Charities: You can't help everybody, but everybody can help somebody

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IT'S easy to feel charitied-out, what with appeals for this and that leaping from every page, TV screen and poster. But one Peterborough couple were so shocked by what they found on a family holiday that they founded their own charity, to help families living in poverty. 10 years on, it's still going strong. Jemma Walton met them.

IT'S easy to feel charitied-out, what with appeals for this and that leaping from every page, TV screen and poster. But one Peterborough couple were so shocked by what they found on a family holiday that they founded their own charity, to help families living in poverty. 10 years on, it's still going strong. Jemma Walton met them.READING this article could change your life. It could change your life in much the same way life was changed for Pauline and Tony Gill when they decided to go on holiday to Ukraine in 1991.

Ukraine is a former Soviet state in Eastern Europe, not yet part of the EU. The Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster devastated the country in 1986, and life there is tough.

This is just how tough life in the Ukraine is: there are hundreds of homeless children living there – street children. These children sleep underground on the pipes of the heating system, which runs through the sewerage system, as this is the only warm place they can find on bitterly cold winter nights.

It is a Ukranian tradition that at a certain time of the year, people leave food on the graves of their loved ones as a memorial. Starving street children, desperate for any scrap of food they can get their hands on, often raid the graveyard at night.

This is the country the couple saw as part of a holiday tour which included Moscow and St Petersburg. This is the country that changed their lives.

Describing her first impressions of Yalta, on the Crimean Black Sea Coast, Pauline, a retired weight training instructor, said: "It's difficult to describe the Ukraine, as it's so different from what we know here in England.

"Although it looked very beautiful, and wealthy Russians holiday there, the local people are very, very poor. There are very few shops and those there were had very little in them. People were living in cramped conditions in huge buildings where a family would have just one room and share a kitchen.

"We met some wonderful families and saw a need, and knew we had to do what we could to help them."

The couple (both 66), of Charles Cope Road, Orton Waterville, returned to England, but have been back dozens of times, at one time taking with them 40ft containers stuffed with food, clothes, medical supplies. They now return twice a year.

With the help of local pastors they have identified families in Odessa, Yalta, Sevastopol and Teplodar in need of help and support.

The couple, who are practising Christians, were also founding members of The Petra Trust, a Peterborough-based registered charity, which has been helping Ukranian families for 10 years this September. Wellspring Community Church played a key part in establishing and developing the trust.

Petra supports between 40 and 50 families, with about 30 people giving 17 or more a month by Direct Debit to help almost 50 families – or 250 people. The 17 used to pay for food, but now just covers gas or electric bills, which have gone up by 200 per cent over the past year.

Everything the charity raises is given to people in the Ukraine, and Pauline, Tony, and all of the people that visit the country with them pay their own air fares.

"The average wage of a nurse in the Ukraine is just 30 per month," said Pauline. "But the Ukranian people will give and give and give. They are so generous.

“They might just have enough food in the house for them, but if they have a visitor they will cook them a meal and insist that they eat it, even though that means they will go hungry.”

The Gills have seen many harrowing scenes since 1991. One of the children they support, seven-year-old Kristina, has brittle bones and the trust pays for her to eat a good diet.

“I had only ever seen her lying on a bed, but the last time we went we she was walking,” said Pauline. “As we climbed the stairs to her home she ran to meet us.

“You can’t really describe what goes through your head when you see something like that.”

Another family is a woman born in 1923, looking after her great granddaughter, Alyona, born in 1994. Alyona’s mother died of alcohol poisoning and her mother, Alyona’s grandmother, killed herself in grief, leaving the two of them living in abject poverty.

Stories like this are far from unusual. The welfare state in the Ukraine is minimal, as is healthcare, with patients expected to buy their own medicine.

Pauline’s face clouds as she recalls moving moments from pervious visits. “A baby was found in a skip once,” she said. “She was about two years old and when I held her she looked up, put her arms around my neck and said ‘Mama.’ - I just went, crying - that was it.

“Another little boy, a six-year-old, was found living in a basement, living on what he could scavenge. His mother had died and his dad had gone missing, but now he’s with an adopted family, and we help him.”

The trust also pays for a former Peterborough District Hospital nurse, Elizabeth Lawrence, to live and work in the Ukraine full time. She spends her morning working with the trust’s families, and the afternoons with the Ukraine’s street children.

These are children that have run away from home, preferring to live with other children like them rather than stay with their parents. Others are orphans and simply have no-one to look after them.

Elizabeth has learnt Russian, and translates for the group when they go across there.

The Gills are going back to Ukraine in August, to spend time with the families they support, and to take them suitcases stuffed with clothes and medicines.

But however hard they try, life in the Ukraine will be a struggle for a long time to come. Do they feel depressed when they leave? Sad?

“We feel blessed,” said their 32-year-old daughter, Kerri, who has recently been to the Ukraine with her parents for the first time since she was 17.

“It really makes you appreciate what we’ve got, and the people are so friendly and generous that you feel that they they are so generous with what they’ve got that you really can’t not be generous with what you have.

“You can’t help everybody, but everybody can help somebody.”

Pupils helping under-privileged kids go camping

KIND-HEARTED youngsters have put their thinking caps on in a bid to encourage people to dig deep and raise money for charity.

Pupils from Thorpe Primary School, in Atherstone Avenue, Netherton, Peterborough have set up a fund-raising club in an attempt to enable a group of underprivileged children in Ukraine the chance to go camping.

The Petra Club will organise a host of fund-raising events which will run through to July when teaching assistant Marian Mahan and deputy headteacher Emma Anderson will visit the summer camp.

Ms Anderson said: “The activities are very much child led, and they’ve made a great start.

“We are hoping to raise 500 for the camping trip, and hope to raise more so that resources can be bought for a children’s home in Odessa, Ukraine.”

The children in the club have already come up with a variety of activities such as non-uniform day, a copper collection, a picnic and various competitions.

This week’s task will involve each year group filling a bottle with as many coppers as they can.

At the end of the week, each of the bottles will be separately counted, and the biggest fund-raising year will play on the trim trail, a new playground assault course that has been set up for the children.

To add extra fun to the fund-raising, a Blue Peter-style board has been set up so the children can monitor how much money is being raised.

For every 50 the children raise, a ball will be placed into the tube, once the tube is full, the school will have reached their target and be able to buy toiletries, food, first aid kits, bedding and a tent for the children.

Year 5 volunteer for the Petra Club, Elizabeth Parker (10) said: “We only set up the club on Friday, but we already have a lot of fund-raising ideas. We will meet every Friday afternoon to sort out a new fund-raising idea.”

Another volunteer, Megan Reddy said: “It is a very exciting project and everyone is going to be taking part. It is a good cause because we are helping all these people, but we are also learning about them, too.”

Member of the city-based Petra Trust, which gives aid to Odessa, in Ukraine, Mrs Mahan said: “The fund-raising started last year when I took a leave of absence. I held an assembly about my trip for the children and it has just snowballed since then and other people are getting involved

“I started off working in administration for the trust and then progressed, and now I have been bitten and I cannot let it go.

“All of the children and the parents are very enthusiastic. Whatever we can raise, will benefit the children.”

The school would love to hear from any individuals or companies that would like to get involved with the fund-raising.

n For more information e-mail Emma, emma.anderson@schools.peterborough.gov.uk