Influential Women- Sylvia Gardiner
Sylvia Gardiner is founder and chairperson of the Lucia charity. Lucia, stands for Life Uplifted by Change In Africa. The core of Lucia is the belief that that the key to positive change is to empower people in Africa, particularly women, to help themselves with long-term self-sustainable development projects.
Sylvia started the charity with colleagues from Birmingham University after returning from a trip to Ethiopia in late 2004. Sylvia had been visiting her son who was working for the United Nations. ‘I was terrified to be going to Africa,’ Sylvia explains ‘I have two dogs so we usually just go to Wales for our holidays and take them with us; this was a completely different experience. I went by British Airways from Heathrow. In the airport café I had the job of deciding if I wanted a full breakfast, sandwiches or cake and an even more difficult decision of which coffee: latte or cappuccino. On the flight I was served two excellent meals and asked endlessly whether I wanted more tea. I booked into an excellent hotel and every comfort was offered to make the stay perfect. Then I went sight-seeing and the reality of how lucky I am hit home. The Ethiopian people aren’t poor, they have nothing; I saw shoeless children with hair loss eating from waste in the streets and drinking from drains. There was a half naked woman with her children outside the hotel gates, but my son told me not to give her any money or she would only be beaten and have it stolen from her. I thought this can’t be right. My own childhood was full of love, laughter and security. I found it impossible not to come back and do something.
Even though it’s a small charity, Sylvia knows that Lucia has had a huge influence. ‘W e have helped between 500-600 women and families. We sponsor orphan girls to go to school and now have our first student who is studying for her finals to go to university. Not all of the girls are academic, so some we teach sewing skills. We have also set up women’s self help groups. These are sustainable development programmes such as community savings schemes and small business training and start-up support such as our latest scheme where women will make and sell fuel saving stoves. It’s amazing to see women grow in confidence. I remember one group who we encouraged to work together as a team and who now have their own shop. I visit once a year with my husband and when we met them initially; they were hunched and wouldn’t look me in the eye. Many of these women have no self esteem; they are forced to marry at 10 years old. I remember that the second year I met them they seemed to be physically taller and more self assured. By the third year, they managed to look my husband in the eye, tell a few jokes and even charged us to watch their presentation. It’s wonderful to see what a little money, know how and encouragement can do. We also run education programmes in sexual and reproductive health, family planning and women’s rights, and we re-educate to combat harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation. I know of a nine year old girl that was raped by a 70 year old man. If she had gone to the police station alone, nothing would have happened, but 20 women went with her and stood outside the station, so they had to do something. This shows the success of women power.
Lucia has raised about £130,000. I remember our target when we started the charity was to raise £3,000 in our first year- we actually raised £8,000. Lucia has 8 wonderful trustees and around 50 regular volunteers. We hold fundraising events including a Summer Ball, Beer and Skittles evenings, quizzes, plant sales and a recent bring your hobbies to work day. The latest project Lucia is raising money for is a library at the Sari school.
Running this charity has restored my faith in human nature. It is the most amazing thing I have ever done. People have been so kind and generous. They have shown such belief in me. It took the trip to get me started but these people already had the compassion and understanding to fire them into action. I’ve been enriched by knowing them. In my day job, I have medical professionals around me and I respect them and do what they ask. When it comes to Lucia those same people look to me to tell them what they can do to help. I think it is that ability to influence others which I have really become aware of through my work for Lucia. I think that you don’t really realise what you are capable of until you try.
Sylvia dreams of a time when no woman feels like a second rate citizen. There is no more violence and women are empowered. ‘Through them we will educate and empower their children and that will lead to further positive change.’ Sylvia explains.
‘African women don’t want charity,’ Sylvia says, ‘they want our support. They are proud beautiful people and they want respect. My son describes them as a bit like the English, a little arrogant but with a fantastic sense of humour. It is purely an accident of birth, a geographical divide that means we have so much by comparison. Every day when I have a shower, I am reminded that some Africans walk 40 kilometres every day to fetch water and if they don’t get there early enough, the water dries up and they have to sit and wait for it to return. I don’t feel guilty for what I have, but I feel it would be immoral if I did nothing. We can’t turn our back on them, we’ve got to help. For me and the supporters of Lucia it is a pleasure to give. Whether that is time or money, Lucia and the people of Africa will be grateful.’
To find out more, see; www.luciacharity.org.uk