How has CEO CHRISTELLE CORNELIUS worked through personal tragedy to give hope and opportunities to vulnerable children? Leading the team at a shining light of a children’s facility called St Joseph’s, she told KATY MACDONALD of the joy she experiences through her work, how she wrestled with life’s big questions and how she’s ultimately made peace with them

‘Trauma changed me’: CEO Christelle Cornelius (third from left) with husband Neville, daughters Kristen and Ronalee, and dog-who-thinks-she’s-a-daughter, Taffy Africa | Photo: Ronelle de Villiers
Christelle with a child in her care at St Joseph’s Home for Chronically Ill Children | Photo: Leentjie du Preez

Christelle (46) was born in Kwa-Zulu Natal, the third of five children born to a father in the car business, and a mother who worked part-time in retail. After studying occupational therapy at the University of the Western Cape, she worked at Groote Schuur Hospital and in community development before becoming CEO of St Joseph’s Home for Chronically Ill Children shortly before the Covid pandemic. She’s married to Neville, owner of a property maintenance business, and they live in Muizenberg with their two daughters

MY PERSONAL TRAUMA STARTED WHEN I WAS 27, married to the love of my life, and two weeks away from giving birth. My mom was in a car accident, and died as a result. Part of the tragedy was that my dad was the driver of the car, and he struggled to make peace with this

For the first time in my life, my world was completely shaken. Here’s this good God who I believed had sustained our family and helped us get through stuff, but this was like, ‘Seriously?’ I negotiated quite a bit with God, I even asked Him to save my mom and take my baby’s life because I hadn’t met her yet and I really wanted my mom to stay. Now I think, what a silly thing to have been doing with the Most High God about a child that He gave to me. My daughter’s almost 19 now. To think what life would have been like without her is a bit overwhelming

Christelle on her wedding day with parents Ron and Vee Cornelius

It was really hard to become a mother just after losing my own. But we started to heal as a family and talk about it. Four years later, on a day I’ll always remember, a colleague remarked that I was very attached to my dad. I said, ‘Yes, he’s the light of our home in many regards, he’s there for my girl, he helped me raise her without my mom.’ Then I thought, ‘What if something happens to him? But God will never allow that again.’ The next day I got a call: my dad had been murdered

He was shot in his driveway, we don’t know why. Maybe someone was trying to steal something

There were no goodbyes. It was, and is, very hard. I was angry that there could ever be a good God, because what good God does this thing?

The gift I nonetheless have is that I can look back at 30 years of nurturing and absolute love that I had from my parents. At 46, I can still dip into that pool of love and get filled up on the days when I’m feeling empty

By contrast, the children we encounter here at St Joseph’s Home are often under five when their life-changing event started, and have had little nurturing or care

But, every day, a child here at St Joseph’s has the opportunity for their life to change

St Joseph’s Home for Chronically Ill Children: ‘Every day, a child here has the opportunity for their life to change,’ says Christelle | Photo: Leentjie du Preez

St Joseph’s offers transitional care to children coming to us from hospitals where they’ve had acute incidents. They’re medically stable but medically fragile, and need some kind of nursing support and rehab to integrate back into their homes. We prepare them and their families for their return home. With a child with HIV or diabetes, you’ve got to help them and their parents understand that living with this is not going to be just till tomorrow, it’s forever

The vulnerability that most of our children come from is dire. There’s food insecurity, low income, social difficulties, trauma and volatile communities. A high percentage have infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV. We also have children with neurological difficulties,  as well as other challenges such as traumatic brain injury following an accident

But the children come to this place of safety, healing, love and care!

The medically fragile children at St Joseph’s come from vulnerable circumstances into a place of  ‘safety, healing, love and care’, says Christelle | Photos: Leentjie du Preez

We can take up to 175 children and on average they spend six months here receiving 24-hour nursing care and rehabilitation

We have 132 full-time staff, seven part-time contractors, and I lead six managers who in turn lead their own teams. I walk through the entire home every day and continuously check to make sure we’re serving the children as we’ve promised to do

I always joke that my job here is to make sure that there’s petrol in our cars and milk in the fridge! But, essentially, my role as leader is to ensure that it’s always a healing place for children – from the grounds to the people to the services we offer. That we’re compliant with the Department of Health and we’re providing growth and development for the children


Children have such a spirit of resilience! It’s amazing to watch children who’ve had such trauma recover. You can never predict each patient’s recovery, but we live with that hope. Every time they achieve a milestone it makes us more hopeful about what we do and how we do it, and encourages us to keep going

One of our success stories is Dicklin, who was hit by a car last year, suffering a brain injury, a skull fracture and harm to his right eye. When he came to us, he was in a wheelchair and needed complete assistance for all activities of daily living such as bathing, eating and dressing. We gave him intense rehabilitation and he’s made remarkable progress in all aspects of his daily living, and has regained all his basic learning skills

We also have a young boy here who was burnt on 90% of his body. His rehab has been so long that he’s been nine years with us! But he finished his primary education here, had his final skin graft this year, and a few weeks ago he started at the skills school. Seeing him dress up in the morning and go to school inspires me

The home was clinical inside until eight years ago, when an anonymous funder told us to reimagine this space. It’s now set up with windows on the world and a lot of light, a much more engaging space for children

Dicklin was hit by a car last year, suffering brain injury, a skull fracture and damage to an eye that rendered him unable to eat, dress or wash himself. Intense rehab by the St Joseph’s staff has seen him making remarkable progress, and he has regained all his basic learning skills. ‘Thank you, St Joseph’s, for giving our child back to us,’ says his parents. ‘We thought he would have a life-long disability.’ Dicklin simply says: ‘I love the nurses and therapists at St Joseph’s so much.’
Children at St Joseph’s regularly wash some of their clothing items as part of the home’s self-management and hygiene programme | Photo: Leentjie du Preez

Another beautiful part of the home is having the Pallottine convent community which founded it very present here. Their forbears came here from Germany 87 years ago, giving up their families, their countries, everything, to respond to sick children

There are four religious sisters living and working here, and a parish priest. I think that having people whose hearts and souls are committed to praying for the service and the children to thrive creates a different level of integrity in our work. The core of this place is the chapel, where you can just sit and have a reflective moment. The sisters started a school on site for those of our children who can’t attend mainstream schools, and it’s run by the Western Cape Education Department

‘The core of this place is the chapel, where you can just sit and have a reflective moment,’ says Christelle | Photo: Leentjie du Preez
‘A beautiful part of the home is having members of the Pallottine convent community living and working at the home,’ says Christelle. St Joseph’s was founded 87 years ago by a convent community who came out from Germany in response to tuberculosis, polio and other illnesses ravaging South African children | Photos: Leentjie du Preez

I often think about the fact that the sisters came all that time ago in response to polio and TB, and today we’re still fighting TB in South Africa. But on the positive side, we didn’t lose a single staff member or child to Covid!

We’ve got a 31-year-old young woman living with us who was born with hydrocephalus, in a non-communicative state. When she was three, the sisters were told she would not live long. She’s now 31 and doesn’t move – she stays in bed and needs constant care – but she’s never had a single bed sore

Not every child here is going to recover so that they walk out of our gates with full functionality. But they are still loved and respected, and we are always thinking, what’s their next step, how can we help them reintegrate back into their community?


Some of our children die, but they die with dignity and care.  Oh, I have seen our staff give our end-of-life children such loving care. We work hard on making a safe space for children to die in a loving environment, and for their parents or caregivers to be cared for too, as they go through losing someone young. We created a beautiful private place where they can say goodbye to their loved one away from the ward, and we make sure there’s grief counselling always available for both children and the staff. I believe that death is not the end, that it can be healing for someone who’s suffering, so it can actually be a story of hope

I guess that trauma changes you. I find that when someone else feels pain, empathy often springs up inside me, so God in his greatness probably knew I was going to come to a place like this, and was maybe even ordaining it. I was going to change the world with occupational therapy but here I am doing this! There’s a verse I keep thinking of from Proverbs: ‘Man plans in his heart, but God directs his steps

Christelle’s workload is full on, but she makes time to relax by cooking, helping people with disabilities to surf and walking with her family | Photo: Ronelle de Villiers

To relax, I like to cook or swim in Kalk Bay’s Dalebrook tidal pool, which refreshes me and helps me to meet the task list at St Joseph’s. I also love to hike or walk with my girls along the St James walkway. All three of us also volunteer at Roxy Foundation, helping people with disabilities surf or be in the ocean. Our family’s great love is a Labrador-Ridgeback cross, so my dear husband has to bear three women and a dog who believes she’s another daughter

When my dad was murdered, I thought, ‘Really Jesus, what are you thinking?’ But over the years, I’ve come to make peace with the fact that the world is broken and that this side of heaven there will be suffering. I’ve discovered that tragedies can be gifts, because in loss you rediscover the hope that keeps you going

I find God always shows up. There’s a hymn that goes ‘All my life You have been faithful, all my life You have been so, so good’. It feels as if it was written just for me


Picture gallery: enjoy the incredible people and beautiful moments that we captured at St Joseph’s 

Above and below: longstanding staff members, caretaker Stanley Adams and cook Cindy Van Neel. For 40 years, Cindy has ensured all the St Joseph’s children get four meals a day. Stanley has lived at the facility for 63 years, from the age of three, when he became a child of the home following an accident | Photos: Leentjie du Preez
Christelle Cindy cook
Photos: Leentjie du Preez
In Cape Town’s 6-million-plus city, St Joseph’s Home for Chronically Ill Children is the only institution providing intermediate care for children with chronic or life-limiting conditions. It has given over 23 000 medically fragile and socially vulnerable children in Cape Town a second chance at childhood by providing restorative, rehabilitative, respite and palliative care 
St Joseph’s receives partial funding from the Western Cape Department of Health and Wellness but has a financial gap each year of R6.3 million. If you’d like to donate to support its children, go here
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