Running a marathon is a pretty huge achievement. But imagine running all those 26.2 miles in the blistering African heat, where the roads melt and there’s no shade in sight.
That’s what one incredible lady, Helen O’Rourke, has done to raise funds for Street Child, a charity that works to empower vulnerable children through education in some of the poorest countries, including Liberia, Nepal and Sierra Leone.
Helen first got involved in the charity after her second eldest son, Mark, went to Africa to volunteer with the charity some years ago. After he returned full of amazing stories and enthusiasm for the charity’s work, Helen knew that one day she wanted to go out to Sierra Leone and help.
When Mark later took a job with the charity and the two of them began to take up a shared love of running, Helen realised that she could make a big difference. So she put on her running shoes and in 2013 took part in the annual Street Child Sierra Leone marathon. Now, she’s just returned from her second marathon, which saw her race over seven hours in the sweltering 40ºC heat, along with her three sons and a few of their friends.
“It was quite a challenge,” laughs Helen. “But we were all just keeping each other going. It was fantastic running with my sons, especially now my youngest volunteers with Street Child, too.”
But the highlight, for Helen, was meeting some of the families who benefit from the charity’s work – helping children who are without schools and areas where a crisis, such as Ebola, has drastically affected how many children can be educated.
“It was incredible. We were running along the road with red-hot Tarmac and there were these children running beside us for two to three miles either in flip flops or with no shoes at all, just holding our hands and wanting to sing and dance with us.
“We’ve made some really great friends out there, especially children and young adults. All the children know how important education is and they want to go to school, so they can change things and help their country.
“In fact, there was one young lad we met who has put himself through college and now has a job with Street Child, which gives him enough money so that he can start to help his local community by teaching. It’s amazing how, with a little help, they all want to help each other.”
Girls Speak Out
One of the biggest challenges Street Child is now trying to overcome is getting young girls into secondary education through its Girls Speak Out appeal. In Sierra Leone, many girls are not given the chance to stay in school past the age of 11.
Often this is because of teen pregnancy, early marriages, forced labour, lack of social support or parental issues, which means the boys of the family are favoured to continue education while the girls stay home.
“It’s like telling girls in junior schools here, who love going to school and want to do well, that actually no, if it’s a toss up between the son of the house and the daughter, the son gets it,” says Helen.
As well as helping out Street Child by running the marathon, which has seen her raise around £2,000 so far, Helen also runs charity races at home, organises fundraising events and collects donated items to take out to Africa.
This year, she packed nine suitcases of football kits donated by children in her local team for kids in Sierra Leone, as well sanitary wear for young girls in rural areas who don’t have access to such basic amenities.
“Doing all this makes you realise just how lucky we are here and that none of us needs as much stuff as we think to be happy.
“It’s so gratifying to seehow happy these children are if you give them a football to kick around. Even when you’re having something to eat, it’s shocking to realise that the child sat next to you probably hasn’t had a meal that day.
“As I’m a childminder by day back home, I find that heart-wrenching. You want to be able to do something for them all.
“Being part of Street Child has changed my life immensely. And going over that finishing line on marathon day I was so emotional, as were all my boys. It’s a rollercoaster, but such a wonderful, humbling experience.”
How to help
Street Child’s Girls Speak Out appeal aims to ensure that girls’ voices are heard and their issues are confronted. Street Child hopes to raise a minimum of £1million to help 20,000 children stay in school and gain a quality education. To support the appeal, call 0207 614 7696, post a cheque to Street Child, 42-44 Bishopsgate, London EC2N 4AH or visit www.Street-Child.co.uk
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