Saturday 29 April 2017

Tuesday 25 April 2017

Heaven Homes, Sierra Leone with Operation Orphan, April 2017

The first thing that hits you about Sierra Leone is the heat – literally, as you step off the plane, smack! There it is! OK, I do come from the Shetland Islands in the far north of the UK where the temps lately have been a mild high of 5-9C so that may be why the average temp of 30C felt rather warm, but even so! It’s not much cooler at night either.

I was on my second expedition with the charity Operation Orphan, the first was a warm clothing distribution trip in Moldova, this one a bit different: working in the school and orphanage of Heaven Homes in Sierra Leone. There were just three of us, myself, Cyrilyn, Operation Orphan co-founder/ director and a teacher and Morag, a retired teacher. The school was set up to cater for the community, the homes came after when demand for accommodation for Ebola orphans created the need. It was at this point Operation Orphan became involved, helping Heaven Homes by providing funding for building the homes and caring for the orphans. Four homes have been built, 2 are lived in the other two are nearly ready with the children living temporarily in a building the other side of the school.

On our first day we went to visit the ‘aunties’ in the homes. These 4 amazing women provide 24/7 care to the 56 orphans in their care. Their kitchen is outside, they cook over open fires and provide 3 meals a day for the children - making them 'well off' children in the eyes of the local community. The children include 2 relatively new arrivals who were abandoned and bring developmental problems into the mix with the Ebola orphans. The older children just accept them and carry them around, play with them – or ignore them, just like siblings the world over.

We also met with school staff on that first day, to arrange training and get to know them a little. As we were taken around the school, pupils in each of the seven classes stood and welcomed us into their classrooms, the rooms mainly bare walls apart from the occasional poster, some handmade some printed, the children beaming smiles, excited to have visitors. I felt the teachers were wary of us at first but we became closer as the days went by and we were soon being invited into classrooms to observe, be entertained by songs, take classes and give examples of different ways of doing things.

We did a day of teacher training with all the staff and I spent a lot of time in the nursery showing the teacher how learning through play could take place and sharing with her the resources we took out with us. Not sure how sensible learning parachute games or the Hokey Cokey in full sun is though! I have one of the teachers on Facebook and I’m delighted to have that continued connection.

When working in the school we found out how difficult it is to write every piece of work on a piece of painted hardboard. There are no worksheets for the children to use, everything is written on the board by the teacher for them to copy out, a time consuming process made harder by the bendy surface and breaking chalk (at least when I was writing it broke!). Other resources were in short supply, children sharing a pencil of having a blunt pencil but nothing to sharpen it with for instance. To this end we are looking at putting together resources for the school which will be sent out in a container by Operation Orphan in July.

After school, the children from the homes change out of their uniform and then head for the pump to wash it ready for the next day. While Morag read stories to some younger ones, Cyrilyn and I tried to persuade the children to let us help. It took a lot of persuading but they eventually let us loose with a washboard and soap. My first attempt at a shirt was rejected as the cuffs were still dirty and it wasn’t long before I was on pump duty instead! The water pump is a vital part of the homes along with the roofed outdoor kitchen where meals are prepared.

Once washing was done, I started to teach the children to crochet with t-shirt yarn. Never before have I taught 20 people to crochet at once or had it picked up so fast! All started learning to chain and were soon wearing bracelets, necklaces, headbands and belts. About 6 went onto learning other stitches with the intention of making mats – these soon turned into bags with one boy having completed a bag the next morning and done it in a stitch I hadn’t shown him! The children in the other homes also picked up the skills the following day as did 2 of the aunties. The peg weaving loom I showed the senior class at school another day was also picked up very quickly with all the children learning the different skills needed for preparing the fabric, setting up and using the loom and hand weaving sticks. They are very practical, very keen and very creative, the woven mats were also quickly turned into bags (spot a theme here?) with flaps and handles added with no further help from me, as well as headbands, bracelets and belts.

One almost guilty pleasure while at Heaven Homes was sitting under a mango tree biting into freshly picked mangoes – never have I tasted anything quite like a mango that has ripened naturally on the tree, still warm with juice dripping. The fibres do get stuck between your teeth, but it’s worth it! The food in general was wonderful, lots of fish, chicken, rice, small cucumbers, plantains and SPICES. WE were very well looked after by Sani, Mommy and Titiya – including arguments over who was going to wash our clothes, us or Mommy – 

she won! By the end of the school week, I was allowed in the kitchen because I was now ‘family’, an honour I do not take lightly – and by Sunday I was allowed to pound the spices for the meal!

The bathroom at the house had no running water so we washed with water stored in a large blue plastic barrel. As the level went down we asked about getting it refilled. I tell you, your water consumption goes right down when you realise the children are carrying on their heads from the pump at the school for you! I can now ‘shower’ including washing my hair in 2 colander sized scoops of cold water! The sight of one of the girls carrying a basin on her head while walking along crocheting will remain with me as a highlight, just as the women or yore in Shetland knitted while carrying a kishie of peats on their backs.

While we were there, a group of 12 runners arrived having run a relay of 650 miles in the UK followed by a 33 miles run in the heat from Freetown to Heaven Homes. It was organised by Michael who had visited Heaven Homes with Operation Orphan last year and wanted to raise awareness and do some fundraising. The children had great fun learning cricket, racing the (tired) runners and playing and singing with them. Some of the runners even had time to paint the nursery yellow, a much brighter look than the original.

On the Sunday we had an afternoon at the beach. Mainly occupied by tourists (backpackers tents aplenty) or the more well off from the community it was a beautiful place with a backdrop of mountains and warm sea water (strange!). We had what had to be the poshest picnic ever with Sani’s spicy fish and cassava leaf eaten off china plates with proper cutlery. There were even glasses for the water. I got in my only bit of shopping at a beach stand (hot, hot sand!) buying a couple of batik bags and a dress.

Morag did a fantastic job sorting resources at the school and creating a room for the teachers to use to meet, study and store resources. She and Cyrilyn took classes on the Monday allowing the teachers time to go and sort through what was there and sort it for themselves – so they knew what was there and where to find it. She arranged for shelving to be put up and it made such a difference. ( I was weaving with the senior class.)

On our last full day, we went around the homes after school giving each child a blanket. Once this was done, with many hugs and smiles the serious part of the day began. We had a water fight. The children ganged up on the adults, throwing buckets of water over Cyrilyn and myself as fast as they could fill them at the pump, also turning treasured empty bottled water bottles into water pistols by piercing a hole in the lid. In the temps there, it was a pleasure to have water chucked over me, although my sandals caused some consternation as the red leather started to bleed its colour and it was thought my feet were bleeding. So much fun and laughter, only possible because of the water supply enjoyed at the homes. 

A great way to end our stay – although we did have an official goodbye at the school the next day. I can honestly say I left a piece of my heart behind me that day.

I would like to end with a conversation we had with Kippy, founder of Heaven Homes, one evening. When asked what the cut off age for the children being in the orphanage was, she replied, “There is no cut off age, how can there be? If we said they had to leave at a certain age they would still be orphans. They can leave, go to college or work and come back if they wish, get a plot of land and build a house, raise a family. They’re family and that’s what families do.”


We are collecting the following items for the school and orphanage. We will take them to Operation Orphan in Nottingham in July for the container they are filling for despatch at the end of July.T-shirtsGood condition school bags
Whiteboards from hand held to wall size to replace the hardboard painted blackboardsSchool stationery – pencils, sharpeners, rubbers, rulers, notebooks, etc
Peg loomsSanitary towelsShoesRefillable water bottlesColourful educational postersBasic medicines// first aid itemsLarge size crochet hooksSheets/ duvet covers for making weaving stripsWooden pegsClear plastic boxes with lids for the children in the orphanage to keep their possessions in For more information and details of drop off points, please contact:Julia Odie, 18 Norderhoull, Voe  Tel: 01806 588755 Email:

Tuesday 3 November 2015

Been There, Done That!

"Great things flourish when they start with a good idea." Quote at the side of the stage of one of the schools we distributed at.
I hardly know where to start. I got home on Sunday after spending last week with a terrific team kitting out over 1000 Moldovan children for the coming winter. I was physically and mentally exhausted (probably more from the travelling!), but so pleased to have been a part of this amazing experience.My first impression? AUTUMN! You have to live on a virtually treeless island before you truly apppreciate a landscape in full autumnal colour!

Victor and his family, our hosts on Sunday

A bit of background, Operation Orphan were running their Keep a Child Warm Project in Moldova for the second year extending the number of schools covered after building relationships within the community with schools, charity and social services. I have been involved in supplying Operation Orphan with knitted and crocheted clothing through Loving Hands and Knit a Square to Give Your Share,  groups of people who craft for charity. I got my 25 year bonus from the council in December and  took the opportunity to use the  money to to go to Moldova and see the process through. I also collected four pallets worth of winter clothing from the amazing Shetland public which was shipped to the charity by JBT for packing for the project. I also did fundraising, raffled a blanket and had donations from Shetland Rotary Club, North Mainland Gardening Club and Angela Sinclair Massage, all of which went towards getting the donations to their destination.

The Moldovan people are not sitting waiting for handouts, they do not expect any. They are hard working and many survive on what they can grow and raise – for their own use and for sale: pears, apples, grapes, corn, peppers, tomatoes, eggs, chickens, geese, turkeys etc on their back yard land. We shared a meal cooked with vegetables grown in the garden at the home of one of the team’s parents – it was fantastic, stuffed peppers and vine leaves, a slow cooked stew of lamb and potatoes washed down with a cherry drink made from their own cherries. It’s a simpler life than we have, and perhaps the richer for it. Temperatures vary wildly over the year, with up to 40C in the summer and down past -25C in the winter. Village roads are earthen tracks and they become quagmires when it rains.

As Operation Orphan’s Team Moldova 2015, we visited 3 village schools and 2 village nurseries, plus a mother and baby unit and the Children’s Centre in Cahul – the regional centre – where children with disabilities can spend the day, if their parents can transport them to the centre. Out of the towns there is little, if any, provision for children with special needs and most spend their days at home, possibly alone if the parents are working or working the land. Toys made by Loving Hands members were left here for the classes to use and for the children themselves.

Blanket made by Ollaberry School pupils finds a new owner.
We clothed over 1000 children with hats, gloves, scarves, coats and jumpers and the nursery children all got a blanket too. Many of the items we distributed were handmade by people knitting and crocheting to donate to charity, Loving Hands members among them. I believe I must have handed out many items made by Loving Hands, I know a child went home with a blanket I had made, another with a blanket made by a friend of mine, I saw a hat made by her daughter and gave out  blankets sewn together from donated squares by the children of Ollaberry School. Those items could have gone to Sierra Leone or Ukraine, but there were there in the boxes in Moldova for me to see the process through to the end, closing the circle as it were – truly special!


She loved her new pink jumper!

My first customer!

Every day we were in a new venue, we unpacked the boxes that had been transported across land in advance of our arrival. They were sorted according to size, with the smallest sizes nearest the door and going clockwise around the room to the biggest sizes. On the first morning, I was allocated my first child and we were off. It wasn’t until I was trying to do a zip up on a coat for her I realised how much my hands were shaking! Pupils identified as especially vulnerable by staff were given extra clothing, with more jumpers, maybe an extra coat and hats and gloves going into bags for them. The team worked well, with the help from some brilliant local teenagers who worked with us all week. The two that spoke English were especially in demand as we learnt essential phrases to help us with the children. We can all now say in Romanian:

·         Hello

·         Which?

·         Do you like it?

·         Too small

·         Too big
        Thank you

·         Goodbye

As well as a few other words!

Days two and four were spent kitting out the younger children from the nurseries – aged 2-6. Some were tiny, some cried – as you would if taken from your classroom by a complete stranger who spoke gobbledy-gook – and some giggled their way through the whole experience, we can apparently be very funny! Whatever the age, children can have strong opinions on what they like and I can tell you girls in Moldova like sparkle, pink and fluffy! Boys tend not to want a blanket with a pink square in it – crafters take note!

Blanket - fluffy and with pink bits!

The staff were allowed to come in after the children and take any items that could clothe their families, neighbours and friends’ children. This was the time I found hardest. The children would have been none the wiser if we hadn’t come, this winter would have been like the last. The adults however knew the difference we were making, they knew that the kids would be warmer, that there would be more money for food or fuel in their homes. The director of every school told us the difference that this makes, thanked us on behalf of their pupils, staff and communities. We were given gifts of fruit and a loaf of bread baked specially for us. They shared food with us – local cheese, tomatoes, cheese pie. I believe that the last week in October 2015, we made a difference to those communities and I am so grateful for the opportunity to have been there.

Clothing is expensive in Moldova and this was brought home to the team when we took a teenage disabled lad out to the shops to buy clothes, an orphan he arrived on the social services doorstep with what he was wearing, which wasn’t much. As an exercise in showing the cost of clothing a child, it was a hard one! We bought him a pair of trainers, a pair of winter boots, a pair of trousers, a t-shirt, two jumpers, a pair of pyjamas, six pairs of socks and six pairs of underwear and a coat. He also got a hat I had crocheted on the plane out. The shopping cost £135, which would be a bargain here – however the average monthly take home pay is £50 and a school director (head teacher) earns the princely sum of about £130 a month. The equivalent cost for those clothes if bought here in the UK would be about £1000! That’s why the Keep a Child Warm Project means so much to these people, that’s why an elderly cleaner found out how to say “Thank you!” in English to me, why a teacher who showed me her classroom and the photographs of her pupils whom we had clothed said, “Merci! I love you!” when saying goodbye.

On a lighter note, we did fall foul of one member of staff in one school – the cleaner came in and gave us a row (in Romanian but there was no mistaking what she was saying!) for cleaning up after ourselves because she was going to do it!

He hugged this blanket so tight!

What next? For myself, I don’t know. I would love to do this again. If anyone is thinking about taking part in something like this – do it. For folk who want to donate handmade items for next year – can I suggest if you make gloves – PLEASE tie them together – I spent a lot of time peering into a box pairing gloves! Blankets – bigger blankets and lots more!! I would love for Operation Orphan to have enough blankets for every child to get one, not just the younger ones. Baby blankets have limited use as they can only be used in prams, blankets of at least 5x5 8” squares can cover a toddler, 6x6 is better and single bed size is best. Families often share beds so bigger blankets can cover more people! If you can’t make a blanket, make an 8” square and if you live in Shetland send it to me, I’ll get it joined to some more and then there will be a blanket !If you live elsewhere, team up with some people and make one between you, or look at the Loving Hands forum for ideas of where you can send them. There is no time limit on this, you can make a square here and there and when you have enough make a blanket


If you can't donate with items to be given out, perhaps you could help financially to get everything transported? More info on the OO website:

Many thanks to the team that was with me in Moldova for the support, the laughs and the sheer effort, not forgetting all the work that the Operation Orphan team put in getting everything in place for us.