“RIGHT here,” John Crowley told me, as we stood at the entrance to the ballroom at Kilkenny’s Langton House Hotel on Monday, July 6.
“This is where it all began on March 10th, 2003. Catherine Brophy, who sadly died just over a year ago, stood on this spot with her neighbour Patricia Norris and asked me would I consider sponsoring a child in South Africa. And that’s how I got to know Ronni.”
John, a well-known Mooncoin farmer, had just come back from Cape Town, where he’d travelled with the Kilkenny senior hurlers on their post-All-Ireland Final holiday that January.
Little did John know how that trip would transform his life and the lives of many people in Waterford, Kilkenny, South Tipperary and, of course in South Africa, where he would befriend Veronica (Ronni) Mary Mehl.
“And to think we’ve donated almost €500,000 – without any administration costs – to needy mothers and children in South Africa since then,” said John, who described Ronni as, apart from his wife Margaret, his dearest friend.
Ronni (64), whom I came to know and admire since first meeting her in Cape Town in 2005, died in the city’s Victoria Hospital on June 21, barely four hours after being admitted.
Her husband Kurt, who was also admitted that same night, thankfully returned home on Wednesday having been in the Victoria’s Intensive Care Unit, but his was a bittersweet homecoming. Covid-19 had taken Ronni, a woman with a lifelong commitment to supporting some of the Western Cape’s most vulnerable children, long before the natural course of life leads us towards that one certainty we all face.
“It’s so hard to believe she’s gone,” said John. “She was due to come back here for a holiday next year for a well-earned bit of time off. The last time she was here, I brought Ronni to meet lots of our donors and supporters across the three counties, it was a real working holiday for her. But it wasn’t going to be like that next year. Margaret and myself were in South Africa in March, just before everything shut down, and we’d told Ronni how much we were looking forward to having her back (Ronni visited Ireland in the autumn of 2008). She gave everything to her job; there was no such thing as taking it easy at all. I never met anyone with the same level of commitment to helping children, some of whom are living in a level of poverty beyond anything most of us can imagine in this part of the world.”
During that first visit to Cape Town, John felt he had to see more than the high-rise hub and waterfront of Africa’s second most affluent city (only Johannesburg is wealthier).
“I needed to see something that wasn’t on any holiday brochure so I went out to the Khayelitsha Township (with a population of almost 400,000 people). I’d never seen poverty like it; seeing it genuinely changed my life. I came home thinking I ought to do something to help even a few people living there and when Catherine asked me about sponsoring a child, I thought about maybe setting up something that might help more than just the one. And that’s how the Friends of Zelda’s House (a facility for young homeless children) charity came about. Zelda’s House was run by an organisation called Catholic Welfare Development (CWD) which has since been wound up. Women In Need (WIN) was under the CWD umbrella, Ronni was its Programme Manager at the time and that’s how we got to know each other. Her duty of care to the children she was responsible for had to be seen to be believed. She and her staff gave those children security, care and hope. To see it at first hand will be something all of my family will be grateful for. We saw just how far kindness can go.”
John continued: “Before CWD wound up, Ronni had moved onto Elkana Childcare, a new project in Malmesbury, about 40 miles from Cape Town. As a group, we wanted to continue supporting the work she was overseeing so that’s where our donations have been going to ever since. A few of us have been out to Elkana (including this reporter in 2011) and what Ronni achieved there is some legacy, not that she’d see it that way at all. But there are 224 children being fed at Elkana every day – that wouldn’t have happened without Ronni. To me, she was like another Mother Teresa. She devoted her life to the poor and the time she put into her work probably compromised her health. And seeing her in March, and I know Margaret thought the same thing, Ronni looked tired. She looked like she needed a break. She was talking about retiring at 67 – of course we’ll never know now if she’d have followed through on that. She just gave her all to her work.”
By sheer coincidence, a visit into my mother’s attic just a week before Ronni’s death saw me root out a set of photos from that first trip to South Africa in 2005. My level of loss doesn’t compare to John’s but my sadness remains undeniable. A special woman has left us.
The last word deservedly belongs to John Crowley. “Ronni opened her heart, mind and home to Margaret, my children Jonathan and Niamh, myself and all our donors and became a trusted and valued friend. It’d be a brave man or woman who could estimate how many lives she saved and how many worlds she turned upside down in the best possible sense. She improved young people’s lives in a way most of us can only dream of. And I’ll be forever grateful for what she added to my life.” Well said, John. Rest easy, Ronni.