My friend Joan Green first came to Sri Lanka in August 1973 when she led a British group who came here on a Y’s Men’s project known as the “Experiment in International Living”. Each member of the group was housed with a family in Colombo and Joan stayed with us. She “clicked” with us at once and a firm friendship was sealed.
|Joan Green handing over packets of pens and pencils to schooldchildren in Zambia
In recent years, her letters and e-mails often mentioned her involvement in a project called “Police Aid Convoys” and I was intrigued by the humanitarian nature of this operation which was initiated by the police in Joan’s home-town of Nottingham.
So, when she decided to give us the pleasure of her company on a week’s visit after 12 years, I asked her for details of this operation in which she has been very involved since her retirement from teaching.
It all started in 1993, Joan told me, when the Nottingham police raided a house and found young Russian girls who had been brought over ostensibly for domestic service, but who were pressed into the sex trade instead.
A police officer named David Scott had the notion that if these girls could be provided with income-generating work in their own villages or towns, they would not be tempted to leave their homes for questionable occupations abroad.
So, David decided to solicit donations of sewing machines and wedding dresses to send to Russia. Police Aid set up bridal salons in which the girls could be employed. The idea in sending wedding dresses was to encourage the girls to use them in order to start a business.
Police Aid appealed for donations from the general public and from shops and companies for UK bridal wear – not only wedding dresses, but suitable attire for the bridal retinue, mother-of-the-bride-dresses and dresses for special occasions.
They also ask for shoes, underwear and accessories - “anything to make the salons more glamorous and bring hope and inspiration.” The response both from firms and individuals to this “Cinderella Project” as it is called, has been gratifying.
One stipulation is that any poor girl who needs a wedding dress, should be given one free of charge to wear and return.
That was just the beginning of what grew into a tremendous humanitarian operation which runs solely on donations of goods from the public and the services of volunteers. It has now become a national enterprise.
Volunteers help in sorting out the goods in warehouses, in packing the stuff for transport, in fund-raising and, best of all, in flying out at their own expense to places like Albania, Pakistan, Zambia, Ghana and Rwanda where they have identified schools and hospitals and communities in dire need.
Joan has gone as a volunteer to Albania and to Zambia.
“We meet the lorries and help with the distribution of goods and also find out what other felt needs there are. We identify dedicated doctors, teachers and nurses who are without the basic tools to do their jobs. Basic’ means tables and chairs for the children, pens and pencils, school books, chalk-boards, sports equipment, medical equipment, linen, cycles, wheelchairs and walking sticks, hospital beds and cupboards and dressings. Recently, a new Nurses’ Home was being built in our area and we were told we could have whatever we wanted in the way of beds and cupboards etc. from the old Home, so we got a good haul!
Rotary and Inner Wheel Clubs and other organizations give us a lot of help.”
Joan is currently President of an organization of retired professional and business women, called `Probus’, and they too do their bit for Police Aid, while also being involved in raising funds for other worthy causes.
“This year, we are focusing on raising funds for Nottingham Air Ambulances,” she told me.
As an example of the way that ordinary individuals respond, Joan told me of a volunteer’s son who teaches in a school in Liverpool.
He had asked his mother whether there was anything they could do, even in a small way, and she had said that there was a need for footballs. Every class in that school had sponsored a football and they had 40 footballs for schools in Zambia!
Joan said that each ball had a label affixed with the name of the class that had sent it. She told me how a number of ladies knit baby blankets and then they place items like diapers, feeding bottles, baby soap and powder, rattles etc. on the blanket and wrap it into a bundle.
These have been dubbed “Baby Bundles” and are very popular in Albania. There are also “Roy Bundles” that contain shaving tackle and soap for menfolk and “Toy Bundles” for the children, all made up by caring individuals.
The drivers of the convoys are volunteers and usually Police Aid has only to buy the diesel for the journey because the owners don’t charge for the use of the truck. In the case of the African countries, the goods have to be sent in containers, by ship and this means raising funds since the transport by ship is costly.
The containers are bought outright and left for use as clinics or whatever by the locals. Volunteers are responsible for organizing fund-raising events – not to raise money for buying goods, but to pay for containers and shipping and such.
Joan had been at a fund-raiser where a famous name in Britain, Simon Weston, a hero of the Falkland War, was the speaker. He was such a draw that they raised 2000 pounds. “We get school uniforms, nurses’ uniforms, fire-men’s uniforms, nearly all of them in serviceable condition and they are gratefully accepted in the countries to which they go.”
“A lot of clothing too comes in and these are all sorted out by the volunteers and any that are not suitable is put aside. There is a man who comes to collect the rejects for recycling - an Asian - and he pays us for what he takes,” she said.
“In a school of 500 children in a town called Gramsh in Albania, we were able to give each child a gray jumper, a polo shirt, a sweat shirt and a second jumper that was coloured. Kits for football teams went to Albania and Zambia,” Joan said.
When they visit a school, the volunteers always ask the children to make a “Wish List” which they take back to England with them. A woman police officer who went to Ghana to train the police there, found that the Ghanian police were minus uiforms and basic equipment. Back in Britain, she was able to get police uniforms, shields and batons and even handcuffs and take them to Ghana.
Clothing, pots and pans and household stuff go to poor villages. Where possible, Police Aid volunteers identify responsible citizens who can be trusted to do some of the distribution.
In Albania, they feel lucky to have found a Roman Catholic priest (from Malta!), who has been serving there for many years, one Father Emmanuel. He is highly regarded by the locals, both Muslim and Roman Catholic, and he is always willing to pack his Land Rover with clothing and other items for distribution in poor villages.
David Scott is Chairman of the Board of Trustees that runs National Police Aid. It has no paid employees. There is an Hony Secretary and an Hony. Treasurer and various Committees composed of volunteers.
Police Aid became a national organization as a result of people in different parts of England hearing about its work by word of mouth and from an occasional press release and responding by asking how they could help.
Joan herself got involved as a result of hearing a talk about Police Aid and learning that there was a warehouse close to home. She went there and has been a volunteer ever since. Shortly before coming to Sri Lanka at the end of March this year, she had gone with other volunteers to Macedonia to find out what their needs were.
In Zambia, where she first went as one among 20 volunteers, they found there was a high incidence of cerebral palsy among children and so they set up a Centre for Celebral Palsy.
I asked Joan what keeps her going with regard to National Police Aid Convoys, and her reply was: “When we see the smiles of the children in Zambia or Albania or wherever, we feel that what we are doing is infinitely worthwhile.”