During our last visit to Thembelihle Home in March, there was an afternoon when the children were returning from school. That day, their individual school pictures had arrived and each child had proudly returned home with copies in hand. With beaming smiles, each child crowded into the office anxiously awaiting their turn to show off their “shots.” At the end of the line sat Director Pumeza Mqhayi. Seamlessly, she took the time to share in the moment with each child. With a comment of admiration and love, she went one by one. The room was a buzz with pride, excitement, and positiveness. This is the standard at Thembelihle Home. Through Pumeza’s leadership each child is made to feel important, valued, and celebrated. We have watched Pumeza grow and develop into the fearless, heartfilled leader that she is, and wanted to share a little bit of her story with all of you.
Pumeza’s connection to Thembelihle Home started in 1999 after she completed her Senior Primary Teaching Diploma and was looking for positions. After a few months, Pumeza’s cousin introduced her to Sister Mary Paulé Tacke. On their first meeting, Sister showed Pumeza Bethany Children’s Home and offered the young teacher a volunteer position as a teacher at the nursery school. Later that year, seeing Pumeza’s love for educating and caring for the children at Bethany, Sister offered her a position teaching at Bethany’s partnering home, Thembelihle Home. This move would prove to be an act of fate. In October of 2002, Pumeza was offered a salaried staff position and a few months later she was asked to become Director of Thembelihle Home. Sixteen years on, Pumeza continues to develop and enrich Thembelihle Home to provide a loving, nurturing place for the children that come through its doors.
Between reviewing supply orders, thanking community supporters that had delivered a car full of much needed donations, and reviewing the staffing for the day, Pumeza sat down with us to share a little of her story and how at 16 years on, she still feels as passionate and inspired as her first year.
SMC: What made you interested in this type of career and what has kept you here?
Pumeza: Growing up, I had no idea or understanding of the concept of what a children’s home was or the need behind a place like Bethany or Thembelihle Home. I always have felt a passion and a drive to work with children and to care for people. The first time I ever visited Bethany Children’s Home, I knew I was meant to be fighting everyday for these children. That calling has never left me.
SMC: What did Sister Mary Paulé Tacke’s support mean to you?
Pumeza: I worked very closely with Sister for many years. Sister was not young when I first met her in her late sixties, but I was always amazed that she continued everyday, sometimes with more energy and longer hours than anyone around her. Her dedication inspires me. I often think about her story and how at such a young age she came to South Africa and dedicated her life to helping and empowering so many. If she did all of that, why don’t I give my very best? There is no one that will be at the same level of energy and dedication as Sister, but it is something that keeps me going and trying every single day.
SMC: What is your favorite part of your job?
Pumeza: My favorite part of the job is seeing children smiling, happy, and appreciating all of the tiny things that have been done to provide a safe and happy place for them. It is what inspires me and gives me joy. Many of the children in our care have come from hopeless situations and in turn, come to us hopeless. I remind myself often of the many children who have been in their same place and have moved through it to become strong and positive people. It is my job to help them do just that. I know that any child that comes to Thembelihle Home may find brightness again in their lives.
SMC: What gives you hope?
Pumeza: In 2005, there was a math teacher position opening in my village. The superintendent approached me and encouraged me to apply. With the promise of more pay, better hours, and being closer to my family, I applied. The next week, the school called me to offer me the position. My family encouraged me to take the position and I spoke with Sister Mary Paulé at length about the opportunity. I don’t believe in destiny or dreams very much, but that night I had a dream and something told me that I was in the place I needed to be. Sometimes what appears to be very good cannot make you truly happy or fulfilled.
If I was a person who was not filled with hope, I don’t think Thembelihle Home would be where it is today. As the Director, it is my job to be hopeful. What gives me the biggest inspiration is my colleague’s dedication, my friends, and my family. My family is the first to support me through the challenging times at Thembelihle Home, of which there are many. They know my work is demanding, and they support me in the long hours and time away from them. It is not uncommon for my siblings to volunteer or visit, and my son, nieces, and nephews also love to visit and play with the friends they have made here. I am grateful that my family loves Thembelihle Home. It is their presence that helps to make Thembelihle a home.
Pumeza is the epitome of humble, and this is reiterated by anyone that knows her or is familiar with her work. She is seamless in providing credit and gratitude to others and will quickly shift any praise to the mentors and staff that surround her. When we sat down with her, we wanted to shine a light on what has kept her at Thembelihle Home doing this work. Thanks Pumeza!