Bob Parson founded Hope for Children seven years ago, and runs the charity from his front room. When the phone rang last December, little did he know what the next few months might bring: being chosen as The Independent's Christmas charity realised more than £100,000 in just 30 days and changed the lives of thousands of disadvantaged children in 21 countries. In recent weeks, visits have been made to some of the projects to see first-hand the improvements made to these lives.
First stop Zimbabwe. We headed south of Harare in our pick-up truck, and dust and fumes filled the air as we hit the unmade part of the road to avoid an oncoming lorry puffing out black smoke, oblivious to others in its path. Our journey of about six hours had taken us past fields once full of trees that had now been hacked down to make firewood – any form of fuel, including petrol, or "blend" as it's known, is scarce and too expensive. Inflation at over 100 per cent takes its toll on most things, the essential items especially. Toothbrushes are now £10 each; toothpaste £14 per tube.
Occasionally, we would come across a series of wooden structures with straw roofs in the fields at the side of the road. These were a result of land invasions; vast areas were overtaken by war veterans, claimed by a few dilapidated structures. The land was left fallow, the workers gone, spilling thousands more people into poverty in what is a rapidly contracting economy.
The Tongogara Camp near Chipinge, on the border with Mozambique, is one of the projects that has benefited from Hope's support, with funds from the Independent appeal. This project run by the Zimbabwean charity, the National Organisation for the Development of the Disadvantaged, helps 350 teenagers with skills training, including carpentry, brick laying and metal work. Charles Rutinhira, the charity's executive director, said, "The aim is to give families a chance to escape from poverty through their children using the skills they have learnt here – and it's working. We even have the older ones who are now in employment returning to help train the new teenagers."
Accompanying me was Chris Clarke from the Andy Cole Children's Foundation, a charity now working closely with Hope towards the same aims of alleviating the suffering and poverty of children. Together we visited Mbuya Nehanda, a street-children centre situated 40km from Harare. The local football team is Melford United (MUFC), so the visit of the English Cricket Team (at Cole's invitation), bringing with them cricket equipment and Manchester United (MUFC) football kits was a great success. Much time was spent playing football and cricket – the children were thrilled by the team's visit.
Usually home to more than 100 children, many of the buildings at Mbuya Nehanda are in need of repair, as are the kitchen stoves – for the time being, food is cooked on an outdoor open fire. Medical supplies at the centre are at a premium as well. Sometimes the most basic needs of the children cannot be met. There's no free national health service in Zimbabwe, and even the main hospital in Harare struggles.
With Hope and ACCF's support, the aim is to improve the facilities at Mbuya Nehanda, providing a sustainable future through income-generating activities such as milk and crop production. A start has now been made with the building of a new dairy – already in use – and the installation of several new water vats that will store larger quantities of water and save on the cost of constant pumping from long distances.
A hot, dusty and tiring journey took us into Zambia, passing through the shanty towns of Maramba and Malota to reach Linda Community School. En route, temperatures reached 34C. Our guide haggled for petrol, and with the help of at least 10 local boys mended a puncture caused by driving through the pot-holed streets.
We finally reached our destination, a desolate area with parched vegetation, dusty, rocky soil and a few run-down buildings. A concrete building with a corrugated iron roof was the home to 25 street children. Strung across a washing line, 25 tattered blankets were airing.
We were greeted by Smoke Chewe, the headmaster, who showed us the improvements that have so far been made to the buildings, including repairs to the roof and windows, and most importantly, clean water supplies, proper toilets, and washroom facilities. All the children at the school have experienced the treacherous, often violent life on the street – begging for food, sleeping in gutters, desperate for love and attention. A large majority of these children have lost both parents to Aids.
During our visit we met George. George was sitting in the classroom engrossed in a maths problem. Using a very short stub of a pencil he studiously scribbled down columns of figures on a scrap of brown paper. George was desperate to learn and had one ambition. He was going to achieve more than Alvin. Alvin Muhongo, himself a former street child, has gained a degree in mechanics. He is now working as a volunteer in the community, both in the school and with a group of grandmothers initiating a income-generating scheme.
Since this visit Hope, in association with the ACCF, has extended its support by officially adopting Linda Community School and the local communities as one of its long-term projects to alleviate the suffering of more than 2,000 HIV and Aids orphans. A great deal of work has already been done, thanks to Independent readers.
In the Philippines, the district of Manila is divided into "barangays" (boroughs), most of which are full of shabby buildings and deteriorating streets. One of them, Divisoria, is known for its markets: the hustle and bustle of street traders, the large volumes of passing traffic along unmade roads and the smell of acrid air.
We walked with Butch along the railway line. Butch is a former street child who now has seven years' experience as a street educator – one of four now funded through Independent donations. Packed either side of the rails were people with their wares, mostly fruit and vegetables that had fallen from the trains. Others were selling fish, others pieces of cloth.
This railway line is used at least once a day, and several children have been killed. In the evenings, more than 100 children gather to stake their claim for a space by the line, ready for the early-morning "trade".
In the markets, we stopped to talk to street children, some of whom were as young as three years old. Butch is known to everyone who lives and works on the street, and is building up the trust of some of the most abused and frightened children you will ever meet. One child I talked to, called Calucha, was 10 years old. According to Butch he had been on the streets since the age of six, his mother and father sending him out to beg for money and to scavenge for rotten fruit and vegetables. He was holding five empty fruit sacks that apparently would earn him two pesos each. He was very tired and malnourished and had had no or little sleep in the past 24 hours. The previous night he had returned home with no money, as someone had taken all his collected items; he was promptly beaten and thrown out on the street again.
Many children have been supported through the generosity of Independent readers, and despite the charity's growth it continues its commitment to support the needs of smaller groups as well. This has included £200 towards the foster care of a disabled child in Albania, £300 for a special operation for a 12-year-old boy with hypospadius in Uganda, £1,000 to assist foster parents in Sierra Leone, £500 for children's clothes and presents to displaced families in Bosnia, and £3,000 for the renovation of a school in Sierra Leone to protect against floods that occur every rainy season, with work including new latrines, roof and floor, and clean-water facilities.
Hope for Children has also continued to support projects in the UK, including bringing children's toys and equipment to eight prison centres, special contributions for wheelchairs, days out to a show for disadvantaged children, and equipment for special-needs children on the Isle of Wight.
Many more children have been helped, thanks to Independent readers, and the charity continues to be run by Bob Parsons from that front room at Hope House.
For more details on Hope for Children, write to Freepost SCE 12743, Hemel Hempstead, Herts HP1 2BR (01442 234561, www.hope-for-children.org). 'The Independent''s charity appeal for Christmas 2001 will be launched tomorrowReuse content