How has teaching homeless people to read helped JANE WOOD put a challenging childhood and bipolar disorder firmly in their place? She told KATY MACDONALD

‘I have a confidence I never had before!’ Jane Wood at Church House in Cape Town’s Kenilworth, where she teaches people who have been living on the street to read and write  |  Photo: Ronelle de Villiers

Jane (76) grew up in England’s Surrey, the daughter of a sales assistant mother and a father who worked in the laundry business. She is married to Roger, a retired teacher and University of Cape Town lecturer, and they live in Diep River. They have two adult children and three grandsons

MY CHILDHOOD WAS A STRUGGLE. My mother was mentally unwell, behaved irrationally, and spent long periods of time away from home being looked after by her sister ‘for her nerves’. My happiest times were when I was fostered out to other families, and it was hard to return home each time. This left me unsure of myself and I struggled at school. I was put in a remedial class, declared ignorant and naughty, and laughed at.

But I think my educational issues ended up being a lifelong motivator for me. I managed to finish high school and went to teacher training college because I wanted to show the world what I thought real teachers should be like. They weren’t to put crosses in sum books, lines through work or say you didn’t work hard!

‘My own educational issues have been a lifelong motivator for me. I wanted to show the world what real teachers should be like,’ says Jane, who teaches reading and writing to students at U-turn twice a week |  Photos: Ronelle de Villiers

At college, I met my husband Roger at the Winnie the Pooh Society! He’s the kindest, gentlest person I’ve ever known. He used to cycle 25km to the women’s residence to visit me at the weekend. My mother never accepted Roger because he was from the north of England, which she considered inferior, so he was never allowed to stay in our house even when we were married. But after many years, my father accepted him and told me he was a ‘perfect partner’ for me.

In 1969 we married and sailed to South Africa, headed for a job in Zambia. We motored all the way up there from Cape Town in a Renault 4 with three gears! We loved Zambia. I started a nursery school, was involved with a youth group and we had our two wonderful children there.

Roger contracted hepatitis after a few years so we went back to the UK for a health break, but we couldn’t settle. I love South Africa, there’s an authenticity about the people here. We’re from so many different backgrounds and cultures, and I find that very exciting.

Jane with husband Roger, a teacher and lecturer to whom she has been married for 53 years. ‘My mother never accepted him but he’s the kindest, gentlest person I’ve ever known,’ says Jane. (Editorial note: we love how Roger’s laces complement Jane’s outfit, a perfect partner indeed!) |  Photo: Ronelle de Villiers

We moved to Cape Town in 1982 to teach. Aware of the disparity in our city, I volunteered first at Pollsmoor Prison and then worked with a group of squatters in Noordhoek. Eight years ago I started working with U-turn, an organisation that helps homeless people become whole again. My role is to help illiterate and semi-literate adults read and write. Just imagine the difference it makes to a 40-year-old to read a book, text a friend, or read to their child for the first time!


24 years ago, I discovered I had bipolar disorder. For many years I’d had manic times, then would come crashing down in depression and be unable to get out of bed for three days. Roger would run the household and look after the children, it must have been hell for him. I remember the kids staring at me as if to say ‘what next’? I longed to be well. In the end, I had a total breakdown and went in desperation to my gynaecologist. He set into motion a chain of medical care, and I’m happy to say that after I found exactly the right medication, things have come completely under control.

I’ve never felt so well in all my life as these last few years. I have no highs and lows, and have a confidence I’ve never had. I see a psychiatrist from time to time, who digs deep and brings things to the fore, especially from my childhood. I’m pretty sure my mother also suffered from bipolar disorder but never got the right help.

It was in my foster homes that I first heard of God’s love for me. This had a profound effect on me later on, when I was 18. I heard in church that without God in our hearts we’re like dry bones and this glued me to my chair. I knew I wanted to give my heart and my life over to God.

I used to think I’d failed God

When I was depressed, I used to think that I’d failed God. Now I understand that Jesus will never, ever leave me and accepts me exactly the way I am. He is so life-giving. It’s amazing how many of my students have bipolar disorder, and now I can help them.

It’s the most exciting voluntary work ever. One guy who was 26 years old, broke down and cried in his first lesson, saying ‘It’s my dream come true for someone to teach me to read.’ I don’t think anyone’s appreciated me in my life like my U-turn students.

I taught a guy called William who left home at 13, lived on the streets of Simonstown for 12 years, but recently graduated from U-turn’s programme and is now working as a trainee mechanic. He also gives back, serving and encouraging others who live on the streets.

Jane’s husband Roger with Wiliam, one of Jane’s pupils, who was homeless for 12 years, but has just started working as a trainee motor mechanic. Roger felt purposeless and depressed after retiring from the University of Cape Town but started helping U-turn out. ‘This work has made such a difference to him’, says Jane

I so recommend voluntary work to others. It’s great to pay back your privilege. After Roger retired from the University of Cape Town, he felt himself slipping into a state where he felt purposeless and it took us a while to realise he was depressed. Then he started helping U-turn out, and he’s currently working with their MiChange voucher system that enables well-wishers to give someone food, toiletries, a shower or bed for the night. This work has made such a difference to him.

Somehow, all the twists and turns of my early life have taken me to the work I’m now doing. I believe I’m meant to be where I am right now, and that God doesn’t make mistakes with our lives. I believe in God even in this day and age for many reasons, including His creation, the beauty all around us, and gifted doctors who I believe are God-given. I would encourage anyone who says they can’t believe in God to go to church with a friend, or they can come with me – it might help [email Jane here].

I love my life, the people I work with, my crafting, our little cottage in Diep River, U-turn and South Africa. Roger is a wonderful friend and support to me, and we’ve been happily married for 53 years. We’re truly blessed.’

‘God is so life-giving! I encourage anyone who says they can’t believe in God to go to church with a friend, or they can come with me!’ says Jane  |  Photo: Ronelle de Villiers

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Jane in her crafting room, Despite life’s challenges,  she loves her life, she says. ‘And I love South Africa, there’s an authenticity about the people here. We’re from so many different backgrounds and cultures, and I find that very exciting.  |  Photo: Ronelle de Villiers
Jane’s children: Catherine and Chris
Proud grandma of three!
And the giving goes on. Thank you, Jane, for so kindly making a delicious lunch for our photographer, Ronelle!
Discover ways to support U-turn’s great work right here
Contact the helpline at SADAG (the South African Depression and Anxiety Group) for free telephonic counselling, info, referrals and resources
24-hour helpline 0800 456 789
To find a counsellor between 8am and 8pm Monday to Sunday, call 011 234 4837
In an emergency, call 0800 567 567
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