Sunday, 09 December 2018

Charity marks decade supporting disadvantaged children

Charity marks decade supporting disadvantaged children in Africa

A GORING charity has raised more than £200,000 for disadvantaged children in rural Africa over the past decade.

Changing Futures was founded by Steve Smith and his late wife Caroline in 2008 after they visited a school in Eswatini, which was then called Swaziland.

They were shocked at the levels of poverty and deprivation and decided to raise money to fund improvements and sponsor individual youngsters.

Mr Smith considered stepping down after losing his wife, a teacher at Goring Primary School, nearly five years ago but took a few months off and then returned to run the charity.

He has set up a separate fund in his wife’s name for gifted Swazi girls, who are pressured to leave school and help raise their families despite their potential.

Mr Smith, 57, of Manor Road, said: “It’s hard looking back on 10 years’ work because we’ve done so much in that time and raised an impressive amount.

“You can do so much more with money over there as just £8,000 will build a new classroom, making a huge difference to pupils’ lives.”

Mr Smith studied agriculture at the University of Reading, where he met Caroline, who was reading English literature.

The couple graduated in 1982 and married three years later at a church in Mrs Smith’s native Kenilworth before settling in the Reading area.

Mr Smith worked as a pharmaceutical researcher, eventually taking a job at the now defunct Pharmacopius in Gatehampton Road, Goring.

The couple, who moved to Goring in 1996, had two children, James, now 29, and Sam, 28, who still lives in the village.

In 2008, the Smiths visited Ezulwini Primary School in Swaziland, which Mr Smith’s father Graham had supported through Rotary.

Mr Smith, who is now retired, had helped his father with donations for years but seeing the poverty problem for himself convinced him to start the charity.

He said: “Caroline and I felt we had to help and were in a position to do so.

“There was such total poverty — the children had basic ‘uniforms’ but were like ragamuffins with no shoes and many only got one meal a day, a basic lunch of maize with some beans for a little protein, at school.

“Some aged 10 or younger were already head of their households and looking after younger siblings as their parents had died.

“Sometimes grandparents or the wider community supported them but not always.

“Everybody wanted to go to school because it guaranteed a meal and hopefully a way to a better life but they couldn’t always afford to pay.

“You’d go into a year 1 class and there would be pupils as old as 21 because their family could only pay for one child at a time and it was finally their turn.

“We interviewed pupils who talked about losing parents without a flicker of emotion because it was expected to happen. Their classmates would also regularly die of illnesses such as AIDS, which is a huge problem out there.

“With Caroline working in education, we felt keeping children in school would raise them out of poverty while giving them food, social interaction and all the other things that are vital for their welfare.”

Changing Futures initially paid individual children’s fees and bought their uniforms, which were mandatory despite the widespread poverty.

It also paid to refurbish the kitchen and classroom at a school called Seven Holy Founders and donated science equipment.

Now the charity is working in the Mbabne region in partnership with another UK charity called Swaziland Schools Project.

It has five volunteers and a manager on the ground while Mr Smith co-ordinates the projects and raises funds from Goring while visiting Africa every few years.

The charity typically supports two or three schools at a time and every penny raised goes directly to the cause.

It no longer sponsors pupils as state education is now subsidised but it pays for buildings, furniture and equipment as there is still a severe funding shortage.

The charity has built pre-schools in villages where children were previously being taught under trees and provided gyms, computer rooms, libraries and toilets as well as paying pupils’ medical and physiotherapy costs, starting mother-and-baby groups and installing new plumbing to reduce the risk of disease.

Mr Smith said: “By the age of 11, half of children will have left school as they can’t afford secondary education so it’s important to teach life skills like farming, cooking, home economics, baking, sewing and knitting.

“It’s striking that children walk absolutely miles to and from school and often barefoot as they can’t afford shoes. The state of the furniture is something else and you’ll often see four children sharing a desk as there aren’t enough to go around.

“Whenever we go out there we take paper and pens because they’re so precious.

“One boy’s mum told him to write in his book in pencil so that she could eventually rub everything out and give it to a younger sibling! They absolutely cherish a pencil — some children only have the one and it’s a massive problem to lose it so I take as many as I can.

“Footballs are incredibly popular and very hard for them to obtain. You’ll see the children collecting plastic bags and scrunching them together until they’ve got something they can kick around. Over here we take a £7 ball for granted but it’s a little thing that can give so much pleasure.”

Changing Futures also funds organisations that help teenagers into work as youth unemployment is about 50 per cent.

Mr Smith said: “With so few prospects, it’s easy to drift into a life of drinking, drugs and promiscuity with all the health risks that involves, especially HIV. They’ve often lost parents so are lacking mentors or role models but they can learn things like carpentry, metalwork or being a car mechanic.

“That feeds nicely back into our work with the schools because they can go back and repair things that are broken, so the community is supporting itself instead of relying on outside aid. It gives these young people a trade while the younger children have something to aspire to. We don’t get as much feedback from individual children as we used to but teachers often tell us their pupils are more motivated.

“They’ve seen pass rates in national examinations go up from around 50 per cent to 100 per cent in some cases so having adequate equipment makes a massive difference.”

Mrs Smith used to organise community fund-raising at Goring village hall and on one occasion volunteers raised £6,500 by walking the Thames Path in nine days.

She was diagnosed with an aggressive form of bowel cancer and died in January 2014.

Mr Smith was going to close the charity but trustees including Dr Rhys Hamilton, a former village GP, offered to take the reins for a while.

He now has a new partner, Hazel McKinna, who helps produce the Goring Gap News. She supports Changing Futures and will be flying to Eswatini with Mr Smith in February.

The charity is now mostly funded through grants and has several regular donors, including one who has given more than £30,000 since 2008.

Mr Smith said: “I felt it should continue as Caroline’s legacy and that’s exactly what we’ve done. She was passionate about helping talented teenage girls who couldn’t access education because their families see it a waste of time and money so we set up a separate fund to help with that.

“One of our girls is now going through university and although we don’t pay her fees, we help with things like books and accommodation. She’s very determined and has taken on part-time work to pay her way through, which is quite remarkable as the odds are sadly very much against them.

“We plan to carry on in the same vein for as long as we can. Now that I’m retired, I can at least devote more time to it. It is getting tougher as many of our British volunteers have either retired or moved from the area so we’ve had to cut back on fund-raising events. However, we’ll always do as much as we can with whatever we’ve got.”

To make a donation, visit www.changingfutures.org.uk

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