A pretty blonde woman walks down Louis Botha Avenue with a sense of purpose and a determined stride. She knows the road well but still she’s careful — undeterred by the loudly hooting taxis and the unrelenting stream of traffic. Isabella Holden is partially blind and every day she hopes the traffic lights are working.
“It’s chaos when the robots are out,” she says. “I just find somebody, anybody — and we walk across the street together. Sometimes I stumble, but I’m not too scared to ask for help.”
The distance from Yeoville, where Holden lives, to the Lifeline offices in Norwood is 5km and for her the route is a daily walk of faith. “As a disabled person you have to take risks. If I get too scared I’ll hide behind a stick or stay at home. I’ve got to be a bit of a cowboy.”
Fearlessness is an attitude that stands Holden in good stead in her job as co-ordinator of the Lifeline victim empowerment programme, which was launched just a year ago and now helps more than 1 000 victims a month. Lifeline Johannesburg manages 17 victim empowerment centres at police stations all over the city, offering victims of crime (mostly women) some sense of dignity in the worst of circumstances.
Victim supporters, says Holden, are trained to offer emotional containment and practical help in every horrific situation. Some rape victims arrive at the centres without a stitch of clothing. “We offer practical help, a strong shoulder to lean on, something to eat, a sanitary towel, clothes and panties.”
Holden is passionate about the project, not only because it offers dignity to victims of violence but also because it provides a stipend for volunteers. There are just three permanent staff members on her team and 65 volunteers in an area that covers Soweto, Lenasia and the inner city of Johannesburg and Holden has big plans for expanding the services offered at the centres.
At 50, she has more energy than someone half her age. “I have found my purpose and I feel very energised by what we do. The project has empowered me as a person; I have been given an opportunity to live out a value system that I hold dear,” she says.
Gratitude is part of her coping skills. “I woke up one day and I couldn’t see. I was just a child. I know that things can be taken away just like that. I have gratitude for what I have in the moment. I appreciate everything.”