New Horizons: Ellen Crabtree in South Africa

Ellen Crabtree has swapped her life as a highflying finance executive to help vulnerable people in downtown Johannesburg at risk from HIV and AIDS. Here she tells us about a project that helps sex workers find alternative sources of income - and explains how volunteering has changed her own life, as well as the lives of those she is working with.

Putting privilege to good use

A former marketing manager for Scottish Widows and more recently a self-employed marketing consultant, Ellen felt she had a “great lifestyle” but was “helping rich people get richer”. So, when her children left home, she made the life-changing decision to become a VSO volunteer. “I felt I had been very privileged in my upbringing and my education and had never really had to struggle,” she says. “For many people in the world life is much harder so I wanted to put my privilege to good use in the developing world.”

Now on placement in Johannesburg, Ellen is working as a co-ordinator at the Reproductive Health and HIV Research Unit of the University of the Witwatersrand (RHRU), an organisation that aims to improve HIV care and treatment services in South Africa, and provides research into prevention and best practice relating to HIV.

Helping sex workers find alternative income

Ellen’s work includes managing a project that helps sex workers find alternative sources of income so that they can exit the sex industry. Across Johannesburg there are thousands of women working in the sex industry, where a large proportion are living with HIV and AIDS, and many more live with the daily risk of contracting the disease.

The project runs training programmes including sewing, baking and catering skills, and beauty therapy, which create new opportunities of income generation. “It’s not easy for women to exit sex work when most alternative jobs they are qualified to do pay at best a quarter of what they can earn as sex workers,” says Ellen. “But for those who are committed to changing their lives we want to make sure they have as much support and guidance as possible.”

Providing support for those living with HIV and AIDS

Ellen is also responsible for the growth and development of RHRU’s Community Care Centre in Johannesburg, an inner city resource that provides psycho-social support to those infected or affected by HIV. A typical day may consist of organising workshops on health and rights-related issues, attending consultation meetings, drafting funding proposals or counselling community members. “Everyday is very different,” she explains. “In some senses it’s not unlike corporate life but the content is different and the empathy needed is different.”

Looking to her future

Ellen is now coming to the end of her placement, but plans to stay in South Africa to continue in similar work. “Two years have passed in a flash and I would be heartbroken to leave RHRU at this juncture. In the last year in particular I’ve planted a lot of seeds that are just starting to grow now and, while I may not stay in South Africa forever, I’m certainly not ready to leave.”

How to apply

Interested in volunteering with VSO? Find out what you need to apply and begin your application process now.