She grew up in South Africa’s challenged Cape Flats in a dysfunctional family, failed two school grades and left school without a matric certificate. But WENDY LA VITA pushed back at her stumbling blocks and now, against many odds, is doing a PhD at Stellenbosch University. She’s also founded an NPO to help her community overcome life’s challenges. Here, she tells KATY MACDONALD of four hurdles she faced, and what they taught her that might just help you too 🙂

‘I failed a few times but I’ve never given up. If I can do something with my life, then you can too,’ says Wendy La Vita | Photo: Ronelle de Villiers 

Wendy grew up in Athlone, Cape Town, attended Peak View Primary School and Bridgetown High School. She has one daughter, Gisele, and currently lives in Cape Town’s southern suburbs


I grew up in a simple community where families lived from one pay cheque to the next. The women were mostly stay-at-home moms. Others worked as charladies part-time like my mom, who was very practical, sewed, baked and cared beautifully for our sick and elderly neighbours, but never had the opportunity to go to high school. My dad had a high-school education and a good job but unfortunately had a drinking problem and our family was dysfunctional as a result. I struggled at school due to learning difficulties and had to repeat two grades. Subjects like maths and biology were not for me.

Wendy aged four in an outfit her mother made for her. ‘Mom had practical intelligence and I was her little helper,’ says Wendy. ‘I’d go door-knocking in the neighbourhood selling biscuits and delicacies that we’d baked together. She loved God and would send me to the sick and elderly to take them some soup or biscuits and say a prayer for them. She was a very good role model for me and my Christian faith is grounded in her example.’

At 17, I left school to try to find a job, had no luck, went back to school and failed my grade yet again. ‘I just can’t do this,’ I thought. I decided to go to night school and switch to commercial subjects such as accounting and communication. I spread my matric exams over two years and, finally, I passed! I was so excited. Now I had more opportunities in life.

I found a job in admin at Groote Schuur Hospital and kept studying part-time to open up my options. I took a whole host of short courses, from book-keeping and tourism to business management. Along the way,  I discovered I’d been blessed with linguistic intelligence and studied French, Italian, basic Xhosa, Mandarin and South African sign language!  My friends and family would ask me, ‘Wendy, when are you going to stop studying?’ but it didn’t deter me.

I went on to a number of jobs, including working as a saleslady for Reeva Forman’s beauty business and as a wellness practitioner, and gave birth to my beautiful, precious daughter Gisele. Her father wasn’t interested in playing an active role in our lives, so I tuned in every day for parenting wisdom to a radio programme featuring psychologist James Dobson called Focus On The Family. He inspired me so much that I decided to become a counsellor.

Wendy is a single mother to Gisele. ‘Her father wasn’t interested in playing an active role in our family, so I tuned in every day for parenting wisdom to a radio programme featuring psychologist James Dobson called Focus On The Family,’ she says. ‘He inspired me so much that I decided to become a counsellor.’

I applied to Stellenbosch University but was rejected because I’d spread my matric over two years. So, at the age of 42 I embarked upon a correspondence BA in psychology at UNISA, funded by the South African government’s NSFAS scheme.

The challenges were many. Financial pressures, single motherhood, constant earache from a jaw problem and the sheer workload of studying caused big stress. But I kept praying and crying out to Jesus for support… and then I would experience Him helping me. Once a man came up to me in a mall and said, ‘I think God is telling me there is a big blessing coming your way’. Well, it took a while, but a big blessing DID come my way! Not only did I get my honours degree, but when I then applied to Stellenbosch again, this time for a masters in psychology, I was finally offered a place! At the same time, Gisele, who was now 18 and had studied alongside me at the kitchen table, was accepted for an LLB law degree at the same university. And we were both awarded bursaries!

Going to Stellenbosch was almost unheard of in my community. It was so exciting, though it wasn’t easy. The bursary didn’t cover all my expenses and sometimes it was very hard. But I’m proud to say I graduated with my psychology masters in 2020… in the face of Covid! I was offered doctoral studies by a European university but decided to accept an offer from Stellenbosch for a PhD in public health, for which I’m now studying.

I have osteoporosis in all my joints nowadays which makes typing up my research a real challenge, but I’m very grateful and consider myself blessed to have excelled in areas I never thought I’d be able to go. I intend to continue to offer my services to the non-profit sector, and to broaden my reach to work in public health clinics as a community counsellor, and to research global health.


We all have God-given potential. It doesn’t matter where you come from or how old you are, take a step and try your best. It doesn’t mean you’re going to pass. I failed a few times but I’ve never given up. It’s never too late: I never had access to a bike growing up so I learnt to ride one at the age of 30, much to the amusement of everyone in the neighbourhood! If I can do something with my life, then you can too. ‘Hitch your wagon to a star’, as Waldo Emerson said.

‘Not only did I get my honours degree through UNISA, but when I applied to Stellenbosch again, this time for a masters in psychology, I was finally offered a place!’ It didn’t stop there. Wendy is now doing a PhD in public health | Photo: Rochelle de Villiers
Gisele, who learnt to study alongside her mother at the kitchen table, now has a PhD in law. Here, she holds her doctoral thesis
‘I never had access to a bike growing up so I learnt to ride one at the age of 30, much to the amusement of everyone in the neighbourhood!’ says Wendy. ‘It’s never too late.’

Because of the dangers of living in the Cape Flats, my mom never wanted me to go out at night. But one evening, when I was 26, I went with a friend to get a takeaway and we sat in the car chatting while we waited for our meal. Two men approached and smashed our car windows with massive pangas. I’d never seen such big blades in my life. They made us get out of the car and one demanded my handbag. When I refused, he slashed my face, my hands and my legs. I called out ‘Oh Lord, help!’ and I believe God actually intervened at that moment because my friend managed to chase them off with a plank he found – a man with just a plank chasing off two men with huge blades meant for cutting down trees!

I was in severe shock. Everything, including my whole face, was pouring with blood. After several nights in hospital, an operation on my hand and over 20 stitches in my face. I came home traumatised and suffering flashbacks. Every time I heard a glass break, I’d relive the shattering of the car windows and my whole body would shudder. I was even scared to go out on Thursdays because the attack had happened on that day of the week.

Years later, while doing a part-time counselling course at Cornerstone College, I learnt about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Thinking about this and through what I read in the Bible, I felt it important to deal with the trauma, to go back and change the memories. So, I went back to the scene of the crime and prayed to let go of the memory and forgive the man who’d attacked me. Now I can hear glass shattering without feeling totally traumatised. I still fear going out sometimes and find the incident upsetting to talk about, but I tell myself every day is a good day and that God has said, ‘I will watch over you wherever you go’.


You can overcome trauma. Maybe start by talking about it to people you can really trust who won’t use it for their own gain. I also recommend writing down what you’re feeling. You don’t have to keep it, especially if you’re feeling something negative towards someone. You can just write it down to get it out of your system, then burn it if necessary.

If you can, get counselling: it’s very difficult to overcome trauma on your own. If that’s not possible, counselling books are a good self-help. Work can be beneficial and got me through whatever was happening: you can’t dwell on painful stuff if you’re busy. Meditating on the encouragement that the Bible offers has helped me a lot. God has provided me with comfort and sustenance, over and over. Some of the things I’ve been asking him for have taken years and I jokingly say there’s been interference in my ‘kneemails’ to Him. But eventually He does answer! Now I’m able to relate to others who’ve had traumatic experiences, and counsel them.

‘You can overcome trauma,’ says Wendy, who has discovered this in her studies and experienced it in her personal life

After the attack, my hands and face were scarred. When I saw them, I thought, ‘I need plastic surgery.’ The doctor told me that scars build character, but I thought to myself that a woman doesn’t really need that much character in her face. I’d always felt pretty, so this was horrible, as any woman can imagine.

I took a course in makeup artistry and tried my best to cover up the scars. Then I heard Felicia Mabusa-Suttle saying on TV that we need to affirm ourselves every day. I started doing this, saying, ‘I am bold, blessed, bright and beautiful!’

I also kept repeating the line, ‘I am getting better and better every day in every way’, an affirmation coined by psychologist Emile Coué, who observed that his cancer patients responded better to the treatment when they affirmed the fact that they were getting better.

In time, I’ve accepted my scars. Nowadays, people who I don’t know tell me I look so happy, and that I have a beautiful smile or that I have something special about me. This is more important than looking pretty. I’m able to walk out the door every day without make-up and still feel beautiful: the only thing I put on is lipstick. When I see the scars on my face and hands, I thank God for healing me. I’ve come to realise that beauty really does come from within. I have accepted myself.


Instead of bemoaning what you don’t have or don’t look like, rather focus on accepting yourself and on what you do have. What are your attributes, what do people say they like about you? Write it down and read it out to yourself every day.

Self-talk, self-belief and how you feel about yourself on the inside is very important. I was once illegally thrown out a building in the city centre while cold calling to raise funds for a non-profit organisation. It was very unpleasant, but I decided to go the next building and carry on with my work because I believed in myself even in the face of adversity.

Be positive every day. Spend time with positive programmes, podcasts and books that encourage you, including the Bible, which I believe God uses to speak love and encouragement to all of us.

‘I have accepted my scars and myself,’ says Wendy. Nowadays, people who I don’t know tell me I look so happy, and that I have a beautiful smile or that I have something special about me. This is more important than looking pretty. Focus on accepting yourself and what you have.’  |  Photo: Ronelle de Villiers

My experience was that people without support spiral down to the streets, and I believe God gave me a vision to help disadvantaged communities, so in 2010 I founded an NPO called Beautiful Life Training and Community Development Association. Its purpose is to help families in crisis, not just on the Cape Flats but all over Cape Town. In fact, I hope it can be a used as a model globally. We build partnerships between families, communities, schools, churches and businesses to support co-operatively single parents, unemployed people and families in distress due to economic pressures. We aspire to develop the potential of people who are committed to changing their circumstances.

One of our key offerings is counselling, which we do in local libraries or online to counteract the sense of meaninglessness that can lead people to despair. We also offer skills training, namely telesales, marketing, small business training and beauty consulting.

Beneficiaries of our programmes are required to offer their services to Beautiful Life as volunteers, and to make a small monthly donation to assist others in need. I’m the executive director and provide my services on a voluntary basis along with a team of dedicated volunteers who assist with admin, accounting, fundraising, marketing, publicity and the community work itself. Thanks to the internet, I can counsel people anywhere. I was recently contacted on Beautiful Life’s Facebook page by a student from the North-West Province who was thinking of dropping out of his degree due to family and financial pressures. I was able to connect him with funding channels and talk him through the opportunities waiting for him, and he went on to complete his degree.


Focusing on the needs of others helps us grow as people, and gives us purpose. In fact, it has been found that helping others releases feel-good endorphins that can alleviate pain, reduce stress, improve mood and enhance our sense of well-being. Personally, it has definitely helped me heal from my own trauma. When I go into township schools and am able to build up children who are being exposed to trauma every day and encourage them that they can come out of that place and do something amazing with their lives. It keeps me going.’

Wendy founded the non-profit Beautiful Life Training and Community Development Association to help disadvantaged communities. Here MJ, a Beautiful Life volunteer, reads to primary school children on the Cape Flats
Wendy and Beautiful Life volunteer Ivan share the love through sandwiches at Bokmakirie Primary School
On behalf of Beautiful Life, Wendy and volunteer Samantha receive a R10 000 voucher donation from Shoprite’s ‘I’m for Change’ programme. Members of the public nominated the organisation
Above and below: ‘Helping others helped me heal from my own trauma,’ says Wendy. ‘It has been found that helping others releases feel-good endorphins that can alleviate pain, reduce stress, improve mood and enhance our sense of well-being’

Consider supporting Wendy’s community outreach, Beautiful Life  

  • Opportunities to help include volunteer assistance, business partnering, a website makeover, desk stand, office equipment, laptop, donation towards wifi and other costs, a space that could be used for an office or charity shop, and finally a minibus to transport unemployed people to training workshops, youth to development programmes and children to aftercare.
  • Follow Wendy’s blog 
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