How has one mom’s lightbulb moment sparked hundreds of women to bring maths, healing and resilience to traumatised primary school children and their communities? ROSE COHEN spoke to SONJA CILLIERS, founder and executive director of MathMoms

Sonja (60) grew up on a Northern Cape farm and studied teaching at Stellenbosch University before embarking on a number of different jobs, including property sales. She’s married to Andries, an NGK (Dutch Reform Church) minister, they have two adult children and live in Cape Town’s Sea Point

THE CHILDREN WE WORK WITH rarely have a carefree childhood. Broken social structures, gang violence, murder, sexual abuse, 60% unemployment and hunger have driven their families into trauma and prevented many from forming healthy connections and relationships.

In 2016, funded by some church and other donors, I started running a trauma-release programme at a school in Elsie’s River. I ran over 3 000 sessions, but realised that while a child was benefiting and safe for 30 minutes, I then had to leave the child. For two years I pondered this dilemma: there had to be more that could be done.

‘The children we work with rarely have a carefree childhood,’ says Sonja. ‘Many of their social structures are broken.’ | Photos: Leentjie du Preez

As thunder and lightning woke me one night, a powerful thought came to me. Maths and unemployed women were my solution! The next day, I contacted a psychologist at the Western Cape Education Department.

A week later, we started MathMoms to harness the love and energy of amazing women in the community. Each becomes a maths tutor to the children, inviting them to come and play maths games in school or at her house. A MathMom treats each child as an individual, and plays, talks to and smiles at them. For some children, this is the very first time they’ve been treated this way.

MathMoms harnesses the love and energy of women in the community, who invite children to play maths games with them | Photos: Leentjie du Preez

Together, the moms and children play games with cards, dominoes and dice. It looks like just fun, but they’re cementing maths concepts and practising the crucial art of problem solving.

But even more importantly, the maths is a vehicle for building a human bond. I call it a vehicle to the children’s hearts. Some kids even show up in the holidays and on Sundays asking for lessons!

‘For some of the children, this is the first time they’ve been treated as an individual. Some even show up at weekends asking for maths lessons,’ says Sonja | Photos: Leentjie du Preez

The most exciting thing is how the kids start to excel in maths. At the end of the school year, my phone’s overloaded with pictures of children holding academic certificates and prizes. That’s real achievement and it changes the children. They begin to feel that if they can do maths, they’re clever. And if you think you’re clever, you can do anything.

Currently, we have 160 adults working with 2 000 children in various programmes in 26 schools. Initially, the moms undergo six weeks of maths and life skills training, plus trauma release so that they’re in an emotionally safe space to support a child. They’re then ongoingly trained by 15 mentors, all of whom are experienced  teachers.


Things are scaling dramatically. We’re now also employing as interns some young people who are participants in the government’s ‘YeBoneer’ programme. Last week we trained 65 young adults, and next week we’ll train 70 more. It’s an opportunity for them to gain skills and an income while helping our children.

We’re an NGO and pay everyone a stipend when we can to nurture their economic resilience, but we tell them we can’t guarantee this. First and foremost, they’re working for their community. One year, 48 MathMoms stayed with us the whole year without a cent of remuneration because we didn’t have the funding to pay them. That was such assurance for me that what we do makes sense for the MathMoms as well as the kids. As well as helping the children, we’re accompanying the women on a journey of self-discovery. As they get to know their own gifts and strengths, they can take their next step into the future.

‘As our MathMoms get to know their strengths and gifts, they can take their next step into the future,’ says Sonja | Photos: Peroy Nel (top three pics) and Leentjie du Preez

There’s a 92-year-old woman in Potchefstroom who donates R100 to MathMoms every month. This gesture means so much. Funding is always a challenge but we’re fortunate to receive donations from individuals, businesses, the Western Cape government and an international charity that supports resilience against organised crime.

seasons in life

I used to work in property. Now I have the same amount of stress but earn less money! But there are seasons or phases in your life. I try to be on the path I believe God wants me to be on.

It’s good to know there’s someone higher, someone almighty, who’s at work in the small things too. I believe there are signs of God’s greatness everywhere, especially in His creation. I see the light on the trees outside my window and sense His absolute greatness.

Sonja: ‘It’s good to know there’s someone higher, someone almighty, who’s at work in the small things too’ | Photos: Leentjie du Preez

The thing about God for me is the peace He brings. Christ was born to be the great peace keeper through being broken, through being a servant. Knowing that Jesus is Emmanuel, which means God with us, can make you brave!

My life doesn’t depend on a job, it depends on my ability to listen to God. How do I do this? I pray to Jesus and ask for guidance. I try to hear what’s in my heart and then I test it with what I read in the Bible, advice from people I trust, circumstances and plain common sense.


I’ve learnt to expect miracles now. I wanted to give our children a rare treat and had just R6 (30 British pence) per child to make party packs for 600 children, but the guy at the wholesale company had an inexplicable spirit of generosity and gave me a 50% discount on everything I bought.

However, not knowing the future or being able to trust things will work out in my life is often a challenge for me. I don’t know why I’m like this, but I do know that the Israelites in the desert didn’t know God would provide for them, but He did. It was the insecurity and uncertainty in their lives that made them look up to God. I now know from experience that the only way to look is up!

Sonja’s daughter Judy-Ann has supported MathMoms from the start and now works as its communications manager. ‘When we work together, I know things will be ok,’ says Sonja | Photo: Leentjie du Preez

My daughter Judy-Ann has been supporting us from the start as a volunteer, and became our communications manager in 2020. I can’t handle 15 mentors, 160 MathMoms and 2 000 kids alone! It’s such a blessing to have her with me. There are many skills that I lack and, like her father, she is creative and can write. My daughter knows my heart, knows who I am and knows my weaknesses. When we work together, I know things will be ok.


When I’m with the MathMoms it feels as if a fountain is just flowing from me. I wish you could hear the joy of the children when they play. They make a wonderful noise and it’s not just the little ones, it’s the adults too. It’s a loud and happy noise!

I believe MathMoms can really have such a big influence in a community. To help people see that no matter how awful their circumstances, they can still live with dignity.’

‘The thing I enjoyed most was seeing the children develop, seeing their faces light up when they did something correctly,’ says former MathMoms intern Geraldine Jooste. ‘I learnt perseverance and that I can be someone who helps others. Parents came to us and asked for their children to join the programme because they saw it worked and keeps children busy. It had a big impact.’  |  Photo: Leentjie du Preez
It was an amazing year for me, I learnt a lot about children and about myself and gained many new skills. Now I plan to study social work ,’ says former MathMom intern Burneleigh Stevens  |  Photo: Leentjie du Preez
‘The girl I helped came in the top 10 in her class this year! I was very shy and didn’t think I could do this but it took me out of my comfort zone and now I’m better at speaking to people. I have more self confidence and now want to study education,’ says former MathMoms intern Shariefa Salie  |  Photo: Leentjie du Preez
  • There are so many ways to support MathMoms – by volunteering your training, speaking or event-organising skills, spreading the word or donating. Find it all here
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  • Would you like to donate right now? Donations qualify for tax deductions! Please send payment to Mercantile Bank, account name: MathMoms NPC, account number: 1050884558 (current account), branch code: 450105, SWIFT address: CABLZAJJ (Please send proof of payment and requests for 18A certificates to
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