My Humble Facebook Appeal Built an Orphanage in Africa; Social Networking Sites Have Been Blamed for Destroying Meaningful Human Interaction - but Alice Pulford's Online Campaign Changes Lives

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), January 30, 2011 | Go to article overview

My Humble Facebook Appeal Built an Orphanage in Africa; Social Networking Sites Have Been Blamed for Destroying Meaningful Human Interaction - but Alice Pulford's Online Campaign Changes Lives


Byline: Josephine Fairley

There probably aren't all that many orphanages set up as a result of sticking a pin in a map. But when Alice Pulford, now 21, set out for Malawi, having taken a year out to work as as a volunteer teacher before starting university, she didn't know precisely where in Africa she was going. 'I sort of flicked through a catalogue of gap-year opportunities and went, "Right, that one,"' she recalls There are, famously, many more hedonistic ways to spend the year before university. But Alice was determined to 'give back' during her time off.

Just before she left school, Alice's grandfather -- a great influence on her life -- died, leaving her a small legacy with which to travel. 'He was a huge inspiration to me,' she says. 'He was dedicated to "giving back". When he died, I wanted to do something that would have made him proud.'

Volunteering in Africa for a few months, Alice felt, 'would also help me make up my mind about what I wanted to do with my life. Unlike virtually everyone else in my class, I had no idea which career path to take,' she says. Still, it is one thing to find yourself teaching English, science and PE to 175 schoolchildren ('with only one football, which was quite a challenge') in the baking heat of Lilongwe Sector 4 -- as this area of Malawi is known -- and quite another, at the age of 20, to wind up funding, building and managing an orphanage.

In addition to teaching, Alice and a friend got involved with a local 'porridge fund'. Malawi, like so much of sub-Saharan Africa, has been devastated by the Aids epidemic, which has left millions orphaned (every 15 seconds a child in Africa becomes an Aids orphan). Sometimes they are cared for by grandparents, who may have as many as 15 children in their care, but often left quite alone, or even with the responsibility of caring for siblings.

Malaria, too, has taken a severe toll. To save entire communities from starvation, the Malawi government has set up a programme to provide porridge ('made with oats not considered good enough for the developed world,' says Alice), which is then distributed locally by registered volunteers. 'It was a total eye-opener,' Alice recalls. 'My friend and I had headed off to do some travelling, see the lakes and mountains. But when I realised how precarious life is in the villages -- that without the porridge, they cannot eat, and without the kindness of families in the community, these children won't even have a roof over their head -- I knew I had to do something.'

Back at home in England, she set about raising [euro]1,400 to build a toilet block for a school in one of the villages, Tilinanu, determined to go back as soon as possible to complete that project. 'And then, while I was there, I came across a half-constructed building that had been earmarked for a church, then abandoned due to political wrangling.'

(That often goes with the territory in Africa.)

The family that owned the land was happy to hand it over for the benefit of the village, but just three walls without a roof weren't good for much. So, back at home, Alice rolled up her sleeves and got fundraising again -- with a little help from Facebook -- in order to convert the building into an orphanage to house some of the young, vulnerable girls living in the village. Alice's groundbreaking humanitarian campaign attracted lots of notice, ultimately earning her the runner-up prize in the YOU/Clarins Britain's Most Dynamisante Woman of the Year Awards 2010.

'I organised a barbecue -- [pounds sterling]10 [[euro]12] a head, bring your own booze -- but soon realised that this wasn't going to be enough to help us raise the [pounds sterling]6,500 [[euro]7,600] needed to complete the orphanage. I'd got a very precise quote, so I put a wish list on Facebook, and people could donate to buy a door, or a toilet, or a bit of cement for the floor. Then, as the money came in, I'd get someone to go and buy the stuff in Malawi [various friends and her sister when she couldn't be there herself].

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My Humble Facebook Appeal Built an Orphanage in Africa; Social Networking Sites Have Been Blamed for Destroying Meaningful Human Interaction - but Alice Pulford's Online Campaign Changes Lives
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