A LEARNING support worker from Voe has just returned from a 10-day trip to Sierra Leone volunteering to help children orphaned during the Ebola outbreak.
Julia Odie went out to the West African nation with the charity Operation Orphan and worked in a primary school and orphanage for 56 Ebola orphans. She described the trip as both harrowing and uplifting.
Heaven Homes, a Christian non-profit organisation, runs homes and learning centres including one on an old farmland in Joe Town which Julia spent her time in.
The Ebola outbreak occurred in 2014 and the country of seven million people was officially declared Ebola-free in March 2016. But more than 14,000 people contracted the virus and around 4,000 died as a result.
“These were kids who some of them had been living in homes on their own since their parents had died,” Julia explained. “There was a three-week quarantine – people had thrown food at the houses but nobody had actually been in.”
The school she visited operated a writing club, and one of the teachers showed Julia some of the stories to highlight the standard of writing.
“But every story we read was ‘the day my dad died’, or ‘my best friend has gone’ – they were all tales of loss, quite hard reading. Some of them, although they were happy being around you, they’d be sitting quiet in the corner. You wonder what is going on in their heads.”
Julia had done some fundraising prior to the trip and bought some resources to take out including whiteboard packs.
She continued: “The kids were so happy, so friendly, so pleased with the smallest things. When you’ve seen kids in a classroom waiting their turn for a pencil, you really appreciate what the kids here have.
“The nursery class was four bare walls with tables and chairs, not even a proper blackboard - just painted hardboard – and that was it. They did have resources in the school, but there weren’t many.”
A learning support worker and nursery assistant, she helped out with some teacher training and helping the nursery teacher with learning through play.
“It’s very learn-by-rote, the system they use – even the young kids sitting looking at the blackboard. We took out parachutes and skipping ropes and things for them to use at playtime.”
She also taught the kids skills like crochet and weaving. All the pupils were keen to make bags, which were made using old sheets and duvet covers torn into strips.
“They just settled into this conveyor belt system in the classroom, taking turns at the weaving and the other jobs as well. With the crochet we were using t-shirts, showing them how to make yarn from recycling t-shirts in the hope that’s something they can carry on.
“There’s no wool shops, so we thought what could we use that’s going to be sustainable, so old fabrics was what I was asked to use.”
They spent a fair bit of time after school in the orphanages “just hanging out, reading books – we had a water fight, which was absolute bliss in the temperatures out there… they kinda ganged up on the adults!”
The trip overall was an “eye-opener”, particularly driving to the orphanage where people were living in roadside shanty town-like conditions.
“There was this beautiful beach, warm sea – nobody on it because the people can’t afford transport to get to the beach. It’s only tourists, the Westerners, or the richer people in Sierra Leone that go to the beach.
“The orphans are considered to be well off in the community, because they go back to the homes for lunch, they get three meals a day, which is unusual.”
She said the self-funded trip had probably cost her close to £2,000 by the time fees, flights, malaria tablets, injections etc. were factored in.
“It’s a lot of money to spend to go to work in your holidays, but I would consider going again and I loved being out there with the kids,” she added.
“There were quite a few tears on both sides when we were leaving. They’re a lovely bunch.”
You can donate to Julia’s fundraising page, which has so far raised £1,264.17, here.
She is also involved with Loving Hands, a group that crafts items for donating to various charities including Operation Orphan.
Shetland knitwear including hats and scarves will be taken away by Julia and her husband John when they travel down to Nottingham this July, while they are also looking for second-hand children’s clothes in good condition, including jackets, hats, scarves and shoes.
- You can find out more about the work of Loving Hands here, and you can also contact Julia on 01806 588755.