and a deeper understanding of how to support someone who went through it.
However, the garden does not end there. Another part of the garden acts as a healing garden and includes an opportunity for mindfulness with a labyrinth to help bring people back to the present.
“People normally talk about before I was raped and after I was raped. The rape becomes a defining element of their life, as if everything stopped with the act. The garden challenges that,” explains Sara.
The group is encouraged to enter the garden with prayer and meditation as well as leave their problems in the garden and walk out with a thankful heart.
Getting Stronger Together
The psychiatric patients often cannot attend the support group by themselves, and come to the session with a family member who also joins in the discussions and activities.
When they talk about their experiences, they also allow others to acknowledge their hurt and loss.
The progress in the group has been phenomenal. One of the patients were in a very challenging space and even ate sand and rocks, but today he is integrated into the group, works in the garden and enjoys sharing a meal with others.
At the Garden of Hope, everyone has the space to tell their story, own it and then go on create a new headline for their lives.
Sara van Tonder walked an interesting road to be the change-maker that she is today. Even though she obtained five degrees and worked in various occupations, including being an entomologist, lecturer and printing business owner, she always felt that she wasn’t entirely happy.
After she fell from the roof of her house and got severely injured, she realised that she needed to start making a direct difference in the lives of others.
She saw psychology as a great conduit to help others and completed her Masters in Clinical Pastoral Counselling at Stellenbosch University. After her internship at Good Hope Psychological Service (GHPS) in Stellenbosch, she phoned the founder and offered to start a branch in Paarl.
Her wish was granted, and this year marks 13 years that Sara has been working as the Clinical Pastoral Counsellor at TC Newman Hospital in Paarl.