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The Ulster mum bringing hope to islanders who lost everything

Ballymena woman Rose Caldwell tells Stephanie Bell how charity Concern is helping Filipinos rebuild their lives

Rose Caldwell had expected disturbing scenes of devastation when she flew out to the Philippines this month, but what she wasn't prepared for was a wonderful cheerfulness among the people who just a short time ago had lost so much.

With no homes, no livelihood and entire communities wiped out by the brutal force of Typhoon Haiyan, the Filipino people have been left to rebuild their lives from scratch, and Rose found them doing it with a dignity and an optimism that overwhelmed her.

The 46-year-old mum-of-three from Ballymena, who heads up Concern UK, has spent the past 16 years visiting some of the world's poorest regions, after giving up a successful career in accountancy to work in the voluntary sector.

She visited the Philippines to see first-hand how the money from the disaster fund launched in the wake of what was one of history's biggest storms – of which Northern Ireland people donated £1.25m – is helping the destitute Filipinos get back on their feet.

The mega-storm in the Philippines, called Yolanda, killed over 6,000 people and injured 28,626 others. An astonishing 14 million people were affected, including four million forced out of their homes as the typhoon obliterated cities and villages in the central part of the archipelago.

Rose spent a week in the country and was heartened by just how big an impact the international aid has had, not just on a much-needed practical level, but in boosting the local people's morale.

She says: "The spirit of the people was amazing. Talking to them, they were without fail, just incredible.

"They are such happy people and have a really strong sense of humour and I had to ask, 'How do you guys keep smiling in the face of adversity?' They are so grateful for the help from the outside world.

"They said they had been traumatised for a week and thought they had been neglected.

"When the aid started to arrive, they were overwhelmed that people from all over the world were thinking about them and supporting them.

"It gave them hope again and they want to help themselves.

"They are not standing around looking miserable. All you can hear is the banging of hammers as all around people are working to rebuild."

Three months on and the green shoots of recovery are literally evident everywhere, said Rose.

The typhoon wiped out every bit of green, ripping leaves from trees and taking out much of the plant life, leaving a surreal brown world behind.

Rose says plants are starting to bud again and for the people, this simple act of nature is a sign of the hope they all feel as they work to re-establish their communities.

Their loss is immense and the aid has made a huge difference.

The overwhelming majority of the people affected by the typhoon have now received some support from international aid organisations and the priority now is to begin recovery work – helping people to restore their livelihoods.

Concern is particularly focused on a boat-building programme for fishing families – helping those who were reliant on fishing to get back to sea – after their boats, motors and nets were destroyed or damaged in the storm.

The charity also plans to repair a damaged water system for up to 7,000 people on one of the islands, and rebuild two damaged evacuation centres, which also serve as schools.

The charity has also distributed emergency kits containing practical items to help people while they rebuild, including tarpaulins for shelter, cooking pots, nails, blankets and so on.

A total of 11,000 kits were given out, benefiting 50,000 people.

Rose says: "Getting that kit from Concern has given them shelter, even though it is very basic. It's giving people the chance to start again. Three months on and they still have no electricity.

"Before we arrived, everything went black at 6pm.

"We had little solar-powered lights in our packs, which have allowed people to extend their day.

"They said to us, 'We were in the dark and you have brought us light'.

"They are thrilled with them and such a simple thing has made such a massive difference."

The charity is working closely with the local council to identify those in most need of help.

They have been concentrating on building new fishing boats and, where possible, to get those which were not damaged beyond repair back on the water again.

Rose adds: "We are also fixing schools. Many were not built to withstand a typhoon, and lost their roofs, and we are building them back so that the new ones will be able to hold out to a typhoon.

"We will be there for about a year helping the community to get back on its feet and hopefully leave it even stronger than it was before.

"The devastation is shocking; I saw concrete buildings knocked to the ground by the force of nature and in the main municipality building, iron roof girders were hanging like spaghetti.

"People are really working together to get back on their feet. If one fisherman lost his boat but still had his net, and another lost their net but their boat was okay, they are sharing and splitting the catch.

"Teachers with no school are continuing to teach and do lessons. The people said what has happened has brought them even closer as a community.

"They are still scared. The week before I arrived, they told me a storm was brewing, and they all ran up into the mountains."

Rose is based in London, where she lives with her partner, Michael De Menezes (47), a bank director and their three children, Isobella (8), Ciara (6) and Ethan (3).

She grew up on a farm in Glarryford outside Ballymena and is a qualified accountant who trained with KPMG in Belfast.

She travelled extensively, with her career overseas taking her to some of the world's poorest countries, and igniting in her a desire to do her bit to help.

In 1998 she was working as a management consultant when she asked for a six-month career break to work overseas as a volunteer.

She spent six months in Burundi in Africa and it proved life-changing for her.

She says: "I went thinking it would be for just six months and then I would come back and get on with my life.

"It had a profound effect on me, working in an environment like that.

"There was severe malnutrition and people were dying for lack of food. We worked in a feeding clinic in a remote part of the country and two little boys came in.

"Their bodies were completely emaciated – they looked about 90 years old.

"They couldn't stand on their legs.

"We worked with them and brought them back to a state of nutrition. To see that, it is very hard to go back to the corporate world. I came home and tried to go back to normal but very quickly realised I couldn't."

Rose looked for an opening in the public sector and got a job as director of finance with Praxis.

In 2002 she got the chance to go overseas with Concern to Zimbabwe as a food crisis accountant and helped set up a food and distribution programme. She has also worked in Rwanda.

The following year, when Concern established itself as a new charity, she applied for a position on the board and in 2008, was delighted to take up the reins as executive director for Concern UK.

The charity in 2013 raised £18.2m for its work and has 45 staff in its three offices in London, Glasgow and Belfast.

She says: "Every night 870 million people in the world go to bed hungry and yet there is enough food globally for everyone.

"Having kids of my own, I find that shocking. We are working to try and change this and eliminate hunger."

Rose still has a sister in Magherafelt and says her children love to visit there at least three or four times a year.

"It's a different lifestyle from London and the kids love the countryside and all my sisters' animals," she says.

Essential support

The Disaster Emergencies Committee member agencies have reached over four million people with aid since Typhoon Haiyan made land fall in the Philippines, three months ago.

The DEC's Philippines Typhoon Appeal has now raised £90m – the third highest total for an appeal in the DEC's 50-year history.

The total which has been raised so far by the people of Northern Ireland is just over £1.25m.

Concern currently has 10 international and five local staff in the Philippines.

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