His life’s journey took him through military training in Oudtshoorn in 1969, followed by the Army Gymnasium and later the Commando Combat School in Kimberley, where he served as an instructor. During the bush war south of the Angolan border in 1977, he served in active duty for four months. This period left a profound impact on him. “You may leave the war, but the war never leaves you. Your ability to be afraid diminishes, but it takes time to come to terms with it.”

 Meet Sarel van der Merwe, director of Sunfield Home.

Sarel is a native of Bellville who matriculated from DF Malan High School in 1968. After his military service, he studied Chemistry, Physics, and Mathematics. He worked in a laboratory at Mobil Oil, testing and developing lubricants and new types of road surfaces. Later, he became the head of the Science Department at Phillips International in the Western Cape and subsequently entered a partnership with a private company specialising in high-tech electronic scientific equipment.

Enter Down Syndrome

When he and his wife became pregnant, there was no indication of the risk of disability. The night of their son Deon’s birth revealed to them, with a shock, that their child had Down Syndrome. They realised that their lives were about to change, and disability would now be a part of their journey.

“You’re disoriented, the rug is pulled out from under you, you struggle to think logically, your future plans are shattered, and it takes you a long time to come to accept it.”

Sarel had to accept this reality but at the same time had to make plans for the challenges that lay ahead. He resolved to make a difference and get involved in organisations that provide care for disabled individuals. After Deon’s birth, they realised that one of them had to put their career on hold. Sarel would take on this role and start a career that would allow him more free time to care for Deon. His wife, Elizabeth, is now an Emeritus Professor at the University of Cape Town’s Faculty of Medicine.

 A New Purpose

In 1985, Sarel became a governing body member of the Down Syndrome Association in the Western Cape, serving as Chairman in 1987-1988. As Deon grew older, Sarel later also served on the governing body of the Bel Porto School from 1991 to 2001, also taking on the role of Chairman from 1994 to 2001. After Deon’s school career, he worked in the workshops of the Oasis Association, where Sarel served as a governing body member and various terms as Chairman.

 The Road to Sunfield Home

Sarel’s sister lived in Wellington and told him about Sunfield Home. Initially hesitant, he wanted to keep Deon at home and care for him himself. The thought of ageing and the necessity of providing for Deon should they fall away he wanted to push aside. Nevertheless, he eventually agreed to attend an interview, and Deon was accepted on a probationary basis for day visits. He took to Sunfield Home like a duck to water.

At the age of thirty, Deon finally found his own “home” at Sunfield Home, and from day one, he fit in completely. He has been living there for ten years and will celebrate his 40th birthday in 2024.

With a wealth of experience serving on various governing bodies and boards, Sarel was chosen as a board member of the Sunfield Home in 2013. He currently serves as Chairman of the Finance Committee and was previously Chairman of the Development Committee. Sunfield Home must continually implement planning to remain viable, as only a quarter of their budget comes from the state.

Sarel expresses his admiration for Sunfield Home, where he says the residents are happy and experience a loving environment. Deon visits them one weekend per month and during Sunfield’s closure over Christmas and New Year, but he always returns to Sunfield with a happy heart. This care has brought peace of mind to Sarel and Elizabeth, knowing that not only the basic needs of the residents are taken care of but also their hearts and souls.

The Good and the Bad

However, Sarel’s personal journey has not been without further challenges. He experienced a severe heart attack in 2016, spending six weeks in the intensive care unit, during which he was in a coma for 10 days and survived a cardiac arrest. Since 2013, he was a member of the Tygerberg Men’s Choir and is convinced that the support of the choir, family, and friends played a significant role in his full recovery.

Sarel’s life is colourful, with a love for reading, studying quantum physics, and mentors like Wayne Dyer, Greg Braden, and even Stephen Hawking. In times of stress, he believes in meditation and the realisation that one is never alone. His love for succulent plants, interest in World War II fighter planes, and family time make him a unique person. He acknowledges the richness that Deon has added to his life and how, despite his disability, Deon is a source of joy and humour.

Disability is not a stigma for Sarel; these residents are valuable members of society, contributing to our wealth and diversity. Sarel’s perspective on life has been shaped, among other things, by his experiences during the border war, Deon’s life, and his time in the hospital after his heart attack.

And we affirm it: “Your greatest testimony will come from your deepest pain.”