Sylvia on a mission to help children in Zambia

Sylvia Keris doesn't take things for granted.

Sylvia in Sierra Leone
Sylvia in Sierra Leone

After all, the Rotarian from Eccleshall, has witnessed first hand, on aid visits to Africa, the suffering of others.

She says she counts her lucky stars every day that her life has turned out as it has.

And it's her appreciation of her own life and the home comforts associated with it that drives her to help others with pressing needs.

At an orphanage and school for the disabled in Regent area of Freetown

"You have to appreciate what you have and not take things for granted," she says. "I always think that it's by the grace of God, I was born at this time and in this country.

"I – we all – could have been born in a developing country, very much in poverty or in a region continually torn apart by war.

"Thankfully that's not the case but that appreciation has given me a passion for overseas development work.

"By travelling to countries in Africa, you know who you are helping and you know the money and aid items are getting to the right people, in the right place."

At a school in Kissi area of Freetown, helping with building and painting of extra toilets at the school.

Sylvia is a veteran of aid visits. She's been to places like Sierra Leone and Zambia on ten occasions.

She will fly to Zambia again later this year to help support vulnerable children as part of a two-week project, after being given a place on a team of volunteers working with Mission Direct in the autumn.

The charity will be working with its established long-term project partners in the country, who help children living on the streets of Lusaka.

"It's been ten years since I was last in Zambia," says Sylvia. "I have been on other projects and carried out other volunteer work.

"But the last time I was in Zambia, it was to a different part of the country. I helped local developers building a school in the Ndola region and worked with agencies to deliver aid items to families.

"But I will be seeing the country in a new light this time."

The team will be helping children at risk of abuse or trafficking or who may be in need of medical care.

"It will be very emotional," adds Sylvia. "When I have worked overseas before, it's normally been helping in schools or visiting care centres.

"And, although the children may be terribly poor or disabled, the fact we have seen them in a centre, where they can have a meal, are clothed and have support for their health care needs, as much as is possible, makes it a little more easy."

Sylvia gets to work at a school

"You can see they are cared for and the children do have smiley faces. But this type of project will be very different. We will be trying to help vulnerable children living on the streets, some at risk of further abuse or in need of medical care.

"We have been told to expect teenage mothers with babies and we will be seeing them living on the streets.

"It will feel raw and we will have to help as much as we can because many might not want to go into a centre for support.

"That's the long-term goal of the project – to get them that support from within the centres – but when working with people on the streets it can take months and months for some to be encouraged to go and get help."

Sylvia was originally going to be on a volunteer aid project to Kenya in 2020, but the pandemic arrived and the trip was cancelled.

Mission Direct has since slowly started re-scheduling trips to a smaller number of countries, giving Sylvia a fresh opportunity.

"It's such a rewarding thing to do," she says. "When I went to Sierra Leone, for example, in 2018, our team helped builders develop extra toilets at a school in Freetown. The school had previously had 600 pupils attending a school but only two toilets.

"We got to help in classrooms too. One school I taught at, on outskirts of the capital, was in an area which had suffered a catastrophic mud slide, killing 1,000 people not long before our visit.

"The children so valued their education and wanted to learn. They were proud to be in it and to wear their school uniform, even if that was the only clean set of clothes they had.

"I had taken letters from children at Walton Hall Academy with me. When the children heard the letters, they decided they wanted to write back.

"It's amazing that children from all parts of the world have so many things in common, despite their differing backgrounds. They like football – David Beckham's name often started conversations – and the same subjects.

"When I returned home, I was able to give some lessons at Walton Hall and show them the letters. It gave pupils here the chance to learn more about the differences between cultures.

"And, without preaching to them, it also helped pupils here to reflect on how lucky they are to have running water or medicine."

Sylvia is now working hard to raise funds for her trip. Each volunteer on the team has to raise £2,000.

She is selling tickets for a grand raffle to raise funds for the project work.

The raffle draw will be next month, with tickets available for £1. Prizes include vouchers for meals at London House Restaurant, The Smithy and The Royal Oak.

There are also family tickets to Gentleshaw Wildlife Centre, as well as prizes for Eccleshall Community Cinema, holistic therapy, a print by Stone Artist Craig Sumner, History of Stafford illustrated reference book and family board games.

"I'm looking forward to going out to Zambia and helping again," Sylvia adds.

"As long as I have the health to do it, I want to carry on doing it."

You can buy raffle tickets by calling Sylvia on 01785 851005.

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