It was a sunny day taking off from Luton. We were heading East across Europe to meet Val Huxley – husband Damyon, my two teenage daughters Kate and Molly and me. None of us knew what to expect. I had been involved with Business/People against Poverty for many years and understood the concept of helping people out of poverty – but on a day to day basis on the ground – I was not sure.
On our first day we went to the HQ for the projects run by Valentine and his son Raul. As we drove through the neighbouring streets we saw blocks of flats which looked as though they were empty and should be ready for demolishing – yet there were children outside, adults hanging around, washing hanging from the windows. We passed one block – the infamous Phantom block – named this because the locals say only ghosts should live there. The stench of urine and decay was strong as we drove past. Literally around the corner we had arrived at the haven in the mire – The Way of Joy.
The first thing we noticed was the tap – placed there by Valentine so people in the Phantom block could access water as there was none in the block. They Way of Joy is a modern facility housing a church to accommodate a 100 people plus kitchens and utilities room for meals made for families in the area. We met Marianne, Adrian and many others than helped with the projects. We made up food bags for the families we were going to visit over the next few days. This included rice, beans, sugar, chocolate, biscuits and a chicken. We learnt that families were encouraged to make a huge stew with it which should feed them for days. Armed with clothing and crafts we had brought from the UK, plus lollipops for the children we headed out in two vehicles.
Over the next few days we visited six projects – these ranged from families living on the edge of town in makeshift houses or on the edge of live rail tracks in an old railway station – to those now living in sanctuary houses build by People Against Poverty and running feeding programs for their community.
The conditions the families were living in were more desolate than we could ever have imagined. Many of them had no running water, no electricity, no sanitary facilities and were often living in one single room. We met a family of 12 living in two rooms – each room was no larger than my garden shed. I grew up in Africa and saw scenes like this – but in Africa you don’t have to survive in harsh snowy winters with temperatures falling to -40 degrees. The stench was something else. These kids had never ever had a shower – something we take for granted every morning. Families have to get water from a well down the street with buckets. This hit us hard – after all we were in Europe!
There were many shocking points but the lowest was a family we came across living behind a project family we were visiting. This family consisted of Mum and Dad, two very young children, with another on the way. We were invited to look in their house made of mud and tile – it was so small – you could touch both sides by stretching out your arms. It had room for one small bed – that was it. The family were all outside – washing their laundry in a tin bath – water collected from a well a walk away. There was a table with a few kitchen implements by a small fire for cooking. This was all they had. The toilet was a hole in the ground surrounded by a straw fence for privacy. The eyes of the parents were full of complete sadness and no hope. We emptied the car of everything we had that would be suitable for them. It was just not enough – we drove away, all of us very quiet and thoughtful. Along with many others we had met – they needed help!
On the other end of the scale – for many others People Against Poverty have supplied houses, wells, chicken coops, and in one community a micro-farm. The children are encouraged to go to school, have access to medical treatment and get legal help from the amazing Adrian. These people are still not living in the standard we would expect back here in the UK – but they are so very grateful for being lifted from the despair and degrading conditions they were in previously. They have been given a lifting hand to encourage them to improve their lives step by step. These people were so incredibly lovely. Not one of them had the “chip on their shoulder” that we so often see here in the UK. Their humble houses were kept impeccably clean and they made their small gardens productive with chickens, vegetables and flowers.
Valentine, Raul and the rest of their family and team are very much God’s hands and feet on the ground. They work so hard engaging with the families in a loving and very practical way. They hug, play and communicate with each person – looking past the dirt, stench and conditions these people are living. Val Huxley tirelessly drives these projects forward with passion and energy that a twenty-something would find hard to match.
Has the experience affected us? We remember whenever we have a shower, use the kettle, order the on-line shopping, sit around the table and eat … we remember the team in our prayers … last night we spent our evening as a family producing 230 cakes for a cake sale my youngest daughter has organised at school to buy chickens for the families. We remember that a little goes a very long way. Together as group of like minded people – through People Against Poverty – we can and do make a big difference.