Monday, September 15, 2008

A hand-up to school offers a way out of poverty, by Jen Rosenberg - The Sydney Morning Herald - 15th September 2008

One young student started a charity to help others learn, writes Jen Rosenberg.

When a group of people in Uganda approached Phoebe Williams and her father last Christmas asking for $50 for a chicken pen, she hesitated. "I was standing there thinking: 'If we give you the equivalent of 50 bucks, are you really going to buy these chooks, or where's the money going?'"

The group convinced them to donate the money and the Williams thought no more of it. But, says Williams, she recently received an email from them: "Dear Phoebe, we're so excited because today we've been able to sell so many of our fully grown hens in town that we could buy a cow with the profits."

For a community where poverty and sickness is rife, a cow is, as Williams puts it, a big deal - something families might save years for - but within seven months, the group had turned their $50 opportunity into a viable income.

Creating opportunities is the centrepiece of Williams's mission in Africa. In Kenya and Uganda, her charity, Hands of Help, provides education and medical care for street children. They are malnourished, many are HIV-positive or drug-addicted or both, and many are orphans. Primary school education is free but after that, children drop out of the school system with no funds for education, and no prospects for work. The charity links sponsors - private donors from Australia, the United States and Britain - with children in need.

"It is completely lifting that child out of the circle of poverty by giving them access to secondary education and if they don't make it through the exams, we then offer them a place in a vocational training college," Williams says.

What makes a twentysomething university student from Sydney's eastern suburbs decide to take on the cause of African children?

A bout of meningococcal meningitis at 14 gave Williams a surprisingly mature sense of mortality. The potentially fatal experience left her with a sense of survivor's guilt and inspired her own educational choices. She had read Bryce Courtenay's epic The Power Of One as an impressionable teenager, then a holiday in Africa sealed the deal. She wanted to do something useful but she needed to have the right tools to make a difference.

With degrees in commerce and science - majoring in development economics and finance - under her belt, she enrolled in a postgraduate medical degree at the University of Sydney.

"I was writing honours' essays on things like how HIV impacts on Africa economically and how a disease like malaria can trap a family in poverty forever because they are constantly sick and can't go to school or constantly can't get a good income from work."

In 2005, as a first-year medical student, Williams led a group of 17 volunteers, and $100,000 they had raised, to Uganda where they lived for three months and built a primary school for 650 children.

This first expedition led to the founding of the non-religious, non-profit charity Hands of Help.

Being a crusader while studying full-time is fulfilling but is a tiring business and does not leave much time for a social life. Williams says she could not do it without her partner, the photographer Hamish Gregory. He travels with her as a volunteer and exhibits his photos, partly as an advertisement for their work, and a percentage of their sale goes back into the charity. Some of his photos can be seen this month at the Sydney Africa Film Festival at the Chauvel Cinema in Paddington, from September 26-28.

Williams describes their perceptions of Africa as more like the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series than World Vision ads. Gregory's photographs do not aim to pull at the heartstrings but to show these stoic, heroic people who are getting through each day with the worst conditions possible but with the most amazing frame of mind and love of life.

Given her sheer entrepreneurial skills, it comes as no surprise that Williams has turned her attention to issues closer to home. Looking for some practical work during her medical degree, she established a partnership with an Aboriginal health and education program in Arnhem Land, which has been so successful that medical students at the University of Sydney can participate as an elective in their degree.

Once she finishes her own degree after exams this week, Williams will head to Oxford where she will take up a scholarship to study a masters in global health science with a view to a return to Africa or perhaps to work with the United Nations in the field of international public health. It's a long way from a humble chook pen.

(Credit: Fairfax)

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