Southfield woman of steel

Ursula Schenker in her home.

In celebration of Women’s Month, the Bulletin will be looking at inspiring women in our community each week.

Ursula Schenker, a Southfield “mbokodo”, popular in the community for her development work sat down with us just a few days before Women’s Day, on August 9.

She reflected on her experiences as a trauma counsellor at the Diep River police station for eight years, a community development worker, mother to Leigh Jansen, who survived a horrific train fire last year, and as a woman who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer.

The famous African saying goes, “Wathinta abafazi, wathinta imbokodo” (You strike a woman, you strike a rock), and Ursula embodies those words.

She describes her role in the community as someone who is there to help the vulnerable wherever she can and to make them aware of their rights.

She sits on the board of the St Michael’s Child and Youth Care Centre in Plumstead and the Prison Care and Support Network Outreach Programme which works closely with Pollsmoor Prison. She’s also the chairperson of the Associated Seniors’ Club, which organises bus trips for the elderly, and she is the vice-chairperson of the Diep River Community Police Forum.

She tells how her desire to make an impact in the community all started with her becoming a trauma counsellor.

“I was involved in a car accident in Simon’s Town in 2007; my husband was driving. I remember how I would feel panicked every time I got into the car after that, but what I would notice was that I wouldn’t feel panicked when I was driving alone, it was only when he was driving. I saw an advert in the Bulletin that they were looking for trauma counsellors at the Diep River police station so I thought let me go and hear what’s this about.”

After being counselled through her trauma and dealing with the realities of her triggers, Ursula realised she was suffering from post-traumatic stress after the accident.

She says the counselling helped her so much that she thought of all the other people who have dealt with traumas but not been counselled.

After taking a course at the station, Ursula left her job in international trading and became a trauma counsellor in 2011.

She counselled various victims and victims’ family members who had faced rape, murder, hijacking and other crimes.

“For me the true reward is bumping into people at the supermarket, some that I would have even forgotten about, and they would tell me, ‘You know what, Ursula, you helped me through this, now I feel better.’

“The job of a trauma counsellor goes beyond simply working with SAPS, you build connections with community members.”

In March 2018, Ursula was appointed as a commissioner of oaths and community development worker by the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development.

Her job is to look at the processes when there are issues to be dealt with in the community and look at what she can do to help.

“ I’m really passionate about protecting the vulnerable, especially children and senior citizens. Then there’s also the prisoners: I look at why they are drug addicts and why they re-offend. I look at why, after they’ve studied for years in prison, they still can’t get jobs. I look at issues of joblessness, housing and the rights of refugees. How is social development working with these people? Are the people aware of their grants and their rights? I look at the practicalities and try and assist wherever I can.”

Many call Ursula one of the mothers of the community. She talks about her family, being a mother to four children and a grandmother to seven. She also talks about having gone through one of the most difficult experiences of her life last year in May when her daughter survived a train fire that left her with third-degree burns on her upper body, neck and face. She was in hospital for over a month and could not work for the rest of 2018 (“Train survivor speaks out,”Bulletin, April 25 2018).

Ursula visited her daughter in hospital every day and says she was heartbroken to see her grandson see his mother in such a state.

As the eldest of her surviving siblings, Ursula says she feels she has to be the family’s rock at all times. So when she found a lump in her breast a month ago she

told her family, then encouraged them to be strong and reassured them she planned to be around for a while still.

“When I told my grandson I have breast cancer, he said, ‘So are you going to die now?’ I laughed, I said, ‘No, we’re all going to die, but I’m not dying now.’

“Luckily I found the cancer in the early phases, so I’m going to radiation on the 19th (of August)… I just wanted my family to be more aware of it and for other women to know that a lot of us get this.”

Ursula says when she told others in the community about her diagnosis she was surprised to find just how many other women

faced breast cancer and survived.

Ursula is living proof that women are truly strong and are the rocks of their communities.