We arrived back to the UK, a team from MBA, and 269 other international volunteers, exhausted but elated, after building a school in South Africa’s largest township, Khayelitsha.
In just 7 days, we built 13 new classrooms, 2 toilet blocks and 1 kitchen, and renovated 7 other buildings, for 2,700 children living in the poorest conditions imaginable. Education is their only hope.
The experience was incredible. It was hard work, 10 hours a day on-site under the searing sun, helping out on a range of activities – from block laying, to plastering, to painting – but it was great fun too. There was huge camaraderie between all the volunteers – a lot of laughter and tears, inspiring meetings with the children, their parents and their teachers and an incredible and humbling opportunity to witness first- hand the impact our efforts will make on the children’s lives.
And at the end of the week when our building job ended, we handed the baton to another Mellon Educate team. A group of leading academics began the next stage of the journey, to mentor and coach the teachers over a two-year period. This will ensure the school is sustainable and makes a lasting impact, helping raise the children’s grades from below 20% to above 75%. I can’t overstate the importance of this: it’s nothing less than an opportunity to escape from the poverty trap.
It was both a privilege and an honour to be part of the Mellon Educate team.
Rewind a couple of years…
It’s incredible to think that I only met Niall Mellon – a successful entrepreneur and inspirational philanthropist – two years ago. After visiting South Africa on holiday, Niall created a charity committed to building homes and schools to help change the lives of under-privileged children and families in the townships of South Africa, and empowering them via education.
What did this really mean in practice? It meant getting teams of volunteers together to take a week out of their lives to fly to South Africa and physically build schools and renovate sites. Niall asked me at that time to become a Trustee of his charity Mellon Educate (everyone is a volunteer, no-one takes a salary), which I agreed to. But it quickly became so much more for me.
Everyone at my company – McDonald Butler Associates, a B2B tech marketing agency – took up the cause with genuine energy and enthusiasm. We raised money to send a team out to South Africa for the 2015 build week, and we got the word out to clients including HPE and Oracle who also sent teams.
It was such as success – and yes, such a life-changing experience – that there was never any doubt that we were going to do it again in 2016. This year I took my 16-year old daughter Kitty, who worked as hard as anyone on-site and was profoundly moved by the experience. I’m looking forward to my other daughters joining us for the week, in years to come when they are old enough.
This year I met an eleven-year old girl called Sesi who was fascinated by our work throughout the week and followed me closely. Right at the end of the week she plucked up the courage to talk to me. It broke my heart to have to tell her that actually we wouldn’t be back here next year, and to know that I probably wouldn’t ever see her again.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
I asked her.
“I will be a doctor”
she proudly told me. And then she thought some more, and added,
“Actually, I want to help people, like you do.”
For McDonald Butler Associates, Mellon Educate is close to all our hearts and it’s something that is with us 52 weeks a year – we’re constantly raising money via bake-offs, half-marathons, mud runs, House Festival, cocktail Fridays and more.
For me, it’s all about advocacy, about spreading the good word. For 2017 my aim is to drive (what I’m calling for now) the Tech Collective, to get – from our personal and professional contacts – more people from the IT and Technology world to get involved. We’ve done it before with Byte Night and our Haiti appeal, so I know we can do it again.
A friend of mine who joined us for the week this year put it perfectly:
“It’s better than five days on a beach”.
You don’t just feel refreshed, you feel changed.
Last year it was a life-changing experience, this year it became an addiction, and I can’t wait for the 2017 school building blitz week.
Have a look at the videos and other blogs on this site, and if you think you’d like to get involved, drop me an email personally and I’d love to chat through how you can support in more detail – firstname.lastname@example.org.