Real life: Charity worker hoping for change
During his busier months, Jonathan Smith spends his time with the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Frankie Valli.
The health and safety specialist, who is based in Newport, on the Shropshire and Staffordshire border, runs a successful business that advises on risk. That might mean he travels to an F1 race in Abu Dhabi, a gig at one of Britain’s arenas, a horse race at some illustrious course or a smaller scale event locally. The former Wolverhampton Council carpenter who switched careers because he wanted to be his own boss has made a go of things and is in-demand.
But each year he also devotes three or four months of his time to those who are less fortunate. That might mean travelling to a former war zone to work with the United Nations on projects to de-mine areas that are riddled with explosives. Or, more recently, he has been working in Africa to help some of the most vulnerable people on Earth.
“I’m fortunate that I can afford to take a few months a year out of the diary and give something back,” he says. “I’ve worked hard and business is good. But rather than going off and having great holidays or sitting with my feet up, I’d rather be doing something to help other people.”
This winter, Jonathan will return to African to help children in Uganda, Malawi and Ethiopia. It’ll be the second year he’s visited those countries as part of a project supported by the British police and the UN. He works with a charity called Retrak, which reaches out to the children who have been forgotten by their communities – children who have no one else to turn to.
Retrak’s work and research provides a beginning-to-end approach for street children and the wider-community, that improves their lives. It supports children as they reintegrate back into their families and communities, getting them on the path to being children again.
Jonathan is astounded by its work.
“We work with street children and the police in Uganda and Malawi and Ethiopia. I went last year with an organisation called Retrak in October and November. We flew out with them and Greater Manchester Police.
“The intention is to work with children who are literally at their lowest ebb. They get kids into centres when they find themselves homeless and desperate.
“They use outreach workers to go into the slums and townships and ghettos. What happens is they look at vulnerable children, children who have been sexually abused, abandoned, trafficked and who are aged from three to 15. They use outreach workers to help them. They take them off the streets and put them into centres.
“There are one or two centres in each country. They bring them in and educate them and house them and give them food. It’s a street orphanage charity. They are linked with an organisation called Hope For Justice.”
Jonathan flew out as a risk and safety advisor, looking at the issues facing workers, volunteers and the children themselves. His objective was to make it easier for children to be safely rehoused so that they could rebuild their shattered lives. He worked in partnership with police experts who were looking at ways of getting kids out of crime and onto the straight and narrow.
“The sights you see can be quite harrowing because these are kids who have nothing. It’s in Africa, so they’re not very well resourced; they rely on foreign aid and there’s definitely a role for people like us. We can make a massive difference to kids’ lives.
“We work with the police, who go over and look at what can be done for the children.”
Jonathan had to put in place systems that made it easier to lift children out of poverty and a cycle of abuse. He worked with doctors to look at medical requirements and set up a programme to get spare British supplies out to Africa. He also worked with nurses on disease control policies to make sure children were not in peril from contagious diseases.
And once he returned, he set about setting up supply chains so that he could ship out items that are unobtainable in Africa. Shipping latex gloves, simple medicines and bedsheets might seem like small guestures to someone who is involved with arena concerts and F1 races, but they can mean a world of difference to those without the money to buy them.
“It’s all about doing what we can and using our skills and contacts to help kids who need us most. In my case, I specialise in health and safety so I worked with people in Africa on the assessment of vulnerable young children and ways to improve the medical centres. I took medical supplies over there and we’ve just sent more recently.
“Back in the UK, I do a lot of work with the medical service providers, private medical companies and others at big festivals through the summer. So we just talk to them and ask them to make a donation so that we can send stuff over there. We facilitate the donations, through events. We ask people from events to give us medical equipment that they struggle to get, like anti-bac wipes, latex gloves, bed sheets etc. Those go over to Uganda and Malawi in boxes and they make a massive difference.”
During his previous trips, Jonathan has visited slums to find out how kids are forced to live. They are places that are unsafe to visit alone and that require a security escort. What he sees, shocks him.
“The kids are broken and have no hope. These children are coming in from the surrounding countries such as Somalia and they have nothing. The children travel long distances to get into different countries. Sometimes the children are taken there by the parents who say they can’t look after the child and need help. They literally hand them over and ask aid workers if they’ll take them. For them, that’s a better option and means their child has a better chance in life.”
Jonathan got involved in the charity work through one of his pals in the United Nations. He was a charity CEO and asked Jonathan if he’d like to donate his time. Jonathan jumped at the chance. He’d previously done a lot of charity work but never involved himself in anything to do with kids or kids charities. He flew out to Africa and what he saw tugged at his heart strings.
“The people involved have great ethics and a belief that the children having the right to live and be fed.
“I’m going out there again in November and again in January next year. We spend time in Uganda and Malawi. The police work with us and look at issues surrounding criminality. So we work with a Chief Inspector from Greater Manchester Police to see how we can keep kids out of trouble.
“In Africa, there’s almost a two-tier system, the same as in India. If you live in a city, you might have a chance because there are facilities and investment. But if you live in a rural area you might as well be a million miles away. It’s tough. But we are always accepted. Though there are some no-go areas, it’s generally safe. If I’m being honest, I feel safer and less threatened going through the townships than I would if I was walking through parts of London or the Midlands at night time.”
Jonathan doesn’t just supply medicines. He also offers hope. He takes in supplies of water and basic food as well as a connection with the outside world. And it is frequently that which has the greatest value. When kids see that somebody else cares, that they are not alone and at the mercy of abusers or traffickers, it can literally turn their life around.
Like other members of his team, he leaves behind his watch and other jewellery – to avoid looking flashy.
“We just take the basics: water, sweets, food, medical supplies and the like. The kids are always so excited to see us. We get accosted and the children are so friendly and so happy. These are kids with nothing on their feet in some of the most densely populated areas on Earth. They have rags for clothes and little else. And they are living in spaces where there are eight or nine people crammed into two or three square metres.” His work isn’t simply about providing support and meeting urgent needs of food, medicines and water. It’s also about finding alternative pathways so that children can escape poverty and abuse. So, for instance, police will look to help children who might be on the road to a life of crime. If kids have been caught stealing food because they are hungry or starving, or have been put up to it by adults, they will intervene.
“If a child steals to eat, it doesn’t mean they are an habitual criminal who is seeking to deprive others of property. It can mean they don’t have any alternative. So we look to get children out of those situations and give them regular access to food. It ends their criminality and means their life isn’t tarnished by a criminal record. You have to remember, these are kids who might be HIV positive or who are risk of cholera and dysentery because the only water they can access is dirty. It’s a hard, hard life.”
Jonathan also spent time in African prison cells to find out how people survived when they got caught up in crime. What he saw alarmed him: the conditions they experienced were awful but their attitude to suffering was very, very different to that of their British counterparts.
“We were taken to a jail and there were 200-250 inmates in a single, large cell. Those people were murderers, rapists, thieves and everything else – there was no segregation.”
Remarkably, he didn’t feel threatened or intimated at all. On the contrary, prisoners were giving him fist-bumps and shaking his hand. “I didn’t feel at risk. There was a respect there for people coming in. It felt unnerving that they were so welcoming when they were clearly dangerous men.
“We were in there for 10 minutes but at no point did I feel in danger. It wasn’t a nice place to be with the smell and the noise. But in many ways, it was safer than here in the UK. You couldn’t walk through a British prison in the same way: you’d be spat at, abused and physically assaulted. It’s not that bad in Africa. When they bring people into police stations after they’ve arrested them, they don’t handcuff them or use guns. There’s a level of respect that we just don’t see in the UK.”
Jonathan has had a summer of festivals and events and is looking forward to going back to Africa soon. Ethiopia will be his first stop in November before he returns to Uganda in January. He’s pleased that he can give back, that he can add Retrak to a portfolio of charitable assignments that includes an anti-mine charity that is connected to the Geneva International Convention for Humanitarian Demining.
“I love it,” he says. “It’s real pleasure. It’s a wonderful opportunity. It’s very humbling and I’m very pleased that I can do my bit to help those who are completely vulnerable.
“We can literally change kids’ lives and give them hope. They find themselves all too often in situations where everything seems lost. We can give them a little bit of light and a little bit of hope and help to turn things around.”