Friday, February 20, 2015

The Largest Donation we’ve Ever Received

Vanessa Mason has long been involved with EducAid. It was her son, Swithun Mason, and James Boardman that were struck by the plight of the Sierra Leoneans, and compelled to help by setting up what is now the charity, EducAid. Since it’s inception Vanessa has always supported the charity, and those most centrally involved. Indeed, when her daughter, Miriam, took up the role as Country Director in 2000 she had an increasingly important job to do in the support of both of her children and the charity.

Vanessa continues to do a lot of work for EducAid, even 20 years on. Since the beginning of the year Vanessa has been organising one of the biggest donation drives that our charity has ever encountered – a logistical operation that many would have been too daunted by. The shipment is due to leave the UK any day now, and last week I caught up with Vanessa to hear how she achieved such a feat, and how she felt now it was coming to a close.

Vanessa, I’d first like to thank you so much for the generosity of time and effort that you have put in to sending this shipment. How did you come up with the idea?

Back in November, when Miriam first talked about taking in Ebola orphans I emailed her this:

“It sounds silly to offer from here, but let us know if/when there is anything we can do by getting stuff to you, putting out messages - or anything else that occurs.” The reply was simple; “Might take you up on that and get you to ship clothes and other stuff.”

As Miriam is far too busy to be troubled with phone calls or emails every week from an anxious - or even just interested – Mum, I keep abreast of what is happening through the EducAid Sierra Leone Facebook page and the articles on the News section of the website. I was reading about the orphans arriving at EducAid with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, so when Miriam wrote to me and said that it would be good to organise some clothes, educational materials, and mp3 players to be sent out to EducAid we thought that it would be a good thing to get people involved with.

It seemed like an achievable feat. I have taken full carloads to be shipped before now, and had to load stuff into large flat pack boxes to be sent in one of the containers going from there, but I’m not sure that I was prepared for the amount that we were going to collect this time.

Well, it’s fantastic that you exceeded your expectations. It seems as though people really engaged with the cause and the charity, how did you go about getting people interested and ready to donate?

Recently I think that people have felt helpless to battle Ebola. With the wide news coverage, and such emotive and vivid stories on radio and TV, many have told me that they are very happy to find that there is something practical they can do to help. I think that most were really glad to have a chance to do something.

I most usually contacted people directly: by word-of-mouth, by phone, e-mail, and facebook. All of the people that I initially contacted already knew about EducAid and the work that Miriam is doing in Sierra Leone, but those people always go on to ask others who may not have known before. It’s a good way to grow awareness for the charity’s work as well as giving people a cause to contribute towards.

Aside from contacting people directly, the collection was announced in our RC Parish Church which serves a lot of the surrounding villages and that brought the collection to a lot of people. It wasn’t just my work though, there were many people involved. Kristina Cooper, who is also the editor of Goodnews Magazine, felt moved to ask her parish priest in Clapham Junction if she could appeal at the Sunday Masses, and she was overwhelmed by the response. Again, people felt that they wanted to give things, but also gave money donations, as well as their time to help deliver

What do you usually tell people when they ask about the Charity itself?
I usually tell them that Miriam is now running 9 schools, all of which provide free education yet regularly obtain the best results in the country. I tell them that EducAid is working with those who, by definition, are among the poorest and least advantaged in all the world. A big thing for me is that all individual donations go directly to the work in the schools, and that Miriam has built a really strong team to lead and teach. I tell people that EducAid may be a small charity, but it is a spearhead of hope fighting on many fronts: gender equality; anti-corruption; raising ambition; all the while re-establishing individual and national self-respect. Now, of course, I also mention the “After Ebola” campaign: the work in the community; the on-going teacher training; and the new work with the orphans. There is so much to say that it’s usually easy to give people reasons to support.

I have had very positive responses because many people where I live are aware of the comforts and advantages, particularly health and education, that we often take for granted. Stories of donations going astray or being swallowed up in admin costs often mean that people are negative about giving to charities, but they are much more happy to do so when reassured on these points. Usually, if people want to find out more I will direct them to the EducAid website, mostly to the News page or the facebook page.

So, what exactly did you send to Sierra Leone? And how did you organise collecting it all.
I sent out a brief letter explaining the situation in Sierra Leone and included a list of things that were needed by the schools. The letter said that the #AfterEbola programme needed to raise £150,000 for more building, furniture, educational materials, and that the collection would include such everyday things as clothes, shoes, books, toys, as well as the blank CDs and DVDs, radios, laptops and MP3 players. I explained that the latter of these are for the lessons she and her staff are trying to get out to the 2500++ of her normal students who are out of school, like all youngsters in the country!

We got a great response and, as far as we could see, though most items were second hand it was in good condition. People did also go out and buy new – including 6x mp3 players from one man.

Fantastic! So, once you had managed to spread the word about your collection, how did you actually organise the logistics? It must’ve been quite some operation!

We decided that we would aim to send the package in the New Year so that we would have the most time to arrange collections and organise the delivery schedule.

In the New Year we began to collect locally, and people were leaving bags of stuff at our house. I had received offers from friends scattered around the London area and began to realise it would be a major job to collect from a wide circle of venues, pack it all, and deliver to the shipping company. I asked 2 friends in London, Ruby Roach in Shepherds Bush and Claire Riche in Clapham, if they would be “clearing houses” and arranged that my godson, Robert, would take his electrician’s van to collect from them.

Ruby collected from family & neighbours; Farah, EducAid’s first UK recruit, also delivered to her house; Claire made her garage available and I told friends in the London area to deliver there.

Initially we were going to go through a shipping company based in Rainham, Essex, about 130 miles from here, that Miriam has used previously. I have done it before with a single carload, but as the quantity of donations began to increase we realised that the charges associated with the shipment would be quite high. Then Miriam put me in touch with Alan Wolstencroft in Banbury who had a local contact with space in a 40ft container which would be shipped to Freetown when it is full. Alan, a local Rotarian, is a Trustee of the Westminster Group charity. Westminster Group plc. have the contract for security at Lunghi International Airport, Freetown. They have a 40 foot container going soon from Banbury, our nearest town, to Sierra Leone, and through Alan we managed to get a big part of the space. Not only were the logistics going to be simpler, but Alan said that he would arrange for it all to be collected from our house and shipped to Sierra Leone free of charge. Such a generous contribution!

Having spoken to both Claire and Ruby in London, we realised that there was an awful lot of stuff to collect. Robert’s van was not going to be big enough, so Maurice Owidi from Oxford volunteered to help. First we hired a Transit van, and then quickly realised that wouldn’t have been sufficient, so we doubled the size! Maurice covered most of the charge for the van, so we’re really grateful to him for that as well as his help arranging it.

In London we had people to help us load the van; special note to Armando, Stuart and Ed who did a lot of the work when we came to collect it from a very full garage. When we got it back to our house we had similar response from those around us. Two friends of mine - 78 and 82 years old - and I spent a whole day packing the flat-pack boxes as fast as Robert could make them up, then Martin continued every day for the rest of the week! We lost count the number of boxes, but we had something in the region of 150 boxes of various sizes, mostly around 25kgs in weight.

When all were ready, Alan Wolstencroft came four times with his van and took 30 – 50 boxes each time. Various people – our Parish Priest, friends, and neighbours – came to our help each time we had to unload or load a van. Once Alan had collected from us, he told me that the boxes we had made up were stacked on 4 x 4 metre square palettes, loaded from the bottom to the top of the container, then shrink-wrapped to hold in place. An enormous number of things.

I hope that it is clear to people reading this that we couldn’t have achieved this alone. There was so much support from so many, and we relied on a huge amount of goodwill – people giving time, energy, money and “goods in kind”. The flat pack boxes, for example, were gifted to us and made the pick-up, packing and delivery possible, not to mention the shipping of course. Without all of the help: friends in London, friends and neighbours here and, most of all, Alan in Banbury … it would have been a nightmare!

After all of the work and excitement it must be satisfying to get it all over, but have you got anything else in the pipeline?

We would be happy to have another collection drive, perhaps after Easter, if Miriam thinks it a good idea. I am sure that we would get the donations of clothes, books, toys, and everything else that we sent, but we would need to organise all of the logistics again!


It is such an inspiring story to hear individuals organise such a complex donation together, and to call on the generosity and initiative of so many of our followers to make something so huge to happen for EducAid. We estimate that Vanessa and her band of EducAid volunteers shipped over 3 ¾ tonnes of clothes, toys, books and vital mp3 equipment to Sierra Leone. From everyone at EducAid, we’d like to thank Vanessa and all of you who donated and volunteered to help this shipment get sent. It was a massive challenge, and a huge logistical operation, but this generosity will have an impact that far exceeds the effort involved for a very long time to come. Thank you.

If you would like to organise your own Volunteering or Fundraising project to support EducAid, you can visit our Fundraising on Your Own page to browse some ideas and examples of how you can contribute.

If you would like to support EducAid’s on-going programmes in Sierra Leone, you can donate on our MyDonate page here.

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