Mak­ing a dif­fer­ence

Gulf 4 Good, a Dubai-based char­ity, has been or­gan­is­ing phys­i­cally de­mand­ing ex­pe­di­tions for a good cause since 2002. Next month a group of vol­un­teers will be cy­cling along the Mekong River rais­ing funds for a school in Laos. Anthea Ay­ache re­ports

Friday - - Contents -

Vol­un­teers are chal­leng­ing them­selves to raise funds for Gulf 4 Good.

The 30 chil­dren sat cross­legged on the worn car­pet blan­ket­ing the class­room’s hard and cold stone slab floor. The wooden-framed win­dows stood slightly open, their peel­ing paint flut­ter­ing in the cool morn­ing breeze, while colour­ful hand-drawn pic­tures hang­ing in the room lifted slightly in the win­ter wind.

In­side the room, the chil­dren sat at­ten­tively, lis­ten­ing to the voice read­ing a story out loud. They didn’t know the two strangers at the front of the class­room but they seemed very en­ter­tain­ing. The grey-haired English­man laughed as he read out the funny parts of the story and acted out the ad­ven­tur­ous ones, div­ing to the floor as the pro­tag­o­nist might. The In­dian man next to him trans­lated the story into Hindi so the chil­dren in this re­mote school tucked away in the Harid­war dis­trict of Ut­tarak­hand could un­der­stand their visi­tors’ tale.

Richard Law­son and Jay Daga were not school teach­ers, but on this par­tic­u­lar Novem­ber morn­ing they were wel­comed as such, for along­side five other Gulf 4 Good (G4G) chal­lengers they had come to help build li­braries and pro­vide books for the chil­dren of this In­dian state.

“We vis­ited the Ra­jkiya Prathamik Vidyalaya school to­wards the end of the six-day chal­lenge,” says chal­lenger and G4G gov­er­nor Jay.

“The core pur­pose of the trip was to pro­vide schools in the re­gion with books and li­braries [in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Room to Read]. We spent the whole day at the school with the chil­dren, we picked up the books and my co-chal­lenger Richard and I com­bined skills to read out loud while he also played out the roles to make the kids happy.

“They were smil­ing all day; it was such an amaz­ing at­mos­phere we re­ally didn’t want to leave.”

The group of six peo­ple of four dif­fer­ent na­tion­al­i­ties be­tween the ages of 28 and 64 had trav­elled to the

‘We think we can have the most di­rect im­pact through aid­ing chil­dren – it’s a lever­age point’

Hi­malayan foothills to par­tic­i­pate in the G4G Last Shangri-La Chal­lenge. The six-day trip would see them hik­ing, raft­ing and moun­tain bik­ing through vast and iso­lated val­leys to fundraise for the G4G cho­sen re­cip­i­ent char­ity Room to Read, a global lit­er­acy or­gan­i­sa­tion with a lo­cal project to build 100 school li­braries for Ut­tarak­hand’s pover­tys­tricken schools.

“The in­fra­struc­ture of the area came as a shock to us all,” says Jay. “How dif­fi­cult it is for the kids to get to school, the lack of ac­cess to ma­te­ri­als, the fact they have so few books. In fact it is a disgrace to call it a school; it was just two classrooms for around 85 chil­dren. In one room they had grades one to three, in the other four to six. I can’t imag­ine how the teacher mon­i­tors their progress. Our aim was to raise money so th­ese kids could have books and de­velop the habit of read­ing.”

The team ful­filled that aim, com­plet­ing the phys­i­cally de­mand­ing chal­lenge and rais­ing over Dh50,000 for the or­gan­i­sa­tion, enough to cover the cost of build­ing the dis­trict’s first 10 school li­braries and stock­ing them with be­tween 1,000 and 3,000 lo­cal lan­guage and English books, games, puzzles and posters. The Last Shangri-La was the fi­nal of G4G’s four an­nual chal­lenges in 2013, or­gan­ised to in­spire peo­ple to chal­lenge them­selves while rais­ing funds for vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren.

Giv­ing back to so­ci­ety

So why do peo­ple set them­selves the G4G chal­lenge? “I think peo­ple get in­volved for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons,’’ says Jay. “First and fore­most it’s be­cause the core of the chal­lenge is to give for a good cause. You’re giv­ing back to so­ci­ety at the same time as meet­ing re­ally in­ter­est­ing peo­ple with a com­mon mo­tive to ex­plore the world and see it through very dif­fer­ent eyes, all the while help­ing oth­ers.”

This was the cor­ner­stone for the found­ing of G4G in March 2001 by Paul Oliver and to­day’s Chair­man Brian Wilkie.

“It started be­cause Brian and Paul did a char­ity cy­cle through Cuba to raise money for blind dogs in the UK,” ex­plains eight-year board mem­ber Tri­cia Evans. “Those kinds of chal­lenges are so com­mon back in Bri­tain but here at the time it hardly ex­isted. So it oc­curred to them as they were cy­cling through huge ar­eas of poverty that they should be help­ing the peo­ple who needed money des­per­ately. They got back to Dubai and or­gan­ised a chal­lenge to Kil­i­man­jaro and raised enough money to pro­vide three am­bu­lances for a lo­cal hos­pi­tal.”

Pop­u­lar among peo­ple with a de­sire to help but no idea how to go about it, G4G was born. The or­gan­i­sa­tion has or­gan­ised 42 chal­lenges from China to Shar­jah and through the ded­i­ca­tion and en­thu­si­asm of par­tic­i­pants has raised over Dh7 mil­lion. Money has been put to­wards build­ing schools, hos­pi­tals and or­phan­ages in more than 23 coun­tries in the Mid­dle East, Asia, South Amer­ica and Africa.

“We’ve re­fined our ap­proach over the years,” says Tri­cia. “We started build­ing a hos­pi­tal in Nepal, giv­ing den­tal equip­ment that would be ac­ces­si­ble for all to the Pales­tinian Chil­dren’s Relief Fund, but now we al­ways raise money for kids. Our tag line is Giv­ing Kids a Chance. We have built hun­dreds of schools and or­phan­ages, built homes for street kids, and pro­vided hous­ing so chil­dren can stay there dur­ing the week if they live many miles from school.”

Asked why their fo­cus has shifted solely to­wards help­ing the world’s un­der­priv­i­leged chil­dren, Tri­cia ex­plains, “We think that we can have the most di­rect im­pact through aid­ing chil­dren – it’s a lever­age point. We be­lieve we can have more di­rect re­sults by build­ing a school and en­abling kids to be ed­u­cated past the age of 10 in the whole vil­lage – that’s an in­stant, quan­tifi­able im­pact.”

G4G’s ef­fort’s have no­tice­ably also be­gun to cen­tre not only on help­ing chil­dren but specif­i­cally girls’ ed­u­ca­tion. They, along­side or­gan­i­sa­tions such as Morocco-based Ed­u­ca­tion for All, which builds ‘home away from home’ board­ing houses to en­sure girls from re­mote vil­lages in the At­las Moun­tains may con­tinue sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion, be­lieve that ed­u­cat­ing a girl can ed­u­cate a com­mu­nity.

“There is a lot of ev­i­dence and re­search to sup­port this,” says Tri­cia, “and we have seen it with our own

‘Since see­ing first-hand the im­pact you can have on com­mu­ni­ties, you just want to carry on’

eyes. If you ed­u­cate a girl past the age of 12 you shift the cy­cle of poverty. If she is ed­u­cated then she will marry later – in the coun­tries in which we op­er­ate as soon as a girl reaches pu­berty they are mar­ried off. She will marry more wisely and she will ed­u­cate her chil­dren.”

With a pol­icy in place to not sim­ply hand out money, how­ever, choos­ing the right char­ity that will use the funds wisely is an im­per­a­tive part of the G4G process. “We are very clear that we don’t put money into a black hole,” says Tr­isha. “The char­i­ties have to come up with a pro­posal, which means they have to be rea­son­ably well or­gan­ised to re­ceive our sup­port.

“Un­for­tu­nately, with the best will in the world many char­i­ties across the globe are not well run and so the money would just dis­ap­pear and we raise big sums of money, we’re talk­ing eas­ily Dh250,000-plus.”

Chal­lenge matches char­ity

The G4G ex­pe­di­tions are tai­lored to raise as much money as pos­si­ble for lo­cal char­i­ties and con­se­quently the price tags are not small. Reg­is­tra­tion fees and spon­sor­ship re­quire­ments are de­pen­dant on the chal­lenge and vary ac­cord­ing to the lo­ca­tion and type of event but all par­tic­i­pants are re­quired to place a de­posit of Dh2,200 to con­firm their place.

“We use ground han­dlers,” says Tri­cia. “They give us a price per per­son. We then triple that and tell par­tic­i­pants they have to raise spon­sor­ship to that value. One third goes to­wards trip costs like the flight and ac­com­mo­da­tion and two-thirds di­rect to a char­ity in the re­gion.”

Steered by seven board mem­bers who all bring dif­fer­ent ar­eas of ex­per­tise to the ta­ble, the or­gan­i­sa­tion is geared specif­i­cally at cre­at­ing four an­nual chal­lenges of vary­ing lev­els of dif­fi­culty. One board mem­ber is as­signed to se­lect chal­lenge lo­ca­tions, while another will then fo­cus solely on choos­ing a lo­cal worth­while char­ity to sup­port.

Next month the G4G chal­lengers, in­clud­ing Jay Daga, will be go­ing on the Mighty Mekong Chal­lenge, which will see par­tic­i­pants em­bark on a 500km cy­cle along the Mekong River to raise money for a school in Laos.

“In­dia was my first chal­lenge,” says Jay. “But since see­ing first-hand the im­pact you can have on com­mu­ni­ties you just want to carry on do­ing what you can to in­flu­ence the world. I want to go on chal­lenges as of­ten as pos­si­ble now.”

Jay, along with an un­con­firmed num­ber of par­tic­i­pants, will travel to the South East Asian coun­try to raise money for lo­cal char­ity Child’s Dream, which will use the funds to build five classrooms at the Nong Pham Sec­ondary School in the coun­try’s Cham­pasak Dis­trict, a school that serves more than 500 pupils but is ter­mite-in­fested and threat­en­ing to col­lapse.

“At the mo­ment the school is open to the el­e­ments,” says Tri­cia. “We will be con­struct­ing the build­ing, the wash­rooms and pro­vid­ing fur­ni­ture, but the vil­lagers are pro­vid­ing the wood and the gov­ern­ment is then pay­ing the teach­ers’ salaries.

“It’s im­por­tant that we try to in­grain what we do so it’s not just a bunch of peo­ple from out­side dump­ing money and dis­ap­pear­ing.”

A method­ol­ogy of sus­tain­abil­ity lies at the very heart of the or­gan­i­sa­tion and sees it en­sure that the char­i­ties it works with in­volve the lo­cal peo­ple from the very be­gin­ning of a project. It is well doc­u­mented that par­tic­i­pa­tion at a lo­cal level can lead to ac­cep­tance and con­se­quently more suc­cess­ful so­lu­tions within com­mu­ni­ties.

“We very much be­lieve in the say­ing, ‘Don’t just give peo­ple a fish, teach them how to fish’,” Tri­cia says. “Sus­tain­abil­ity is ex­tremely im­por­tant and get­ting the com­mu­nity in­volved re­ally en­sures that. In Peru last year, for ex­am­ple, the fa­thers of the

teenage girls were mak­ing the bricks for their board­ing home.”

Con­nec­tion with the com­mu­ni­ties for par­tic­i­pants is also a key as­pect of the G4G ap­proach, which en­sures that over the course of the chal­lenge, a full day is spent with the com­mu­nity they in­tend to help.

“If you don’t touch and see the com­mu­nity you might as well just write a cheque and send it to the char­ity,” says Jay.

“What we do is a to­tally dif­fer­ent thing. The ex­pe­ri­ence of see­ing the im­pact you are hav­ing leaves a re­ally big im­pres­sion.”

He adds, “When I saw the kids [on the chal­lenge in In­dia] I com­pared them to my own kids and it was such a con­trast yet some­how they seemed hap­pier! It made me re­alise that per­haps we tend to give too much to our chil­dren.

“I mean, I asked one lit­tle boy if he wanted to play cricket and he ran home and af­ter 10 min­utes he reap­peared with a makeshift piece of wood that was fash­ioned into a bat. He was so en­thu­si­as­tic and so happy. It was a very poignant mo­ment.”

Such mo­ments that have the ca­pac­ity to change lives and trans­form the way in which many peo­ple in more for­tu­nate cir­cum­stances view the world, are at the heart of G4G chal­lenges. How­ever, as Tri­cia ex­plains, this can at times prove to be a dif­fi­cult ex­pe­ri­ence for some.

“Some­times for peo­ple, es­pe­cially if they have never been ex­posed to such [poverty] be­fore, it’s a heart­break­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. In China we raised funds for the Bethel Foun­da­tion, a char­ity help­ing chil­dren with vis­ual im­pair­ments. The day we spent there with all th­ese beau­ti­ful chil­dren was so pow­er­ful, it just rips your heart out.

“But the ef­fects th­ese chal­lenges have are of­ten far reach­ing. For ex­am­ple, one of the women on the China Chal­lenge was a sports teacher and we were sup­ply­ing money to build a huge hy­dro ther­apy pool and she went back the fol­low­ing year to spend time work­ing there.”

Just the start of the jour­ney

Such vol­un­tary acts from G4G par­tic­i­pants are not rare and the or­gan­i­sa­tion sees it­self very much as a cat­a­lyst for fur­ther change and a link be­tween the de­vel­oped and de­vel­op­ing world.

Thanks to the con­tin­u­ing sup­port from pre­vi­ous and cur­rent chal­lengers, many com­mu­ni­ties con­tinue to ben­e­fit long af­ter the chal­lenge has taken place.

“Vil­lages have been sup­plied with sec­ond-hand uni­forms from schools in Dubai, fur­ni­ture has been shipped out from schools across Dubai, there are peo­ple who go back and carry out vol­un­tary work. There are so many won­der­ful links, peo­ple who spon­sor chil­dren or peo­ple who choose to visit the char­i­ties again.”

From the many tes­ti­mo­ni­als on the G4G web­site it is clear to see the chal­lenges are of­ten life chang­ing in the way that par­tic­i­pants view the world but also have an in­di­rect im­pact on the way in which peo­ple con­tinue to take their lives for­ward.

They are not easy ex­pe­di­tions and while they are not a race, chal­lengers will find them­selves pushed to their phys­i­cal lim­its.

“This isn’t a lit­tle walk around Safa Park,” says Tri­cia. “It’s be­ing on a sad­dle for eight to nine hours a day, six days on the trot. Any­one could do one day of a G4G chal­lenge but you have to be fit and you need to have stamina. The chal­lenge is do­ing it for one day then sleep­ing in a lit­tle board­ing house and get­ting up the next day and do­ing it all over again for six days in a row.”

And it’s a chal­lenge that can have an on-go­ing im­pact on the lives of those who un­der­take it. “Jay joined us about six months ago and he has re­ally lost weight,’’ says Tr­isha, smil­ing. “He is so fit now, it has re­ally changed his life.”

Jay says of his trans­for­ma­tion, “I was a lot more shy be­fore the Ut­tarak­hand chal­lenge. I would al­ways pick a safe hol­i­day where ev­ery­thing was or­gan­ised right from air­port trans­fer to where we would visit, where we would eat. Sud­denly I found my­self shar­ing a tent with some­one I had never met be­fore, and shar­ing a bath­room.”

He adds, laugh­ing, “My back­ground is in fi­nance so you can imag­ine how ad­ven­tur­ous I used to be. Now all my friends think I’ve gone mad!”

On a more se­ri­ous note he says, “I hon­estly think th­ese chal­lenges can change the lives of the chal­lengers just as much as that of the kids.”

Tr­isha puts it suc­cinctly, “The over­all thing that comes out of this is that we know we make a dif­fer­ence in thou­sands of chil­dren’s lives. We know we have shifted the cy­cle of poverty for the next gen­er­a­tion for so many peo­ple.”

Thanks to the ef­forts of G4G, chil­dren in Ut­tarak­hand have school books

Young­sters’ smiles made it hard to leave Ut­tarak­hand

The vol­un­teers raised funds for

Room 2 Read

Jay serves lunch at the school in

Ut­tarak­hand

This G4G team were on top of the world on a G4G chal­lenge in 2002

Vol­un­teer Tarek makes

bricks for a girls’ board­ing house in Peru

Bold first 3words it int eicienia a sed mos el­lanit et The plight of chil­dren helped by an eye care char­ity had a pow­er­ful im­pact on vol­un­teers

This stu­dent in Peru has a sim­ple wish

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