Julia Claire Norrish

President, SHAWCO Education

Julia Claire Norrish isn’t sure if her mum knows this but when she was six years old, she snuck out of the family home one night when it was raining with just a beach towel and slept outside, because she felt she didn’t deserve to have a roof over her, while others didn’t. Now a 22-year-old honours student at the University of Cape Town (UCT), she feels similarly about education.

Norrish is the president of the education sector of the Students’ Health and Welfare Centres Organisation (Shawco), a 70-year-old UCT student-driven NGO that focuses on providing free basic healthcare and education projects in Khayelitsha, Nyanga, Kensington, Manenberg, Mitchells Plain and Imizamo Yethu.

Norrish – who has made the dean’s list every year of her studies – oversees more than 1 400 volunteers who assist with the education of more than 1 000 children of  a school going age.  Although her role has traditionally been one of oversight, she makes it a point to visit each and every one of Shawco’s 13 education projects at least once a term.

“It’s so important to know what is going on on the ground,” she says.  “Many issues in South Africa have arisen because people go crazy with power, sit at desks and make decisions that don’t make sense to real people. I want to know each of Shawco Education’s projects intimately, their challenges and successes, so that I can provide relevant and useful help.” Norrish was elected president after working as a Shawco education project leader for a year, during which she ran a literacy-based initiative for 90 children twice a week in Nyanga. But she’s still convinced she hasn’t accomplished much.

“I’m quite harsh on myself, so I always feel that I could have done more,” she says.

“I must admit, though, that I do feel proud when I visit a project and a child runs up to me, gives me a hug and we sit and read a book. Chances are I knew that child before they could read, and now we are going through a story together. Knowing that I may have played a part in sparking that child’s potential makes me smile inside.”  — Fatima Asmal