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Birgit Ottermann

Long-term plans for expansion of co-operation outlined

Twenty-five years ago, Stellenbosch University’s (SU) Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS) partnered with the Bishop Lavis community to establish a student-driven primary care facility that addresses the rehabilitation needs of patients within this low socio-economic suburb on the Cape Flats.

Today, the Bishop Lavis Rehabilitation Centre has proven itself to be an important pillar of the community, with both SU and the community reaping the rewards and exciting new plans for even greater cooperation and mutually beneficial initiatives on the horizon. 

“The Bishop Lavis Rehabilitation Centre opened in January 1994 as an academic primary health care centre as part of the Bishop Lavis Community Day Centre,” says Maatje Kloppers, senior occupational therapist and joint manager of the Centre.

“The initiative was the result of negotiations between the Western Cape Department of Health and SU. 

The Department needed a comprehensive rehabilitation service to be delivered to the Bishop Lavis community, while SU needed more places to train healthcare students in primary-level healthcare and community rehabilitation.”

According to Kloppers, the Rehabilitation Centre offers occupational therapy, physiotherapy and speech-language and hearing therapy to the community, as well as dietetics and primary healthcare in collaboration with the Bishop Lavis Community Day Centre. The majority of these services is provided by FMHS students, with supervision from staff.

“What is really special about the Centre is that the treatment and education are provided by an interprofessional team, giving the patient input from a full rehabilitation team and allowing the students to learn about and from the other professions – it’s a win-win situation. Our collective goal is to facilitate patients to achieve their maximum rehabilitation potential and community reintegration.”

The students offer treatment on an individual and/or group basis for a variety of conditions, conduct work and home visits as needed by their patients, and train volunteers and other community partners, such as home-based carers. They are also involved in a number of exciting community projects and health-promotion activities to help empower the community by improving their health literacy and encouraging a healthier lifestyle.

“From my experience, the students bring a very valuable aspect to the treatment of patients – 

the patients find them less threatening (in the sense that they are still studying and also reliant on the patients’ cooperation to complete their clinical placement) and open up more easily,” says Kloppers. “The patients report feeling like they were really listened to and the individual attention stands them in good stead for recovery.

“We also have amazing people from the Bishop Lavis community who volunteer at our Centre with no remuneration at all,” Kloppers adds. “They form a valuable connection to the community and I really feel that without them the Centre would not be able to function.”

SU’s long-term vision

These mutually beneficial initiatives between the FMHS and the Bishop Lavis community over the past 25 years were celebrated with a Community Partnership Day at the Bishop Lavis Public Library, where SU also shared its vision to expand the partnership.

“As part of the City of Cape Town’s Urban Renewal Programme, a new ‘wellness’ centre in Bishop Lavis has been postulated, that may include current rehabilitation services and beyond,” explains Dr Martin Heine, a joint post-doctoral research fellow at the Division of Physiotherapy and Institute of Sport and Exercise Medicine who was recently appointed by the Division of Social Impact to drive the Bishop Lavis vision for the next 25 years. “SU plans to strengthen the current student learning platform to involve not just interdisciplinary, but interfaculty teams of students that can apply their learning there for the betterment of the community.

“Our plan for the next 25 years is to progress from a health-oriented platform to a wellness-oriented platform that potentially includes many more services for the community. We are currently working very hard to create the drive and momentum towards this vision,” says Heine. This involves working together with the City of Cape Town to raise funding for the actual physical infrastructure and pushing towards the implementation of more multi-disciplinary projects that will address the needs of the broader community.

“Once we have achieved this, and it is shown beneficial to the Bishop Lavis community, we would like to explore replicating this model in other areas as well.”


Over the years, the Bishop Lavis Rehabilitation Centre has developed numerous projects to benefit the community. These include:

  • The SLEAK (Skills, Learning and Educational Activities for Kids) service-learning project, managed by the Division of Occupational Therapy and aimed at high-risk learners at Bishop Lavis Primary School. This involves constructive leisure time activities to develop the learners’ resilience and transferable skills (for example respect for others and the environment) in order to develop their future work skills.
  • A peer-to-peer education project by the Division of Physiotherapy, with the goal of improving the self-management of non-communicable diseases within the Bishop Lavis community and preventing secondary complications, such as strokes and amputations. This includes peer-to-peer educators sharing their personal stories of non-compliance leading to complications with others at the Rehabilitation Centre to prevent them from going down the same path.
  • The Bishop Lavis Rehabilitation Centre’s annual Big Walk in October, a highlight on the community calendar that forms part of the Bishop Lavis Community Day Centre’s Health Festival and encourages the community to get more active. The occupational therapy students are responsible for organising the event, obtaining sponsorship and doing all the marketing, whereas the physical therapy students coordinate warm-ups for the Big Walk as well as a popular fitness steps test competition, and the dietetics students perform body mass index testing.
  • A vegetable gardening project that is growing from strength to strength, offering a green space for patients to receive therapy, as well as producing vegetables for soup prepared by volunteers for the Centre’s patients in winter. The garden is run by two male volunteers who are avid gardeners (and former patients of the Centre) in conjunction with the occupational therapy students. They use and produce planting containers from pallet wood of different sizes and heights to also accommodate patients in wheelchairs.
Photo credit: Nardus Engelbrecht and Wilma Stassen