A WARM winter holiday in the Gambia is an unexpected time and place for creating a charitable organisation but when Charmian and Chris Allwright went there five years ago that is just what they set about doing.

The Allwrights describe themselves as two ordinary people - he is a chartered surveyor and she is a production manager in publishing - and the last thing on their minds was 'good works' when they set off to West Africa.

At the time they had no children, were in their early thirties, and had never raised funds or volunteered for charity. Shunning the beach, they travelled around the country - a finger-shaped land creeping up the sides of the river Gambia - and were soon struck by the grinding poverty. 'The standard of living is so different to ours - very small amounts of money, to us, could do dramatic things for them,' says Charmian.

The Allwrights began by planning to sponsor a young boy working at their hotel - but it was a chance meeting at a graveyard with Joseph Benjamin Jarre, a 75-year-old retired headmaster who had appointed himself as gravedigger, that got them on to the right track. 'He said the best thing to do was to work through a charity called the Sisters of St Vincent de Paul who helped people in dire need but always checked a person's circumstances before they helped,' says Charmian.

A key person working in the charity was Father Matt Murphy, headmaster to the St Augustine's School, one of two high schools in Banjul. Father Murphy saw them immediately and lost no time explaining that although the school receives some state subsidy, parents had to pay about pounds 35 a year for each child to be educated.

Average earnings in the Gambia are about pounds 25 per month - most people farm and put in long hours to earn it. A good education is essential for better job prospects with considerably stronger earning potential: jobs in hotels or government positions might earn pounds 35 to pounds 40 per month.

'It seemed absolutely incredible, even iniquitous, that a year's education is the equivalent of a meal out in a restaurant in Britain,' says Chris. Father Murphy also pointed out that in some families those who came to school were the lucky ones: one or two boys might be sent out of eight cbildren, and even then they might attend sporadically, having to drop out for a year to work on the land.

Boys are mostly sent to school as they are seen as the most likely to earn money to support the rest of the family, which is often extended and supports weaker members. 'Girls are held back to help at home and in the fields. There are no bars on girls going to school - and some are beginning to now with our money - but if you are poor and you can only afford education for some of your children then boys will be sent,' explains Charmian.

Both Charmian and Chris were impressed by Father Murphy's drive and commitment to the children. 'His role as headmaster goes way beyond the usual and he is streetwise. He notices if boys are under-nourished, but rather than give them money to buy lunch he gives them tokens so that they can buy rolls filled with a nutritious nut sauce from a particular person; otherwise the money would be spent on Coca-Cola,' says Charmian.

Father Murphy insists that a simple uniform is worn, mainly to reduce visible differences of wealth between the children, and again he buys cloth at a reduced price and has someone make it up so that poorer children can buy clothes at a third of the cost.

On their return to England the Allwrights were still thinking of sponsoring a handful of schoolchildren through Father Murphy, who has since become the third trustee to what is now the Gambian Schooling Fund. When they told their family and close friends they realised that many were interested and keen to be involved: pounds 2,500 was raised in the first year.

'We were surprised and delighted - people were having to place an enormous amount of trust in us, in that what the money was being spent on was worthwhile,' say Chris. More than 60 children were educated in the first year.

Having proven that the scheme worked - Father Murphy asks for the money as he needs it and always waits until he can get the best rate of exchange - the Allwrights contacted more people to join in. They now have a core of 75 loyal supporters who have given money each year, and another 75 who come and go.

'Everyone involved likes the scheme's immediacy - in the beginning we sent out copies of letters from the children, but most contributors prefer the money to be spent on the children rather than on photocopying,' says Charmian. Both have been surprised by some of their friends' generosity: 'There is no correlation between what people give and the size of their income.'

Since 1988 they have raised more than pounds 23,000; in 1990 they registered with the Charity Commission and have been able to make use of tax benefits. Apart from the school fees, the money has paid for uniforms, spectacles, a bicycle - often those who live several miles out cannot afford the bus fare into Banjul - medication, text books, stationery and even false teeth for one 18-year-old.

They are particularly proud that a scholarship, which brought George Kargbo, one of Father Murphy's proteges, over to train in sports education at a school in England, was so successful. In spite of initial misgivings, George settled well, learnt a lot and is now teaching at St Augustine's.

At the moment they are investigating the possibility of funding a workshop for children who have dropped out of school. But the Fund's basic philosophy of financing 60 school places remains central: 'The basic principle is that 100 per cent of any money goes to the Gambia, that principle must be maintained; we will put a ceiling on the fund-raising if we have to start giving 95p in every pound,' says Chris.

The Gambian Schooling Fund, 17 East Common, Harpenden, Hertfordshire AL5 1BJ; telephone 0582 764254.

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