Belfast woman Dee Kelly recently visited India to make contact with the young girl she supports.
Often the eyes have it. For many of us it’s the photographs of Third World children that spur us on to sponsor deprived girls and boys in places like Africa and India.
But Dee Kelly (65), a former youth and community worker and mother-of-three based in south Belfast, who has sponsored several children via the Action Aid charity, reveals that her motivation was slightly different.
“My reason for sponsoring goes back years. Some time ago when my children — Rachael, Aine and Niall — were small and complaining about having to get up and go to school, I thought, ‘How can I get them to appreciate what they’ve got? They know that there’s a Third World out there but sponsoring a child would make it real for them’.”
So Dee, whose background gave her an insight into how charitable organisations might work, researched various charities before making her choice.
“I discovered that in quite a few charities a large percentage of their donations goes to administration, but not with Action Aid.
“And I chose to support children in India as I’ve always had a yen to go there. I’m an ex-hippy but didn't make it. I got as far as Turkey but then turned round and came home.”
Dee then sponsored her first child, the first of so many she says she can’t actually recall his or her name, and the Kelly family gained their insight into the reality of life on the breadline in India.
Fast forward to 2012, when Dee — now separated, retired and a proud grandmother of Stella and Ava — decided to break her habit of not making contact with the young people beyond sending around £15 a month and getting three reports a year (“I honestly didn’t think you should make that link unless you were going to follow it through”).
She decided she wanted to visit Archana, the 13-year-old schoolgirl from south India she’s been sponsoring for four years, and made the trip with her friend Jo Noble in February.
“Archana was nine when I first sponsored her. She’s lovely and when I met her earlier this year, she was exactly like the photo I had of her at home. It was the first of many tearful moments.”
Although Dee was well-briefed on what she would find in India and keen to breathe in its spiritual side, she still found the extremes of poverty and wealth shocking. “The worst poverty we saw was in Calcutta where kids sleep on the streets and a lot of disabled people beg.
“In Archana’s village, Alambadi, there are the basics of life, but she lives with her grandmother in a mud hut with a straw roof.
“There’s no furniture at all and next door the cattle are kept in another mud hut.
“There’s no electricity and if Archana and her brother want to do homework, they use a kerosene lamp which she brought out for me to see.”
In terms of sanitation, there are no plumbed-in loos, simply holes in the ground which, Dee says philosophically, is the same arrangement she encountered when she was working in Africa a few years back.
“They sleep on coconut mats; there are no beds. When I arrived, they were desperate to get me a chair, but I said no.”
The fairly brief encounter, with Dee visiting for a day, brought lots of benefits.
“I think we clicked, although language was a problem. But I could sort of associate with these young people although it’s very humbling. Archana gets up at four to do the washing for her grandmother, who is lovely and only my age but looks a hundred.”
To Archana and her peers, education is a privilege rather than a right. She keeps her precious school uniform at her aunt’s house, which is constructed of brick rather than mud and where it’s easier to keep it clean.
While Dee was hanging out with Archana’s family and friends, she saw the teenager’s schoolbooks.
“She admitted she’s not very good at English, but she wants to be a doctor and proudly showed me her science books which were full of ticks, good comments and beautifully drawn diagrams.”
Although there are harrowing sights and sounds in India, the sub-continent also has a “glorious, spicy smell” and more importantly, a real sense of community, as Dee noted.
“In spite of all the poverty, there is a real sense of community. Archana’s whole family came out to meet me and her aunt and cousins also came round.
“They look after each other, so when I left Archana, I didn’t feel torn or that I was leaving her unsupported. Anyhow, what is good in life? You may not have material things, but Archana seems to realise how lucky she is to have her extended family.”
The money Dee and others send every month helps to support Archana and others in her village. Action Aid also works with a local charity in India to help those on the lowest rungs of society, the so-called Untouchables, to reclaim the lands that were bequeathed to them by Queen Victoria.
Now Dee, who would love to work in India, wants to make a plea to people here to dig into their pockets, spare a modest amount and help change lives.
“If 1,000 people in Northern Ireland would sponsor 1,000 children, imagine the result!”
For details on how to sponsor a child or make another contribution go to www.actionaid.org.uk