Wednesday 21 March 2018

'My one wish is that my Aiel has gift of education'

We must fight for the children, says Laura Whitmore

GIRL POWER: Laura chats to the local island children
GIRL POWER: Laura chats to the local island children
Laura meets with children on Daram Island in the Philippines which was devastated by a typhoon
Laura meets with children on Daram Island in the Philippines which was devastated by a typhoon
SPECIAL BOND: Laura Whitmore finally gets to meet Aiel Joy

Laura Whitmore

I feel lucky. Blessed. And it's not because I have what many consider a glamorous job in TV that allows me to travel the world, I feel lucky because I received the great gift of education. I have access to that most basic human need - clean water. I have a safe place to sleep.

Million of girls around the world are not so lucky.

I feel ashamed that I once took the great gifts I have received for granted

As a nation we are generous. We do have a natural empathy with those in need. More than 6,000 people sponsor children in developing countries through the charity Plan International Ireland. I am one of them.

Six years ago, I was sitting in the MTV studio in London when a girl in the office handed me a brochure for a campaign by Plan called 'Because I am a Girl'. It contained the bleak statistic that 62 million girls around the world are out of school. There are places in the world where you can't access education ... because you are a girl.

That month I started sponsoring a little girl called Aiel Joy who lives on Daram Island in the Philippines. Aiel is now 11 and last week I met her for the first time.

Aiel and I have exchanged letters over the years and I had planned to visit in early January, 2014, to fully understand the work of the charity and get to see this little girl and her way of life.

But on November 8, 2013, Typhoon Haiyan - known as Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines - made landfall in the central Philippines, bringing strong winds and heavy rain resulting in flooding and landslides, creating mass devastation.

Aiel's home was swept away. Thankfully Aiel's family, including her seven brothers and sisters were able to evacuate in time. Though not everyone in the area was as fortunate.

Almost two years on and I am on a boat with my mother Carmel travelling from Catbologan to Daram. At last I am about to meet Aiel.

We are greeted by her mother Lisa and what seems to be the entire village. I recognise Aiel immediately from the photo I've had on my mantelpiece for the past 6 years. She's in her school uniform and presents me with a garland of yellow flowers. We have lunch at her school and I try my best to open up the local crab. Aiel calmly, and like a pro, places the crab between her palm and opens it as you would a purse. I attempt the same and it slips out of hand and splatters my shirt. She giggles.

Aiel turns 12 next month. She likes music and badminton. Her favourite colour is pink. Electricity is hit and miss in her small tin-roofed home re-built in the aftermath of the Typhoon.

It remains flimsy.

Plan is the only NGO working on this island focusing on the poorest of the poor and ensuring all children have the opportunity to go to school. 100 children are sponsored here.

There are health issues due to sanitation problems. One midwife looks after six villages. I meet and spend time with heavily pregnant Ivy who is about to have her first baby. I find out after a few minutes she is in labour but is glad to talk to me as it's a distraction from her contractions.

Plan funded the health centre we are in and provides training to community health workers who assist. I've since learned Ivy had a healthy little boy and is doing very well.

I only spent one day with Aiel and her family but was overwhelmed by the pride her family and friends have because she is sponsored; that there is someone else who wants her to stay in school.

Sunday Independent

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