Who is this ‘ordinary’ woman from the burbs who dropped out of school, used drugs daily and struggled with parenting, but finally overcame her situation to start U-turn, an organisation that last year alone had 110 000 engagements with homeless people to help them start a brand-new life? What does she mean about owning your mess? And how is she coping with a fresh challenge that life has thrown at her? COLLEEN LEWIS sat down with KATY MACDONALD
Colleen: ‘I was just an ordinary woman who wanted to run’ | Photo: Ronelle de Villiers 

Colleen (66) grew up in Cape Town and attended Westerford High School until the age of 15. At 16, she moved out of home and became a dental nurse. She has managed a linen company, a catering business and a gelato factory, and qualified as a counsellor in 2011. She’s been married for 42 years to entrepreneur Rory, with whom she opened the first multi-racial steakhouse in Cape Town. They have two adult children

‘I had a very difficult childhood, with family dynamics it’s not kind to talk about. I met my husband Rory at school when I was 14, and we started going out straight away. We hung out with the ‘cool’ surfers and other druggies, and by 16 I was taking drugs. Eventually the daily use of drugs such as speed, uppers and downers became completely normal to us, and helped numb the pain that I had experienced in my family.

We got married because I became pregnant, but the baby was stillborn and we were devastated. Not much later, we had our little boy, Warren. I managed to come off drugs though Rory was still smoking weed daily. Five years later, I gave birth to our daughter, Kerri-Lee.

Warren had a number of insecurities from growing up in a crazy home and one day, I went to see the principal of his pre-school. I told her that I’d tried absolutely everything and was struggling. Did she have any advice for me?

She asked me to wait while she finished a meeting, then we sat in my car talking until late at night. Eventually, she asked if I’d tried handing my child over to the person who created him, as in God. I’d tried everything: Buddhism, vegetarianism and every ‘ism’ possible, and none of it had worked. I was planning to divorce Rory because I couldn’t cope with having drugs and alcohol around while bringing up kids, so I asked: How exactly does one hand one’s child over to God? She replied, ‘Just talk to Him and tell him you can’t remain in the driver’s seat of life anymore and you want him to take over. He’ll help you with your problems.’

Colleen met her husband Rory at school at the age of 14. At one stage she considered divorcing him, but they both changed hugely as people and are still together after 42 years. ‘He’s my best friend,’ she says

I went home and got into bed. At that stage, Kerri was 18 months old and we used to have to get up five times a night to give her a bottle. It was exhausting! I said, ‘God, if you’re really there, I need to know You’re hearing me. The only thing I can think about is these five bottles in front of me. If Kerri has slept through the night and they’re still full when I wake up in the morning, I’ll believe in you.’ And the next morning, there they all stood… full!

After that I started going to church, taking the kids with me. I’d been to church as a child with my family, but it had done nothing for me. I don’t remember ever actually hearing the gospel, and it wasn’t anything we discussed at home.

I thought I was in control

I’d always thought I was in control and could make all outcomes good because I was steering the ship. Now, hearing the gospel at church, I realised that while outcomes weren’t always good and I couldn’t always control them, God was reliable and did have control. Everything that happened in my life would ultimately be for my good, even if it was something unpleasant.

So, at 31, I gave my life to God. Following Jesus was a gamble I was prepared to take because I didn’t want to be in control any more. Soon, I discovered the Bible could get me to every destination I needed. Instead of making my own choices, I could follow God’s way. The joy and peace this gave me was indescribable and, even better, I experienced these feelings even during suffering and trials.

At 31, Colleen decided to walk a different path. ‘I didn’t want to be in control any more,’ she says. ‘Instead of making my own choices, I would follow God’s way. The joy and peace this gave me was indescribable.’ | Photo: Ronelle de Villiers 

Rory was still drugging, but before long he too took the step to embrace God because he saw a change in me: he said I’d developed a quiet and gentle spirit, and no longer talked at him as I’d done in the past! People said he’d never be able to come off drugs and would have to be institutionalised, but every time he craved we prayed, and he came off drugs relatively easily. It was… miraculous! For the next few years, we got plugged into church and used our gifts and talents to help others. Everything was so different from our previous lives.

When I turned 40 and was running a linen company, I heard someone on a radio programme pose the question, ‘If your church was to close down today, how much would it affect your neighbourhood?’ I thought, ‘Hmm, I’m not sure anyone outside our church would even notice. Do I need to move to a different church?’ But when I prayed about it, I felt God saying, ‘Stay where you are and trust me.’ The next Friday, I was out watering the grass outside my house when I saw a couple of homeless ‘bin scratchers’ in the road. The man was pushing the lady in a supermarket trolley because she was so drunk.

Colletjies, whom Colleen met when she was searching through the dustbins in her street

They stopped at my dustbin and I felt a push in my spirit that I felt was from God, and started talking to this couple, asking what they needed. They were called Johannes and Colletjies, and they said their biggest need was to be clean. I gave them some things like underwear, toothpaste and food. I chatted to them about the need to be clean on the inside too, and Colletjies immediately said she wanted to pray with me. I was happy to do this, but asked her to think about it first. I didn’t want her to pander to me simply because I was giving her food: this was nothing to do with me, it was between her and God.

The next week, Colletjies came back with about 20 of her homeless friends and said she wanted to give her life to Jesus. I prayed with her and a friend of hers until the friend told me my Afrikaans was ‘swak’, so I quickly called my Afrikaans friend Hester to help us! We started having a weekly gathering of juice, sandwiches and a short talk outside my house.

Colletjies brought back 20 friends the next week, and before long Colleen started a soup kitchen outside her house

As numbers grew and neighbours got anxious, I approached my church, St Stephen’s in Claremont, which welcomed us into its garden on Friday mornings. Here, we fed people and gathered data, thanks to help from the volunteers we started to get from various churches. Our homeless group asked us if we would start a church for them, so we did: attendance was never less than 50 people, and at times into the nineties.

My friend Hester started a clinic to dress wounds and administer TB meds, and we started applying for ID books and disability grants and pensions. We opened the church’s ablution facilities to our homeless group and initiated skills training, which included making cards for Woolworths and t-shirts for tourist shops. I started counselling training to help me assist our people with issues such as anger and addiction management and, all the while, we tried to raise awareness and educate the community via schools, churches and the police forum on how to treat homeless people with respect.

Above and below: As the numbers of homeless people seeking support from Colleen grew, the soup kitchen moved to St Stephen’s Church, a church in Claremont that Colleen attended. Members of the church and volunteers from other churches helped her support the homeless group nutritionally, emotionally and spiritually, as well as providing a range of practical services

At this point, Claremont Improvement District and Rotary started to notice a difference in our model of reintegrating homeless people back into society and family life. They helped fund us and find us a building. Soon, our little baby had grown into a flourishing NPO with 300 homeless people, 40 volunteers and five full-time staff members! Funds from the Norton Ramsay Trust enabled us to educate our homeless children, buy them uniforms and begin finding ways to get them off the street to protect them. We opened a men’s shelter and widened our skills training to include carpentry, cooking, pottery and sewing.

We realised that while the community around us wanted to be generous to homeless people, giving small change was making no change and in fact was keeping them on the streets. I brainstormed a voucher system with my son, Warren, and a name for our organisation: U-turn.

We handed out vouchers to local homeless people that they could present to us for clothing, food, our clinic or counselling. The idea was that if we could draw people to our space, we could find out their family history and start supporting them and reintegrating them back into their families or society. We started promoting the vouchers in churches, with people buying a packet of five from us. Then the vouchers went to schools and stores, and so it went on!

Colleen brainstormed a voucher system with her son, Warren, and a name for their organisation: U-turn. The U-turn vouchers  were in operation for 25 years until, in 2022, the organisation merged with a homeless support organisation from Cape Town’s northern suburbs and the vouchers were renamed ‘Mi Change’  | Photo: Ronelle de Villiers 

I was involved with U-turn for about 12 years and then I had a breakdown! I was fundraising, managing 40 volunteers, some full-time staff and a shelter where 30 men lived, sitting on the city council and the Claremont police forum, working with the Claremont Improvement District, speaking at local schools, counselling homeless people, and preparing talks and services for them. It was insane!

In between all that, I was helping five kids who were living on the streets and hiding their school bags in gutters. I assisted them with their homework and, of course, like most children, they always needed stuff for projects just as the shops were closing! I was also organising funerals (of which there were many), grief-counselling, and taking homeless people to hospital. Often this was after they had stabbed each other over alcohol, though I personally never felt scared when interacting with homeless people.

While I loved this work, the workload was enormous and emotionally draining. There was no other organisation in the area to join up with, and in my mind was the constant refrain: if I don’t do this, who will? The final straw came when a homeless lady called Rebecca, for whose older children we’d found a foster home, moved in with a guy and, one drunken night, her baby who was sleeping with them on their bed fell into a toilet bucket and drowned.

I’m happy to say that today Rebecca has her life back on track. One of those daughters who was fostered is married to a pastor. But the baby dying was the ant that tipped my wagon. I’d already buried a few babies born in my local Keurboom Park, which had been hard, but having to take the siblings to see their sister at the mortuary completely overwhelmed me. I had a physical response: the right side of my body went into an involuntary twitch, and Rory would have to put his foot on my leg to stop it shaking.

walking away was incredibly hard

I pulled back from U-turn for three months, thinking that I’d be back after that. But it took three years! I don’t even remember the early months: I was pretty much a zombie. However, I gradually recovered after rest, counselling and getting stuck into the book of Romans in the New Testament to learn about the character of God. I realised that some of my motives for overworking had probably been pride. Also, that I’d been taking back the control I’d initially happily given over to God!

Once I recovered, I didn’t go back to U-turn, which had been taken over by a very competent project manager called Sam Vos. I found walking away incredibly hard, but had to remind myself that God was in control and would sustain the changeover. I did a master’s degree in biblical counselling but could not afford to go to the USA to do the required hours there, so I began counselling from home, and then from our church. For a while, I still helped supervise some of U-turn’s staff and today I’m still in regular contact with Jean-Ray, its latest CEO. He, and Sam before him, have taken it to the next level, for which I never had the skills or capacity. Today, it is a really incredible setup.

I want to encourage anyone reading this that when you think the situation around you is too big for you to make a difference, don’t give up. I was just an ordinary woman who wanted to run, yet was gently guided by God to make a difference.

Whether it’s homeless people or people with homes, the issues that people get stuck in come up over and over again: anger, depression, anxiety, marriage problems, eating disorders and addiction. We’re all very quick as humans to shift the blame. When bad things happen, we point to our circumstances or someone else. People only heal or make progress when they learn that they must take responsibility for the consequences that they’ve made: you’ve got to own your mess.

Personally, I also believe that unless you come before Jesus and ask Him to help you to think differently, you’re unlikely to make behavioural changes that last. I’ve learnt this from failing to conquer my own bad habits and addictions by doing things my way, as well as from working with other people with problems. I believe that if you choose to live without calling on God, you’re likely to go back to the same behaviour in the end. It’s like buying a hairdryer but not plugging it in.

Having started counselling training in the early days of U-turn to help homeless people with issues such as anger, Colleen is now an experienced counsellor who supports all types of people. ‘People only make progress when they learn that they must take responsibility for the consequences that they’ve made,’ she says. ‘You’ve got to own your mess. I personally also believe that unless you ask Jesus to help you think differently, you’re unlikely to make behavioural changes that last.’ 

Recently, my husband Rory developed serious cancer. We were completely numb to start with, but we kept praying about it, and God’s getting us through. This doesn’t mean that, every day, we don’t grieve the loss of things we can’t do any more. Rory’s either been in hospital or housebound for many months, and we haven’t been able to go away or socialise much. But God has been our counsellor. As we’ve grieved, our fellowship with each other has been huge. Rory might not be able to do some things a husband often does any more, but he’s still my best friend.

It’s a roller coaster, but we trust God implicitly because we know He’s good. We’ve discovered that even cancer can be good when it draws you closer to Him. Certainly, it has done this for us. We all have to face leaving this world at some stage, so if God decides Rory’s time is up, we’ll still manage to rejoice because we know we’ll see each other again.

This doesn’t stop us from being very anxious: God tells us in the Bible that we will feel anxiety, and our hearts can definitely pound in the middle of the night. But when this happens, we pray and trust because we know we need to hand our fears over to Him. The other day, when waiting for some of Rory’s results, I did just this and felt the peace that passes all understanding. It was almost as if I was levitating above the situation.

it’s all about eternity

This life is just a drop in the ocean. For me, it’s not this world that’s important, or living for a long time: it’s all about eternity. I wouldn’t swap my life for anything, even the nervous breakdown, the sadness, the grief, the problems. I don’t even regret what I endured as a young girl. I’ve used it to minister to all types of people.

By allowing me to go through certain things, God has equipped me to help others, and this has given me back the years the locusts have eaten. God takes my pain and suffering and turns it around. People often say, ‘Why me?’ But I never ask that: I believe that God ultimately turns things into good.’

Melowdy became homeless at nine, and attended school while living behind a garage with her parents. Colleen became involved in her life and today Melowdy has a home to live in,  and works for Liberty Life insurance company 

As a schoolgirl, MELOWDY LOUW (34) lived on the streets of Cape Town from the age of nine until Colleen found her a weekly boarding place at a high school and a weekend foster family at weekends. After school, Melowdy gained a diploma from Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) and worked at various companies until joining Liberty Life as a service agent in 2022. Today, she lives in Langa township with her eight-year-old daughter

‘I was nine when I started living on the streets. My family became homeless after my grandma left our house in Atlantis to look for work in central Cape Town. She didn’t come back, so we all went to find her. By the time we discovered that she was homeless, our money had run out, and there was no way we could return home.

We lived behind an Engen garage near Kenilworth Centre to be close to my school. Soon, it became normal for me not to live in a house. I went to school every day, did assignments, attended school concerts, and didn’t feel any different from the other children. I washed early in the morning from an outside tap, and to keep my school uniform nice, I sprinkled it with water at night and put it under my mattress. In the morning it was just as if I’d ironed it.

I was absolutely happy as I had parents who loved me unconditionally and didn’t give me up, though we had to duck and dive from the social workers! The garage owner was inspired by the fact that my parents were very present in my life, and let me do my homework in the petrol attendants’ room while my parents were out gathering newspaper to sell for recycling. When a schoolfriend called Benita started having school transport issues, Mom invited her to live with us as we were so close to school.

I was the top student in primary school, and my teachers never knew I was homeless until Colleen told them. I first met her through my parents at the soup kitchen outside her house. She opened up many opportunities for me. When I got to high school age, she arranged a bursary for me to board weekly at Wynberg Girls’ High School, and she asked a family I knew from church called the Williams to foster me at weekends.

At first the fostering was just for a year, but then the Williams invited me to stay longer. I was most appreciative, they were so kind, and I didn’t feel like an outsider. They always called me their daughter and protected me from racism, and the whole family helped me with homework. They said my biological parents, who I visited whenever I wanted to, would always be my real parents. They never looked down on them.

Colleen even found sponsors for school camps and things like that. There’s nothing I can do with words or actions to ever show her just how indebted I am to her. She’s so vibrant, and open to speak to anyone. She told me her story, and she struggled too. Colleen’s husband and kids were so supportive, even though helping people made her so busy sometimes that they didn’t know if they were coming or going.

Colleen is very friendly and motivated, and tells you where you stand. She didn’t have to help me, she was having a nice life running a company. But she felt called to change lives by God, and I suppose His voice in her ear was very loud! It was only later that I understood the impact that living on the streets has on you mentally. My cousin, who was also homeless, was raped, and it could have happened to me. But I would definitely do this all again. I believe God put me in a family with all the structures I needed.’

Benita was homeless for four year until Colleen and Rory invited her to live with them. ‘Colleen and Rory made me a woman who can face anything!’ she says. Benita now has a home to live in and has just been nationally recognised for her management skills by her employer, McDonald’s. In 2024, she will attend a global awards ceremony in Barcelona |  Photo: Leentjie du Preez

BENITA NJUMBUYA, 36, lives in Langa and has two children. She was homeless for four years until she moved in with Colleen and her family. Today, she is the store manager of a McDonald’s in Cape Town, and has just been named one of its top three restaurant managers nationally

‘I was about 13 when I became homeless. My mother was a hardworking cleaner for a company called Dynamic Domestics, but lost her job when the owner died. I was at Rosmead Primary School, but Mom couldn’t afford the transport any more, and was going through a really hard time emotionally. I prayed about it and felt God saying I should live with my schoolfriend Melowdy behind the Engen garage.

It was such a journey. We slept on a mattress and. when it rained, we covered ourselves in plastic sheeting. And the Lord was good, we’d wake up dry! We washed our clothes in the toilets and hung them under the trees where we’d also make food, hiding our fire from the security guards. It was fun, like hide and seek. The best thing was that Melowdy’s family treated me as if I was their own. Her mom was a super woman! I think the teachers at Rosmead only realised when I was about to leave school that I was homeless.

After Colleen found somewhere for Melowdy to live, my mom managed to find me a home with an old lady who had children living with her, helping her. But she was very abusive and I still have marks on my left hand from where she was aggressive. I told Colleen about things and, in 2005, when I was 17 and studying at Oaklands High School, she and Rory invited me to live with them.

My time with Colleen and Rory was amazing. The whole family was so kind, they never treated me differently. Colleen and Rory are the most amazing people in every way. They made me the woman I am, a woman who can face anything. And if I hadn’t met Uncle Rory, I’d never have learnt to budget!

Off to Barcelona: ‘I’m so excited!’ says Benita

I still saw Mom when I was living with Colleen and, when I wasn’t with her, I would pray that she was eating something and was safe and warm. Mom visited me when she could, often sitting in the rain outside my school, waiting for me to finish so she could give me money or a pie. She tried everything to make me happy. I would run to the gate and hug her and feel how cold she was, but I knew she was so happy to see me. Everyone at school would get excited and call me when she was outside because they knew I didn’t see her that often.

I don’t want to lie, God has been amazing too. I’m so grateful for how He has led me to look after myself and my family, and be responsible. I love working with people, I want to see their vibe, see them happy. I’m so excited to have been given the McDonald’s national store manager award, and to go to the awards ceremony in Barcelona next year. They choose you for your integrity, your sense of community and your inclusiveness. God’s given me the mentality not to judge people, but to respect and value them no matter how they look. At work, I try not to do my own thing, but to do whatever the company needs to achieve its goals.

God has also looked after my mom. She finally has a home to live in! My kids live with her and she looks after them while I work. I can’t live there with them right now as I have to leave home very early for work and you can get attacked there at that time of day. I’m currently looking for accommodation for us all elsewhere so we can be together. As a mother, I really don’t want my children to grow up as I grew up.

My mom taught me no matter what you go through in life, always be there for your children. I pray every day that God will look after them as He looked after me, and we pray together every evening, even if we have to do it on the phone. Looking back, I think God has been in control of my whole life!’


Today, U-turn equips people and communities to overcome homelessness by walking a journey with them from homelessness, addiction and unemployment into a life of independence, employment and sobriety. In 2022, it had 110 000 engagements with homeless people, opened five new retail locations, saw a growth in shop sales of 48%, opened two new social enterprises, two new personal development centres and one new support centre. It created 28 extra bed spaces, and doubled the number of spaces on its work-readiness programme, while self-generated income from its social enterprises grew by 98%.

U-turn also diversified the work opportunities it offers by acquiring a construction company and starting an indigenous plant nursery (Living Roots) that offers gardening services for corporate clients and greening initiatives. It also now offers a SETA-accredited computer skills programme. In 2023 it also joined up with MES from Cape Town’s northern suburbs to create a joint voucher that can be used to access food, clothing, ablutions and a safe sleeping space at participating service providers across Cape Town from Durbanville to Fish Hoek.

U-turn’s 13 shops sell a mixture of new and second-hand clothing and some household items. They are primarily staffed by ‘Champions’ on its work readiness programme. One of its new stores is at Access Park in Kenilworth, very close to where Benita and Melowdy lived without a roof over their heads. The end of 2022 saw the launch of two U-turn stores and a service centre in Johannesburg—a first step towards U-turn becoming a national organisation.


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Rodriguez was homeless and an addict for 12 years. Today he’s a U-turn graduate, is employed and has been sober for four years. ‘The programme added so much value to my life. I started to function like a human being,’ says Rodriquez, who says U-turn taught him many things including computer competency, problem-solving and boundaries
U-turn ‘Champs’ work towards recovery and independence while living at U-turn Church House in Cape Town’s Kenilworth
U-turn beneficiaries pick up litter in Muizenberg during lockdown
A U-turn therapy and fellowship session
A U-turn ‘Champ’ takes on community responsibilities at the end of a day spent becoming work-ready
A U-turn charity shop in Cape Town’s Access Park, a stone’s throw away from where Benita and Melowdy lived as homeless schoolgirls. U-turn’s shops raise funds for the organisation, plus provide work opportunities for its beneficiaries
‘The majority of homeless people aren’t criminals but have just hit hard times,’ says Colleen. ‘They are the most generous, kind and loving community. I’ve seen someone excited to find an apple in a bin, but the first thing they do is call a friend and share it.’
In the early days. Colleen organised secondhand clothing for homeless people at token prices. ‘I want to encourage anyone reading this that when you think the situation around you is too big for you to make a difference, don’t give up. I was just an ordinary woman,’ she says
‘A lot of homeless people have the most incredible faith, which brings to mind that bible passage that it’s harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven,’ says Colleen. ‘The rich man has everything that he needs so he becomes self-sufficient and controlling, whereas a poor man is dependent on God and a lot more humble.’
Rory with son Warren, who came up with the name U-turn and the voucher concept that has expanded exponentially and is still working well today.  ‘The whole family was so kind, they never treated me differently,’ says Melowdy, who was invited to live with the Lewis family. ‘If I hadn’t met Uncle Rory, I’d never have learnt to budget!’
Buddies for life: Colleen with Melowdy [left] and Benita in recent times
This article is proudly sponsored by Dorrington Jessop Incorporated Attorneys & Conveyancers
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