Shaleen Surtie-Richards was laid to rest today and while friends, family and fans mourn her passing, there is a group of young men in Athlone who have lost a mentor and a mother figure.
Surtie-Richards was goodwill ambassador at the Choice Rehabilitation Centre in Athlone, which is operated and managed by her best friend Rif’at Brouwers.
More than a decade ago she accepted the role of ambassador and mentor for the young men that Brouwers took into his care and helped on their road to recovery.
The young men, majority of them from the Cape Flats, would move into the Choice Rehab which is also Brouwers’s home that he converted for that purpose. He is a surrogate dad for those in his care and over the years, Shaleen became a surrogate mother.
The night she was bestowed the ambassadorship of the Choice Rehab, a support meeting was arranged and recovering addicts, their parents and the community members were invited to the gathering.
Brouwers said: “The house was full and everyone was busy and running around. Shaleen was sitting next to me and she knew that she was going to be presented with her award as a goodwill ambassador. The next minute she asks me: ’Waar is die addicts, when are they coming in?’”
He added: “I said ‘here they all sitting’ and Shaleen was so shocked she screamed across the room for all to hear: ’Moenie k#k praat nie!’ This is how Surtie-Richards started her journey with Choice Rehab – she never saw the recovering addicts as any different from herself or anyone else.”
Waleed Mohamed, a former Choice resident, came off drugs and has since studied to become a counsellor to help others. He said he had found memories of Surtie-Richards: “Ten years ago I met Shaleen, we were in Goodwood at that time and I remember it well because she was so shocked to see who were. To her it was so surprising to see that there were so many handsome guys in rehab.”
He said she was humble even though she was a superstar.
“We were invited to the Baxter (Theatre) once and I could see how humble this lady was. When you think actress, actor, superstar you think they are full of themselves, she was also just a normal person – who liked to make jokes.”
The men in recovery at Choice Rehab would always get VIP invites to Surtie-Richards’s shows and events she attended.
Brouwers said: “She acknowledged them at her shows. She came on the stage (at Grandwest Arena) and asked ‘where are my Choice Boys’ and they went crazy in the crowd because Shaleen had acknowledged them in front of 5000 people.”
It was evident that Surtie-Richards never judged them for the choices they had made and this resonated with them.
Saadiq Ebrahim said he recalled having coffee with the actress.
He said: “I remember when Shaleen invited Rif’at for coffee and I didn’t know where we were going so I ended up in Canal Walk wearing a tracksuit and slippers. She was just talking all the time and joking. She was just so down to earth and she also got a shock when she heard that I was a recovering addict.”
Brouwers said when she visited the young men, they were always amazed at how down to earth she was.
“The last time she was here, she was sitting next to the pool and eating fish and chips,” he said.
Brouwers added: “When she came here, she would say, ‘wait let me quickly go and talk nonsense to the boys’. But her nonsense talk was motivational – she instilled a lot of hope in them. She used to tell them you must go and study because the government can take everything away from you but they can’t take away your education.”
There are currently 18 residents at Choice Rehab, and although not all of them have met Surtie-Richards, they and many who will be there after them, will hear the stories of a iconic local actress who left her mark in the lives of young men who desperately needed inspiration and hope for their future.