Happy List 2015: Maria Macnamara, founder of the charity Smalls For All

Owning more than one pair of knickers promotes health and hygiene

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Maria Macnamara started her charity Smalls For All, sending new underwear and recycled bras to Africa, after doing volunteer work.

“Each volunteer trip was a huge learning experience and holds lots of memories, not all good,” said Maria, who lives in Livingston in Scotland. “When I first visited Ethiopia, I worked in an orphanage. I met a little girl called Elsa who was clearly very ill. Like many people would, I felt a real need to take action, perhaps pay for a doctor or even bring her back home for medical attention.

“I discussed this with one of the Sisters, but she told me a doctor had seen Elsa and said she would ‘expire on the operating table’. So she just lay there waiting to die. Each day I would go to work, wondering if she would still be there.”

Back in Scotland, Maria was acutely aware that, following her trips, she had left behind many children who had come to rely on her.

“I was very worried that perhaps I was doing more harm than good by spending two to three weeks with them, then leaving for home. So I realised I needed to do something more sustainable that would have longer-term benefits.”

During her visits to various villages, many of the girls and young women had told Maria about the chronic lack of clothing, especially underwear.

“I remembered a priest in Zimbabwe speaking about the problems this can cause,” said Maria. “Not only is it a health and hygiene problem for many poor African communities, as women often only own one pair of tattered pants or have none at all, but underwear is also seen as a status symbol and offers a degree of security. Women who can afford underwear tend to be seen as having someone who cares for them – a husband, brother or father. They are not on their own, so they are not seen as vulnerable.”

Maria set up Smalls For All to try to help, and this month the charity celebrates its fifth anniversary. So far, it has collected more than 102,000 pairs of pants and bras, and distributed 75,541 to schools, orphanages, camps, hospitals and the slums of Kenya and Uganda.

“In addition, through donations, we are now paying for the education of 31 girls in Kenya and Uganda,” said Maria, “with another 350 pre-school children in Malawi coming on board in the autumn.”

To donate to Smalls For All, please send a new packet of children’s or women’s pants, for children aged three to 15 or women’s size 8-16, new bras in any size, or lightly worn bras (for recycling to raise funds) to Smalls For All, 108 Buchanan Crescent, Eliburn, Livingston, EH54 7EF, or visit smallsforall.org.

To suggest someone who deserves recognition next week, visit independent.co.uk/happylist, mail happy@independent.co.uk or write to Lisa Markwell, Editor,  The Independent on Sunday,  2 Derry Street, London W8 5HF.