Mak­ing a dif­fer­ence

She’d been lucky to sur­vive be­ing two months pre­ma­ture when her twin, trag­i­cally, did not. So when Helen Allen had the chance to go back to the coun­try of their birth, she was des­per­ate to help in any way she could

Friday - - News -

A UK nurse whose twin died as a baby in Zam­bia has raised Dh2.2 mil­lion to help women there suf­fer­ing from HIV and Aids.

Born two months pre­ma­ture in an im­pov­er­ished dis­trict of Zam­bia, Africa, the tiny baby strug­gled to sur­vive at first. But nur­tured in one of the first in­cu­ba­tors in the area, and kept alive by her mother, Sally, with sips of breast milk from a spoon, Helen clung on and grad­u­ally gained weight.

Sadly her twin sis­ter Mary did not; still­born, she was buried in Zam­bia. And when the fam­ily re­turned to their na­tive Great Bri­tain 16 months later, Helen would have only the black and white snap­shot taken when the twins were born to re­mind her of the sis­ter she lost.

Grow­ing up, Helen Allen al­ways longed to re­turn to the coun­try where she took her first breath, and where her twin was buried. Yet it was only when she be­gan study­ing to be a nurse at the Univer­sity of Not­ting­ham that she had the op­por­tu­nity. For their work ex­pe­ri­ence, stu­dents could travel any­where in the world. And for Helen there was only one nat­u­ral choice – Zam­bia.

“I knew noth­ing about health­care there, ex­cept that HIV and Aids were a huge prob­lem, as they are through­out sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa,” says Helen, 34. “I wanted to see if I could help in some way.”

In Zam­bia more than one in seven peo­ple aged 15 to 49 is HIV pos­i­tive, ac­cord­ing to the 2009 Unicef re­port ‘Count­down to Zero’. The wors­en­ing eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion, break­down in so­cial and health­care sys­tems, cul­tural be­liefs, tra­di­tions and prac­tices have been cited as rea­sons for the large num­ber of HIV cases.

Ac­cord­ing to a 2012 Unicef re­port, ev­ery hour, three young peo­ple be­come in­fected with HIV, two of them girls.

Fell in love with the coun­try of her birth

Helen was des­per­ate to help. Rid­ing through the African bush on a mo­tor­cy­cle to reach the Monze and Maz­abuka dis­tricts of Zam­bia where she was go­ing to meet some fam­ily friends who were in­volved in char­ity work, she fell in­stantly in love with the coun­try of her birth.

“It’s such an amaz­ingly beau­ti­ful coun­try, and the peo­ple are won­der­ful. A friend called it par­adise – but also hell, be­cause peo­ple have such huge prob­lems too.”

Her friend Wil­son Nyirenda’s char­ity – Si­malelo (which means ‘my guardian and provider’) Aids Peer Ed­u­ca­tion Pro­gramme (Sapep) – was in­volved in set­ting up pro­grammes to ed­u­cate peo­ple about the dis­ease as well as to of­fer them ad­vice on how to pro­tect them­selves against it. It also gave suf­fer­ers prac­ti­cal help on how to man­age their con­di­tion and to live healthy lives.

The HIV/Aids epi­demic was dev­as­tat­ing the pop­u­la­tion and spread­ing rapidly be­cause of cul­tural fac­tors and a lack of health­care and knowl­edge. Fac­ing ex­treme poverty, many women felt they had no choice but to sell their bod­ies. Many didn’t know about HIV, but among those who did, many were will­ing to take huge health risks es­chew­ing safety mea­sures for larger fees.

“It was shock­ing, but what struck me most was that of­ten peo­ple had no choice, and I wanted to change that,” says Helen, who lives in Manch­ester.

Apart from ed­u­cat­ing women on the dangers of the con­di­tion, she also wanted to give them an op­por­tu­nity to earn a liv­ing with­out hav­ing to sac­ri­fice their health or their lives.

Helen worked with Sapep, which was chang­ing lives through a grass-roots pro­gramme of eco­nomic em­pow­er­ment, care and sup­port. Among other things, the char­ity gave the most needy women grants to help cre­ate veg­etable and fruit gar­dens or to raise chick­ens or goats. The sale of flow­ers, fruit and live­stock gave the women a sus­tain­able liveli­hood and stopped them from en­ter­ing the flesh trade. Helen was part of the group that also con­ducted work­shops high­light­ing the dangers of HIV and Aids.

It was not sur­pris­ing that al­most all the women she met had tragic tales to tell. Eve*, 32, be­gan sell­ing her body af­ter her hus­band, the only bread­win­ner of the house, died. “It was the

only way I could get money to raise my two daugh­ters and give them an ed­u­ca­tion,’’ she says.

She was HIV pos­i­tive and even though she knew she could pass the virus to the men who paid her, she didn’t know how to do any­thing else to sur­vive. “If I did, I would stop the work I’m do­ing,’’ she told vol­un­teers at the char­ity.

One 19-year-old woman was found liv­ing in a bus shel­ter. An or­phan, she was preg­nant and had nowhere to go as her home had been taken by her un­cle, who threw her out. She had lost both her par­ents to Aids and was now HIV pos­i­tive her­self.

“Lis­ten­ing to the sto­ries of the women, I re­alised if they had an op­tion of tak­ing up a proper job, they def­i­nitely would,” says Helen. “I wanted to work to­wards giv­ing them op­tions.’’

Mak­ing it of­fi­cial

Back in the UK af­ter her three-month work ex­pe­ri­ence pro­ject, and af­ter grad­u­at­ing in nurs­ing in 2001, Helen be­gan work at Wythen­shawe Hos­pi­tal in Manch­ester in the car­dio-tho­racic sur­gi­cal unit. But in her spare time she did ev­ery­thing she could to raise money for Sapep.

She was spon­sored to run the Not­ting­ham half marathon to raise funds for the pro­gramme and told friends about her plans to help women in Zam­bia. A turn­ing point oc­curred when an anony­mous donor of­fered Helen £10,000 (Dh55,427) to reg­is­ter a char­ity to raise funds. So in Au­gust, five months af­ter first vis­it­ing Africa, Helen’s char­ity Pepaids (Peer Ed­u­ca­tion Pro­gramme against Aids) was reg­is­tered.

She be­gan or­gan­is­ing fundraisers – walks, char­ity balls, par­tic­i­pat­ing in short runs, speak­ing at schools and col­leges – and chan­nelling funds to Sapep, which was among other things work­ing with lo­cal hos­pi­tals, health clin­ics and com­mu­nity projects to sen­si­tise and em­power com­mu­ni­ties.

Very early on in the fundrais­ing, Helen vol­un­teered to work as a night nurse so that she could run the char­ity dur­ing the day.

While rais­ing money, she mar­ried Mike, had two chil­dren, Ge­orge, now six, and So­phie, five, and jug­gled them with her ca­reer as she tried to raise as much money as she could for the women in Zam­bia.

Over the past 12 years Helen has raised £400,000, which has meant Sapep has been able to help over one mil­lion peo­ple there.

Helen still vis­its Zam­bia as of­ten as she can and ar­ranges a steady stream of vol­un­teers – mostly med­i­cal, nurs­ing and mid­wifery stu­dents go there to share their ex­per­tise.

Sasha Kasthuri­arachchi, a theatre en­thu­si­ast based in Manch­ester, was one of the vol­un­teers. She de­vel­oped a train­ing pack­age for com­mu­nity groups in Zam­bia that in­cluded a par­tic­i­pa­tory form of theatre that en­cour­ages the au­di­ence to get in­volved in the play. In­stead of be­ing pas­sive spec­ta­tors, they can get up on stage and of­fer to solve the prob­lems by act­ing out dif­fer­ent so­lu­tions them­selves. This helped a great deal in ed­u­cat­ing peo­ple about HIV and Aids, says Helen.

With Helen’s back­ing, Sasha won aWorld of Dif­fer­ence award – run by the Voda­fone Foun­da­tion in the UK – which gives peo­ple the chance to work for a UK char­ity of their choice, and get paid.

“See­ing the con­di­tion of the peo­ple who were af­fected by HIV was re­ally sad and I was look­ing for ways to im­prove their lives,’’ says Helen.

As well as fight­ing Aids, the char­ity also has other ini­tia­tives in­clud­ing Pepaids School of Good Hope, which was set up in 2010 in vil­lages to im­prove the qual­ity of ed­u­ca­tion. This has al­ready helped more than 1,000 chil­dren.

“Be­cause I was born there, and my still­born twin sis­ter is buried there, I have a spe­cial place in my heart for Zam­bia,’’ Helen says.

Her mis­sion, Helen adds, is to play her part in turn­ing the tide of the Aids epi­demic and help­ing peo­ple break free of poverty by em­pow­er­ing them.

“Pepaids en­ables peo­ple, and helps them to change their own lives and the lives of oth­ers, for the bet­ter,’’ she says.

“I know that poverty and Aids are huge prob­lems, but that doesn’t put me off. Big change starts with small peo­ple – in­di­vid­u­als do­ing some­thing dif­fer­ently. And that’s what I am do­ing.”

One of the off­shoots of Sapep is the Com­mu­nity Pos­i­tive Liv­ing Club, which con­ducts pro­grammes for HIV pos­i­tive peo­ple on how to live health­ier lives

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