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How I set up a charity at 20

It is hard to pinpoint the original impetus that prompted the creation of the charity. The simplest one is that there was a need, an unexpected need in a country that was supposedly firmly on the road of development.

It is hard to pinpoint the original impetus that prompted the creation of the charity. The simplest one is that there was a need, an unexpected need in a country that was supposedly firmly on the road of development. If I had known that the government statistics on poverty were falsified, it might have been less of a shock. But then again, how can one avoid the shock of seeing a severely malnourished child for the first time?

When I was 20, before entering my last year of university as a Politics and International Relations student, I spent some time in Rwanda. I wasn’t there to volunteer; I went there to experience a country I had read so much about and to research my final year dissertation on Christian theology being the starting point for Rwanda's many genocides. But as a result of this trip, I have put in place a charity called Children of Rwanda that helps some of the many impoverished children I came across during my stay.

In the western part of the country, I came across hundreds of children hiding swollen bellies under dirty torn clothes. It was impossible to be unaffected by it and I found it impossible not do anything. I had gone to Rwanda with a €600 donation to give to the orphanage that was hosting me, but I thought I could put the money to better use by feeding some of these children. 

So that is what I did - I began implementing a very simple nutrition plan. 30 kids, four times a day, basic foods that I had understood were missing in their diets, and it worked well. It wasn’t always an easy ride but by the time I learnt enough Kinyarwanda (the local language) to make the process run calmly and communicate with the families, there was visible improvement in the children.  

I was terrified of leaving these kids. Once it had dawned on me that there was nothing stopping these little humans from falling back into the cycle of malnutrition when I left, I stopped sleeping. The short-termism of my pseudo-solution prompted me to spend time with the local families to better understand the children’s predicament.

From them I learnt that there were two main obstacles in the children’s life: school and health insurance fees, which were both unaffordable. Following this, through endless meetings with health centre personnel and school staff, I realised that this was something that I could help with from afar. If year on year I could transfer the necessary funds directly to the schools and health centres, the children could receive education and healthcare. In my mind, if the families could be relieved of these financial burdens there would be more available income for feeding the children.

However, the plan was never to start a charity, I simply intended to transfer enough money for school fees and health insurance for the 30 kids I was feeding and their families on a yearly basis. I had each child paired up in my mind with a friend back home who I was sure would want to help them.

But when word got out, 300 families turned up at my door asking to be part of this program, which was yet to be established. Registering as many of them as possible, and then working with the local village chiefs, the villagers selected the most vulnerable children from the community and sent them to me. So the number rose from 30 to 110 children (and then dropped to 109 when malaria took one of the young boys).

At this point I had no idea what was happening, I was simply trying to gather all the information from the families that I thought might be needed to make something work… maybe a NGO or charity?

So on returning to Scotland I registered a charity called Children of Rwanda, and desperately tried to fundraise at my university. It worked - £4,000 pounds was raised, meaning that 109 children were able to return to school and 284 got basic health insurance. In its second year, 113 returned to school (including a university student!) and 499 people got health insurance.

This system continues to work well. I deal directly with the schools and health centres, there is a rescuers system in place if the families don’t receive what they are supposed to, and 100% of all income gets to the children, something that seemed very important before I understood the conflict between effectiveness and cost-efficiency. 

Now I find myself neck deep in the voluntary sector: currently working for nfpSynergy, doing a Masters in Charity Marketing and Fundraising, and trying to run the charity. I know my charity won’t change the world, but it is changing the lives of those children we work with.

The website address of Children of Rwanda is www.childrenofrwanda.org If you want to find out more about what we do, and even make a donation.

Robbie Macmillan

nfpSynergy has agreed to match any donations up to a total of £2500 to Children of Rwanda until the end of July


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