DUO: Sylvia Gardiner (left) with Melaku Hailu, executive director of the Women and Children Development Organisation.
WHAT BEGAN as a trip to meet up with her son in Ethiopia has blossomed almost a decade later into a life-changing moment for Sylvia Gardiner who spearheaded the establishment of a special charity that helps hundreds of Ethiopian women and children.
Sylvia’s motivation emanated from her first visit to the African country in 2004, where her son Ian had been posted with the United Nations mission. It revealed widespread poverty and deprivation, especially among the women who were struggling to care for their children alone.
So when she returned home to Birmingham, Sylvia - empowered with common sense and a no-nonsense approach to life - moved quickly to solicit support from friends and sympathisers by sharing her experience. Out of it five friends came forward and together they set up the charity LUCIA – Life Uplifted By Change In Africa.
LUCIA’s aim is to assist women and children help themselves by encouraging them to set up self-sustaining projects, thereby reducing their reliance on international and handouts.
For this Sylvia and her friends are proud in more ways than one. They’re also proud of the name because it links the discovery of ‘Lucy’ - a three million-year-old skeleton of a human ancestor found in Ethiopia in 1974 - with the present-day struggles of Ethiopian women who are still regarded as second class citizens with little or no civil rights.
Although being the driving force behind the transformational charity, the humble dynamo remains selfless, highlighting the invaluable contributions of others towards the effective running of LUCIA.
“This is not my charity - there are plenty of people who work just as hard as me,” insists Sylvia, a librarian at the University of Birmingham. So successful has been her stewardship of LUCIA that it now has its own doctor on board the team of volunteers.
To date LUCIA has supported 600 women in an area about 160km north west of Addis Ababa in setting up their own small businesses in groups of 15 or 20, allowing them some independence as they are able to earn money to send their children to school.
“Suddenly these women are empowered just by being together – you can see it,” says the proud philanthropist, who will be visiting Ethiopia again next month. “The children are happier too as they are being schooled and getting three meals a day,” she points out.
One of LUCIA’s other main projects is to assist with the creation of a library and community centre at the school nearby where 500 children share four toilets with no electricity or running water.
They also desperately need fencing to keep out animals so they may grow their own crops.
So far, LUCIA has been getting help from a particular set of students towards this effort. “We’ve had tremendous support from boys at King Edward’s School in Birmingham who have helped to raise £5,000.
Their chief master John Claughton has been fantastic,” shares Sylvia, whose husband Ron recently retired from there as a technology and design technician.
ALL IN IT TOGETHER: Sylvia with fundraising supporter Chris Bates at one of the women’s self-help groups
The students are now putting together a book of celebrity doodles to help raise funds.
With additional support in the form of a grant from the British & Foreign Schools Society, the library is almost finished.
LUCIA has been involved with other projects as well, such as supporting orphaned children with getting education and sending youngsters in Ethiopia for respite to recover from traumatic events in their lives.
When she returns to Africa next month, Sylvia will be involved in yet another project that will be helping women build clay ovens so that their children will not have to spend hours every day collecting firewood.
Meanwhile the fund raising continues in Birmingham with a comedy evening on February 9 at Kings Heath Sports & Cricket Club with Mad Jocks and Englishmen, plus a Sinfonia of Birmingham concert at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra HQ in Berkley Street on March 23.
For more details of these events and the charity visit: www.luciacharity.org.uk or contact 0121 745 6463.
Volunteers are still needed – particularly someone to help with monitoring emails.