Open Eye: Kate: a girl who can't say no

Jane Matthews meets a student who couldn't sit back and watch
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Like a thousand other broadcasts before, the TV news ended with a short item on children suffering in another part of the world.

To this day, OU student Kate Fereday cannot put her finger on what was different about this particular night and the measured BBC tones of Michael Buerk reporting on Ethiopia's street-children.

But the Christmas holidays were looming and this Sales Administration Controller from Plymouth decided that the usual `if only there was something I could do' response was no longer good enough.

She bought an airline ticket to Addis Ababa.

She arrived on Christmas morning, alone, not expected by anyone, armed only with bags of clothes, pounds 230 in her pocket, and the conviction that individuals can make a difference.

It is that same belief in the power of direct action, together with an inability to see obstacles, which, five years on, are responsible for the setting up of safe houses for street-children in three Ethiopian centres, funded by a new UK charity.

While broadcasters, politicians and aid agencies continue to talk of `compassion fatigue', Kate Fereday bowls into Inner Wheel meetings and emerges with money to buy shoes for the orphans. She phones up a toothpaste company and gets her next flight sponsored. She takes two days off to visit the Simien mountains as background for her OU geology studies - and instead sets up another safe house in the town that nestles in the foothills.

She comes across as a woman who can't say `no' - and one to whom no one else says `no' either.

Reflecting on that life-changing journey in December 1994, Kate, now 38, admits she was naive. "I thought there were so many of these street- children I had to be able to do something. My biggest problem was the language barrier, so I soon realised that it would be better to work with an aid agency where English was spoken.

"I did approach an aid agency when I arrived in Addis Ababa, but they said I would cause `disruption' and advised me to enjoy a week's holiday instead. Two days later I found an orphanage and for the next four years I went to and fro during my holidays, fund-raising at home in Plymouth and enriching the children's lives out there."

As in many parts of Africa, children end up living on the streets, begging and scavenging for food, when their parents die. Among a population which, over the last two generations, has been decimated by war and famine on top of the endemic risks of malaria, TB and AIDS, high adult mortality is a huge problem.

It was on a trip to the northern city of Gondar that The Kindu Trust was born. Kate was becoming frustrated by the way money she'd raised at home and given to agencies never actually seemed to benefit the children.

In Gondar she came across a six-year-old boy, gaunt, barefoot, dirt-caked, and crawling with lice. The boy's name was Kindu. Kate brought him into the hotel compound to give him some food. "After he'd eaten of course he had to leave, and that's when the idea dawned on me to raise money for a long-term project to help Kindu and some of the other 2,500 children in Gondar.

"Two weeks later when I flew home the first phone call I made was to the Charity Commission to find out how I could register a charitable trust," Kate says.

During the last two months of 1998, The Kindu Trust opened its first homes for orphaned and abandoned children, in Addis Ababa and Gondar. In each, eight children live with two house-mothers, attend school, help with the running of the house, and know they now have a future. The houses are `homely' rather than luxurious. "We don't want the children to go from begging on the streets to being elite. That would defeat the whole purpose which is to give them as normal a life as possible.

"Also, we believe our solution of family-based, community-integrated care, is better than a large organisation such as an orphanage where management and administrative overheads drain the funds and the children become institutionalised."

The third house is in Debark, the town in the shadow of the Simien Mountains where Kate had intended only to take two days out to study the landscape - until the manager of her hotel asked her to establish a project there.

If there is room in her life for anything other than the Trust's work, Kate's passion for geology is it. She has been with the OU since 1995 but had to pull out of S247 Inorganic Chemistry this year because she is now spending half her time in Ethiopia and couldn't meet the deadlines. She plans to pick it up again next year and as compensation is organising an OU Geological Society field trip to Ethiopia in November.

It will take in the Rift Valley, Simien Mountains and Blue Nile gorge, as well as a visit to each Kindu Trust home which, Kate says, means that the group "won't just be tourists, but will have an insight into community life."

The expedition will be the first time Kate travels in a four-wheel-drive vehicle. While her work brings her into contact with the big names in overseas aid, Kate argues that the Kindu Trust's small scale is its biggest strength. She points out that in a world where overseas aid is now big business, individuals can move more quickly, be more flexible, and reach the places others cannot.

Criticisms that individuals don't necessarily understand the local culture and may do more harm than good, are met with pragmatism. "Yes, I have made mistakes. For example I used to take out jigsaws for the children, until a perplexed social worker asked me what was the purpose of them - they are not part of their culture.

"But individuals learn quickly from their mistakes and can react immediately to put things right. When big aid agencies make blunders, they are on a larger scale. I have seen the UN High Commission for Refugees' blue tarpaulins providing shelter for patios and hotel gardens. Presumably someone made a mistake there...

"The other point is that these children wouldn't have been helped otherwise. There were no aid agencies working in to help street-children in Debark. One of their representatives would have had to write a proposal for funding and wait for a response, whereas I was able to whip out my money belt and set things going right away."

Kate adds: "I do believe one of the reasons people get involved with us is because they can see there are no overheads, no wastage. We don't plan to have any highly paid management or 4-wheel drives."

At the moment the Kindu Trust employs 17 full and part-time Ethiopian staff at its three houses, as well as supporting local traders by buying clothes and sandals from them. Kate works entirely as a volunteer, but hopes in time that the Trust will fund a co-ordinator's post.

Her aim for the Trust's future is that when social services are ready to introduce fostering, the houses can operate as `staging posts', helping many more children to become integrated into the community.

"Those few minutes at the end of the news changed my life, and the lives of many others," reflects Kate. "In a way I have created my perfect job. I feel totally fulfilled."

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