Why these mums run:the worthy cause that is Mary's Meals

September 04 2017

A HANHAM mum who witnessed the "brutal" living conditions of Africans when she worked as a charity volunteer in Tanzania has never forgotten her experience.

A HANHAM mum who witnessed the "brutal" living conditions of Africans when she worked as a charity volunteer in Tanzania has never forgotten her experience.

Now, 20 years on, Paula Woodman, has been inspired to run the Great Bristol Half Marathon this month in aid of a school in Malawi.

Paula will be joined by pals Elly Randall, 40, also from Hanham, and Lauren Alexander, 39, of St George.

"It was truly a life changing experience," Paula, 42, said.

"I worked for four months as part of a community who were basically struggling to survive. I realised that when I arrived I had more in my backpack than they had ever seen before - a camera, a personal stereo and good shoes. 

"They all tried to look after each other and there was a very strong community spirit, but life was really hard. For example, there was a drought towards the end of my stay and the water pump we relied on dried up. The charity I was volunteering with said that I had to leave that community because the water situation was a health and safety risk. 

"Shortly afterwards I heard that the water shortage had led local people to use unclean water which led to an outbreak of cholera and people had died.

"To be honest I found it very difficult to adjust after the experience I'd had. And knowing that these brutal conditions still exist 20 years later is very sad."

The experience of volunteering in rural Africa never left Paula, who has two children, Danny, aged eight and five-year-old May.

As the 20th anniversary of her voluntary work approached, she came across a book called The Shed That Fed a Million Children.

"My husband Tom knew I was thinking a lot about the time I spent in Africa, so when he stumbled across a non-fiction book in Hanham Library about Africa he decided to borrow it for me. 

"I had never heard of it before, and I never read non-fiction, so I wasn't very keen at first but the book is amazing!"

The book tells the story of a young man from the back of beyond in Scotland and how he ends up at the centre of a global movement, called Mary's Meals, which seeks to end child hunger.

Mary's Meals enables a million children to have a daily meal in a place of education. 

Paula, a social enterprise adviser, said: "It made me feel that we can all make such a massive difference. And what better way to mark the anniversary of when I worked in Africa than to join in?"

Through Mary's Meals' website, Paula came across Chinambiya School in Malawi, a primary for 648 boys and girls and knew she had to help. 

Paula said: "Mary's Meals hasn't had the funds to work there yet, and that means that these children are likely to suffer from extreme hunger. How can they have a chance of learning when they don't have even a basic diet?

"I love that Mary's Meals is not just thinking of food but also about the long term impact of a basic education."

Paula, Elly and Lauren have just weeks to go before the half marathon on September 17. The trio can often be seen running at the cycle path or along the river at Crews Hole Road.

"We've been training off and on for about 12 weeks," Paula said. " It's hard work fitting it in with busy lives. Summer has brought its own distractions with family holidays and the kids off school, but running is great for clearing your mind. And we've been encouraging each other through it."

The plight of the African children has captured the hearts of businesses who are donating money. City centre-based business Graphcore led the way, while local firms The Italian Kitchen, Kenneth and Edwards Chartered Building Surveyors, IKON Construction and Bristol Chiropractic Clinic have also given very generously. 

The half marathon, in which they hope to raise £2,000 towards their £9,000 target,  is the third event in aid of the school. Paula's husband Tom and his friend Ewan Combe started fundraising off with the Bristol 10k. Then a team of 14, including Paula, completed a 10k in London. 

"The Bristol Half Marathon is going to be the biggest challenge yet though!" said Paula.

"Having a very specific target - to sponsor a school in one of the poorest countries in the world - has really struck a lot of people as a very worthy cause.

"The support has been amazing, I'm so grateful. It will make the most enormous difference to the life chances of the kids in Malawi." 

To support Paula, Elly and Lauren,  visit https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/thealternativeschoolrun

Tom's half marathon: Page 7