Packing her student son Chris off on a trip to the dangerous slums of Nairobi in Kenya, Alison Ferry gulped when she heard his goodbye message. “Look mum, if I don’t come home...” he began, before explaining why he didn’t want her worrying about seeking justice if he was killed.
Although about to enter a world very different to the one he’d grown up in in Newcastle, Chris knew exactly what the dangers were. And so did Alison. “We’d talked about the risks and he’d promised to be careful and assess the situation before doing anything. He’d backpacked round Central and South America in the past but as his mum, I still worried. I knew he wasn’t going to one of the safest areas,” she adds.
Happily, Chris (now 28) returned safe and sound months later with a new purpose in life – and one for Alison.
Appalled by the living conditions he’d witnessed in the slums, where AIDS and HIV were rife, and starving, orphaned children were reduced to sucking stones in the absence of food, Chris wanted to improve things. To do that he needed his mum’s help.
A business consultant, Alison who is married to Richard (57), didn’t think twice about agreeing to support the eldest of their three sons.
“Even as a little boy, Chris gravitated towards people who needed help. He was always very caring, so this didn’t surprise me and I was happy to get involved on a small scale, organising raffles and sponsored events,” she adds.
Had she known then how her role would grow, she admits she’d probably have panicked. At an age now where many of her friends are looking forward to retirement and grandchildren, Alison is a ‘mama’ to 50-plus youngsters dependent on her for sheer survival.
But back in April 2007 when she began supporting Chris to set up their small charity, Eating Stones Fund UK, she couldn’t have foreseen what a huge commitment it would become.
After returning to Kenya with £700 funds, Chris was horrified to see that conditions had worsened since he was last there. More children had been orphaned when parents had died of illnesses connected to HIV or Aids, or had been killed in violent conflicts following a national election.
“The situation was dire,” recalls Alison. In his calls back to his mum from a mobile phone, Chris was reporting that 34 children – many of whom were sick and suffering malnutrition – could be found sleeping in one tin shed. He announced he was going to open an orphanage in a basic building in a safer area.
“If all we can get are some mattresses, it will be a huge improvement to their lives. Anything else is a bonus. What do you think you can do?” he asked.
At that stage Alison had mixed views about her son’s involvement. While proud of his compassion, she felt that with little experience he was stepping into deep water.
But Chris was insistent, arguing: “If we don’t do anything some of the children will be dead.”
Soon Alison was busy pounding the pavements near her home, delivering home-made leaflets asking people for help. Her efforts raised £1,000 – more than enough for mattresses.
‘Once you get involved you can’t stop. The charity has cast a different light on everything’
Recruiting local teachers, doctors and carers, and setting up a basic orphanage within ten weeks, Chris returned home to start his final year studying for an international development degree at Leeds University.
Sitting down with Alison to do their sums, they calculated they’d initially need £400 a month to keep the children relatively safe and fed. “It was a commitment that did concern me. Suddenly there was a lot more work involved,” she admits.
The agreement was she’d take care of the UK side of the charity – encouraging people to make monthly donations and organising fundraising events – and Chris would organise the work in Kenya.
“Once people realised there were no big administration costs and all the money raised went directly to help the children, it was easier,” she adds.
But with an ever-growing need, costs continue to rise and today the charity needs to send £950 a month out there.
Chris, whose experience has encouraged him to retrain as a nurse, visits whenever he can. “Whenever he goes to Kenya, I always take a deep breath at the airport and feel I can’t breathe properly until he returns. Sometimes that can be six months which is a long time to go without breathing!” she adds.
In March this year, Alison made her first trip to Kenya. One highlight was meeting Diana a shy, withdrawn orphan whose progress she’d followed closely.
“I’ve never been so frightened in my life. It’s not a tourist area and I stuck out like a sore thumb but I had to do it and I’m so glad I did. Seeing Diana and all the other happy, friendly children was a real privilege. It was like walking into a big family home, not an institution.”
Her dreams of learning to draw and play the piano once her own children were independent have had to be put on hold as the charity demands all Alison’s spare time, But she has no regrets.
“Once you get involved you can’t stop, but I see the charity as an opportunity not a burden. It has cast a different light on everything.
“A lot of people my age look back on their lives and wonder what they have really achieved.
“I know I’m doing something worthwhile. It’s also enriched my life.”
- For more information about the charity visit www.eatingstones.co.uk
Pic © Patrick Boyd Photography