From a sand patch in Westlake Village, Eleanor Lawrence has grown what began as a small crèche into a thriving pre-school of 180 children.
She has a huge heart and an infectious laugh, no wonder she is affectionately known as “teacher”.
But now she is retiring as principal of Emmanuel Educare – her second retirement.
Her first was 15 years ago, when she left Steenberg Primary School, after teaching there for 25 years. She was encouraged by Richard Fothergill, pastor of the Church of the Holy Spirit, to run the school in Westlake. In 2001 they started with 32 children taking lessons in the drill hall at Westlake United Church Trust (WUCT).
Eleanor recalls Blake Parker, a retired consulting engineer who was very involved practically at the beginning of the project to build a pre-school on a sandy patch next to the hall.
“He bought a washing machine for nappies, but I told him to take it back. I’m a primary school teacher not a crèche,” she laughs.
The following year, philanthropist Jamie McGregor, directed a core group of Christians from Tokai and Constantia parishes. Meanwhile, the burgeoning community grew, classes expanded to four, one in each corner of the hall. Eleanor recalls how people were squatting around Westlake and how Mr Parker helped them to leave, paying their bus and train fare.
But with money from the Lotto they were able to build a new school. “When finished, I used my big mouth and brought things from home to make it look nice,” she laughs.
WUCT general manager Dave Barnes says Eleanor is a capable, charismatic, faith-driven woman who has a teacher’s heart and is greatly missed.
He recalls having once or twice received the most endearing insult. “When Eleanor said to me, after I had teased her a bit, you rubbish Dave. Then she proceeded to laugh until tears ran down her cheeks. Then she exclaimed, just imagine calling the manager a rubbish.”
Blake Parker encountered many problems, which Eleanor resolved with tenacity and prayer. “I remember one end-of-year concert when a lot of the children were from the DRC, and during their act they reverted to French from the English, and Eleanor would shout English! English!”
Eleanor says many children arrive at the school and stare at the teachers with vacant eyes. “There are nine languages spoken in the school. Many children arrive not knowing a word of English or understanding and leave fluent and with good manners and are school-ready,” she says.
Close friend Mim Haggie, says Eleanor’s energy and perseverance have inspired many.
“Emmanuel is a school of excellence whose work is respected beyond the boundaries of Westlake. Her children go on to schools further afield and are beautifully prepared for school-readiness.
“Her great enthusiasm has at-tracted others to see the worth of the work being done at Emmanuel and she leaves a legacy that is pre- cious.”
Anthea Thebus of WUCT has worked with Eleanor for 14 years and says she knows her as a woman of prayer. “Everybody in Westlake Village knows her as teacher with the loud voice.
“Her words of encouragement, reprimand and good solid advice will be missed by all at WUCT. We have grown to love and appreciate her. When I walk down the passage at the school, I still see Eleanor in the shining floors and everywhere is so neat and tidy.”
Reverend Gordon Crowther of Church of the Holy Spirit, liked Eleanor the moment he met her.
“Her passion and vitality are so attractive as well as her straightforward way of engaging. When she first showed me around the school, there were no classrooms and children took a midday nap in a pile of bodies surrounded by stacked furniture on mats on the concrete floor of the hall. I saw that Eleanor was the glue that kept the school in routine and in shape despite the lack of facilities,” he says.
Martha Bridgman remembers when her close friend was due to travel to Britain several years ago to visit her daughter, Inga Williams. “This formidable lady was hit by a smash-and-grab theft when driving in Lavender Hill. The robber took her bag, with her air tickets, passport and money for travel.
“She was not going to allow this fellow to get away with her bag, so she began to follow him as he ran away, apparently ramp- ing the pavement at times to do so.
“She watched him run into an apartment block and began bellowing out the window of her car that she’d been robbed and wanted her bag back.
“As she had been a teacher for years in that area, many of her former pupils were now teens or young adults, and when they realised it was ‘Auntie Eleanor’ a crowd gathered.
“Some young men went up-stairs, located the thief hiding under a bed with the bag.
“Only the cash was missing. The next day, after she thanked the Lord for the return of her bag and effects, she asked him to now help with the missing cash.
“And yet another friend, Pat Fourie, recalls wonderful memories of working with Eleanor with the start-up of the crèche.
“I most admired her for her strong faith in God and expectation for provision for the school and the children.”
Eleanor says Westlake Village started with a population of 700. The population is growing and believes the more children they have they feel blessed, and yet they can’t feed them.
Ms Lawrence son Shaun Law-rence lives in Australia with his family.