Hundreds of Irish embark on building blitz in rural South Africa
Volunteers rewarded with dance, song and laughter for their efforts
When you have 120 orphans enthusiastically thanking you for making their lives somewhat better, it can only make you work harder.
More than 100 Mellon Educate volunteers are working in 30 degree heat constructing projects on three different sites across a vast rural area in the Eastern Cape of South Africa.
Some 1,300km away, another 220 Irish volunteers with the charity are working on the Oranjekloof primary school in Cape Town.
The Eastern Cape project is a little different – instead of a bustling city like Cape Town, the volunteers here are surrounded by rolling green hills in a remote location.
They stay in a lodge, with the most basic of accommodation.
They are up daily at 5am, and face a round trip of up to four hours depending on the site at which they are working.
But the Irish volunteers are not complaining – they are embracing the new challenge and seven day building blitz set down by Mellon Educate.
And they have been buoyed by the local reaction.
At the site in Bizana, they were greeted by some of the 120 orphans who stand to benefit most from the new school building here.
The children expressed their heartfelt thanks – through song and dance to which they were roundly applauded by the volunteers.
The building will cater for these orphans and vulnerable children and will be managed by Friends in Ireland, the charity set up by RTE broadcaster Marian Finucane and her partner John Clarke.
The couple met developer and philanthropist Niall Mellon as they happened to cross paths in Heathrow airport last November.
Mellon made a commitment to the couple to help them improve their facilities in the Eastern Cape.
Four months later, that commitment has become a reality.
"I met John and Marian last November and I had been aware of the work they had been doing for several years on the Eastern Cape.
"Ironically, we both started our charities in 2002 in South Africa but John and Marian were providing care for HIV orphans in Cape Town and over the years they got involved in providing pre-school education and feeding facilities for poor children in the Eastern Cape.
"Now that I've entered the education space, for the first time, we have a mutual shared objective in providing improvements in education and when I bumped into them in Heathrow airport last November, we sat down for 20 minutes and I made a commitment to them that Mellon Educate would help their project in 2014," Mellon told the Independent.
The Mount Zion Drop-In Centre in Bizana is the biggest of the three and is operated by Finucane's charity - some 11 volunteers with a local community based operation work here.
The building on which the Irish volunteers are working will be a new centre currently replacing their old one. Here community volunteers educate and feed some 120 orphans and vulnerable children between the ages of five to 18.
The new building will be a vast improvement on the current one and programmes such as nutrition, educational support and child counseling will be in operation here.
In nearby Kokstad, volunteers are busy constructing a new building for St Theresa's pre-school.
Some 40 children - aged between three and six – use the facility here.
With their new classroom, Friends in Ireland are hoping to increase this number to fifty.
And in Franklin, a school and drop-in centre is currently being refurbished. The two facilities cater for 40 and 150 children respectively.
The building blitz got underway on Sunday - three days later, the projects are beginning to take shape and are on schedule for completion this Friday.
Scenes of happiness and celebration were not just confined to Bizana.
In Kokstad, the community based volunteers who work for Finucane's charity came to the community hall attached to St Theresa's pre-school, singing and dancing with the volunteers.
Founder Niall Mellon thanked the Friends in Ireland volunteers, before heaping praise on them for their work.
“We are a small island some 6,000 miles away from here but we care deeply as I know you do about improving the lives of children in South Africa,” he told the local volunteers.
“Thirteen years ago, Nelson Mandela came to our country. When I was watching you all dance, it reminded me of Madiba dancing in our country.
“Nelson Mandela had dinner in Ireland with 500 people. When the music started, Madiba was the first on the floor,” the developer told the women who laughed at the recollection.
The charity boss then produced a photo – the first time it had ever been seen publicly, he claimed – of Mandela dancing at the Dublin function.
He gave each of the volunteers a copy of the picture – it was an image many of them clutched tightly to their heart as they left the community centre, travelling back to their respective areas.
The Irish volunteers are working at a blistering pace as part of their seven day blitz here.
Before their arrival, local sub-contractors hired by Mellon Educate were working on the three respective sites, getting foundations and other materials ready in time for the blitz, for three weeks straight.
However, tragedy struck last Thursday when a group of nine construction workers employed by a sub-contractor were killed in a road accident as they travelled to the site.
A truck swerved and lost control before hitting their van - all nine men were killed almost instantly.
More than 20 children have been left without a father as a result of the tragedy - last night, volunteers held a moment's silence in their memory.
It's understood Niall Mellon will be meeting with the men's families in the coming weeks - and the charity are looking at providing long-term support for the children affected.