Changing the lives of young people in Africa

Dean Othen, centre, with some of the children and other volunteers
Dean Othen, centre, with some of the children and other volunteers

WHEN there’s a brief lull in serving customers at his busy Bertie’s coffee shop in Arundel, owner Dean Othen often finds his mind going back to his recent poignant charity trip to Africa.

Earlier this year Dean became a trustee of Coco’s Foundation, a charity he has been involved with for about seven years.

Coco's Foundation director Debs Spraget, centre

Coco's Foundation director Debs Spraget, centre

Coco’s aim is to make the world a better place for young people in the KwaZulu Natal region and Port Elizabeth, giving them hope and happiness through choice by paying for building works and to clothe, feed and provide professional emotional support to the children.

Set up only two years ago by Billingshurst businessman Christ Connors, the foundation is funded entirely by donations and has already raised almost £77,000. Every penny goes to one of its main projects – Build4TheFuture which provides homes and shelter for child-headed families, Food4Life which helps to feed the children, and Clothes4Clothes which recycles textiles to boost clothing economies.

In June, Dean made his third working trip to the region where the small but amazingly effective organisation is making huge strides in improving the lives of youngsters whose families have been devastated as a result of AIDS, often leaving children as the sole support for their younger siblings.

He describes these two-week trips as a life-changing experience for everyone involved – seeing the joy in the faces of those who benefit makes the long days and hard work enormously worthwhile.

Dean’s involvement with Coco’s came about quite by chance. His grandmother, together with several other elderly women, was knitting teddies and after reading an article about the charity, he contacted the founder, Chris, and asked if he would like to take the bears to the children in Africa.

“Chris said yes and found himself standing in a car park watching a group of old ladies coming towards him, carrying bags and bags of teddies,” Dean recalls. “Having made contact with him, I offered my services, at that stage really just because I wanted to see where the teddies were going.

“That led to me going out to Africa in March 2010, during which we went to an orphanage and took the children a teddy each as well as blankets which the ladies had knitted for them – it was wonderful to see how much the youngsters loved them. We were also hard at work building a house and I went back there in 2012 to do the same.”

In June, along with Chris, fellow trustee Debs and her daughter Jasmine, and six volunteers, Dean made the trip again, with all ten of them carrying excess baggage laden with teddies, pencils, blankets and pairs of socks.

“While we were there we visited a house which Debs had had built in memory of her brother and we also did a bit of on-going maintenance for some of the previous houses we’d built as well as finishing off another.

“This time we popped back to see one of the houses we built on my second trip and it was immaculate, they had looked after it so well. For me, it was lovely to see a baby I’d met on an earlier visit who is now a lively youngster.

“A village elder gives a plot of land for a garden where families can grow vegetables and we also give the houses a huge water tank, a JoJo, which can hold 250 gallons so they can collect rain and not have to go without water during dry spells.”

One house has changed the life of a boy who was struggling to look after his four younger siblings in a tent cobbled together with bits of tarpaulin and other materials, on a dirt floor. Now they have a simple, two-roomed home which provides them with security and comfort.

“The people are so humble, and so grateful. A family we built a house for is now helping with the building of others. And they are all so proud of their homes and take such good care of them, keeping them absolutely pristine,” said Dean. “Imagine what it must be like going to a real home instead of a ramshackle tent. We’ve also previously built a house for a disabled boy.

“We go out into the community, to visit orphanages and schools. We run a feeding club so that the children have a meal of porridge before they start their lessons and we’d like to introduce a feeding programme at other schools in the area.

“We were invited to a kind of talent show where the children were so enthusiastic and looked marvellous in their best clothes. They sang to us and even insisted we sang to them.

“Another of our projects is to collect clothes here in the UK and spend the money we get from that on buying school uniforms for the children in Africa. Just £40 buys a new uniform there, including socks and shoes. On one occasion I ended up taking off my socks to give to a boy who didn’t have any. We also try to take the children down to play on a beach one day – they are so grateful for everything we do for them.

“When we go out in October we will be helping with another build. It costs £1,000 to build a house out of breeze blocks and provide it with a JoJo water tank. The money for several of these has been donated by our family or friends. Some people have also donated enough to pay for one of the loos we build.”

The knitted teddies, which are on sale at Bertie’s in Arundel and other places, continue to play an important part in fundraising, but supporters find many other ways of boosting the funds, including a sky dive this August, a garden quiz and sponsored walks.

Dean has run six marathons so far for Coco’s and will be doing both the Brighton and London marathons next year as well as a Tough Mudder event, and his sister Chris is hoping to join him. He would also encourage other people to go on the working trips, which cost £2,500 per person.

“It’s a privilege to be involved in this way,” he said. “I think everyone who goes out there benefits from it in some way, but it is a different experience for everyone. Some volunteers are so touched by it they want to go back again – one has been three times and two from this most recent trip will definitely be going back.

“You work very hard for those two weeks, but it is so rewarding when you see what a change you are making to people’s lives – the difference in their self-esteem is incredible, it is wonderful to see them with their heads held high.

“It changes their lives, but it has also broadened my life, and that of my sister, family and friends. From Arundel to Africa has made me really appreciate how fortunate I am and makes me want to work harder to help. It’s amazing how far that simple teddy bear my nan knitted has taken me!”

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