Maternal instinct: Amy is putting off having children of her own   to help those in need

Written by Amy Hanson:

Standing on a mountain of rubbish in 40-degree heat, I found myself staring into the biggest pair of brown eyes I’d ever seen. They belonged to a little girl of about six. Peeking from under a tarpaulin, she was looking at me with curiosity. Few tourists to Cambodia ever venture into this particular area. And who can blame them?  As my eyes finally moved from hers, I noticed she was barefoot and entirely naked. My heart lurched. I was sweltering in the merciless heat. The stench of rotting rubbish was overpowering. I was literally teetering on piles of rotting nappies, syringes, decomposing food and discarded cans and bottles.

Behind me lay the carcass of a decomposing cow, flies buzzing wildly around it. In front of me, giant trucks were dumping ton after ton of foul waste. It’s the most hellish corner of the world. But I was oblivious to the stench. All I could think about was this little girl. Squinting into the sunlight, I took in the full horror of the situation.  This little girl wasn’t alone. All around were dozens of pairs of eyes, all staring up at me from under the tarpaulin. This heaving, smouldering 100-acre ‘Smokey Mountain’ is home to more than 600 children looking out for each other as best they can.  Their job is to hunt for rubbish that can be recycled. These tiny children – some as young as three – spend their days clawing for tins, plastic, rubber and clothes for just a few pence a day. A stagnant pond, reeking of sulphur, is their only source of water.

I came across those ‘Slumdog’ children in January last year – and it was to have a profound effect on my life.  I’d gone to the Far East to escape a life in London which seemed increasingly meaningless and unfulfilling. I wanted a slower pace of life. And, if I’m honest, I also hoped I might find romance. The last thing I expected was to find my life turned upside-down. But that’s exactly what happened that day I stumbled on the Stung Meanchey municipal rubbish dump in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I knew I couldn’t just walk away.

Of all the hellish things I saw, it was those hundreds of bare feet that moved me almost to tears. These children were walking barefoot on a burning, decomposing mess, littered with needles and shards of glass. I looked at their feet and I thought of my life in London and my dream of earning enough to own a rack of Louboutin shoes. How shallow that was.

A few months before, I had been working as a showbiz journalist for various national newspapers and magazines. My life was a giddy round of partying until 4am. I was a regular at all the ritziest London clubs – Mayfair’s Mahiki, Boujis and Annabel’s, where I rubbed shoulders with Princes William and Harry, Kate Middleton and Chelsy Davey. My shelves were full of all the goody bags I collected from showbiz and fashion launches: Jo Malone perfumes, Elle Macpherson underwear and Lulu Guinness jewellery.

I swapped fashion tips with everyone from Keira Knightley to Lily Allen. And nearly always we talked about shoes. They’re the one thing all women love. But, as the years passed, I began to feel increasingly bored. Then, on Valentine’s Day 2008, the relationship I was in ended. I’d been dating Ramsay, a doctor, for a year. But the truth is we both worked too hard to spend enough time together – he was saving lives and I, well, I was being paid to party. Most of my friends were married. Some were pregnant and everyone was talking about babies. I was 29 and my body clock was ticking louder and louder. So I decided to take a break.

‘If I could raise £500, the cost of a pair of Christian Louboutin heels, I could provide 250 children with boots’

In October 2008, I set off on the hippy trail with one of my childless friends in search of a slower pace of life and possibly romance. Arriving in Bangkok, I was certainly distracted at first. Beaches and partying seemed to take my mind off my shallow existence in London. But as the weeks passed, I realised it wasn’t actually that different – just cheaper. One day, as my friend Nancy and I were discussing the amazing fake Marc Jacobs bags we’d found in Vietnam, I suddenly realised just how ridiculous I sounded.

Here I was in one of the most fascinating but impoverished areas of the world, still talking about shopping. I was bored of shopping, bored of my shallow materialism. My life felt pretty vacuous and no amount of goody bags could fill the void. I had become exactly what I despised and mocked in the celebrities that I interviewed. I knew I had to do something radical. So I decided to move on, alone, to Cambodia for a few months. I planned to volunteer for a while. I had worked with children in the past, teaching, so I got on a moped and drove to every school and orphanage in the small seaside town of Sihanoukville. I had been before, on a previous trip, and knew there was a particularly high number of street children and beggars. It was there that I started working at House of Family, an inspirational orphanage for children suffering from HIV. The experience was life-changing.

For the first time in years, I felt useful and fulfilled. Then, one day, one of the doctors there started to talk about how many orphans there were in Cambodia and how few places will care for them.

Innocently, I asked what happened to all the children with nowhere to go. ‘They end up on the rubbish dumps,’ she said. I didn’t know what she meant. But, as she explained that on these dumps hundreds of children are forced to eke out their lives, uncared for, fending for themselves, I knew I had to see them for myself.

And so, that day in January last year, I found myself at Stung Meanchey municipal rubbish dump in the capital. Looking at the children, I knew I couldn’t just walk away. Every single aspect of their lives was hellish. It was almost impossible to know where to start. And then I thought about their scarred little feet. All the children had one thing in common. They all needed shoes to protect their feet from the burning surface of the dump, the needles and infections. If I could provide shoes, I could enable them to take the first small steps off the dump and out of poverty. These were children who, I discovered, were paid the equivalent of 80 pence for working 14 hours a day sorting rubbish that could be sold.

Still reeling from what I had seen, I talked to charity workers in the area. I met Tomas Jensen, who works for Amnesty International, and he introduced me to two people who ran another charity (PSE – Pour un Sourire d’Enfant – meaning ‘for the smile of a child’) that offers accommodation and food to these desperate little children. But, to deter families from sending unwanted children to the dump as a means to have them adopted, they can help only children who have been living in this misery for at least six months. It turned out that his children’s nanny, Mey, had actually grown up on the dump without her parents. Now 26, and a stunningly beautiful, charismatic young woman who speaks several languages, PSE had rescued her when she was 12. Illiterate, with scarred feet and ankles from wading through rubbish, she was in a desperate state. But the charity helped her turn her life around. Now, she had her own little home and enough money to eat. She knew exactly what it was like for these children. When she told me she’d do all she could to help me, I knew I couldn’t let her – or the children – down.

Hellish life: Poor children in Cambodia sort through burning  rubbish, scorching their feet, to find items to sellPoor children in Cambodia sort through burning rubbish, scorching their feet, to find items to sell

So last January I flew back to England and set about raising money. I calculated that if I could raise £500, the cost of a pair of Christian Louboutin heels, I could provide 250 pairs of Wellington boots – the most practical form of footwear for the children. I called it the Small Steps Wellington Boots Project. I posted a message on Facebook. I explained what I had seen. People had watched the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire – about the lives of children who live on rubbish tips – and wanted to know if the dump was similar. ‘Absolutely,’ I explained. But I had to point out that there are actually another two dumps in Cambodia alone and many more all over the world. And, unlike in Slumdog Millionaire or other programmes such as the BBC’s Welcome To Lagos about life on a dump in Nigeria, people weren’t laughing or happy. The response was phenomenal. I raised £1,500 in a week. Then someone passed my email on to a film company called Revolution Films. They invited me to come in and talk about my plan. Even though they’d never met me before, they lent me equipment to take back and film what I was doing. I jumped at the chance. It seemed a fantastic opportunity to spread the word.

Back at home, I found it difficult to be around my friends with children, watching how much they spent in designer stores such as Mamas And Papas on over-priced baby bibs and accessories and little Nike trainers for their toddler to wear on the carpets of their home. The stark contrast with the ‘Slumdog’ children I’d met played on my mind all the time. Why should my friends’ children have hundreds of pairs of shoes they didn’t need, while others had nothing? Meanwhile, in Cambodia, those hundreds of children were breathing in methane gas 24 hours a day from rotting nappies that had been sent over from the West. On Valentine’s Day last year I was back on Smokey Mountain, handing out 900 pairs of Wellington boots. Mey helped me buy shoes in every size and colour imaginable. It was an extraordinary day. Lots of the men from Mey’s village came to help – themselves former residents of the dump. But even they couldn’t control the mass of heaving bodies. It was chaos. One of the helpers shot off on a motorbike to buy up another 200 pairs of boots in rainbow colours so we had enough for all the children.

Small step: Orphans from Cambodia's Smokey Mountain landfill site  in boots donated by Amy's charity

As the sun set, I watched the children laughing and giggling as they swopped sizes and helped each other try their boots on. And my heart lurched. It had all been worthwhile.

Suddenly I realised I’d found my calling – and that I was no longer desperate for a baby of my own. I’d prefer to channel that maternal instinct into helping children who are already on this earth. One of the most moving moments was watching Mey crouching down, talking to a timid little 12-year-old girl, Win. Mey was moved to tears as, falteringly, Win explained how she had ended up on the dump. The story mirrored her own. As the girl tried on her little pink Wellington boots, a huge smile broke across her face. And I knew, whatever the rights and wrongs of her situation, I’d done some good. But I also knew that providing shoes wasn’t enough. I was sure I could do more to help these children make new lives.

Over the next few days, I convinced PSE (the local charity) to take this child off the dump and give her a home. Again, it was only a small step – there are hundreds of other children who still need help – but it was the most incredible feeling. I actually drove with Win to her new home, and to watch her face as she began to understand how her life would change was incredible. All she had ever really known was the dump. And I wasn’t the only one there to witness it – during my travels I’d met a cameraman, Tom, and together we’d convinced two large companies to sponsor us to make a film about these children.

Next week, Small Steps – my documentary about my time on Smokey Mountain – is premiering in Spain, and from next month it’s being shown in cinemas across London. With the backing of Revolution Films, which has been supporting my work, I’m planning to visit all the other inhabited dumps in the world – at least eight of them – and highlight the plight of the children there. I’m using my showbiz contacts to appeal to celebrities for help. I’ll be asking them to donate one pair of designer shoes which I can sell or auction to raise money. It should be a sobering thought for every woman obsessed with designer heels, that these cheap wellingtons can make such a difference.

I’ve seen the joy on the face of a child rescued from that nightmarish existence, and that’s motivation enough for me to carry on striving to save as many others as I possibly can. They deserve nothing less.

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Source: The Daily Mail.

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2 Comments to “SMALL STEPS: turn your designer shoes into gumboots for homeless children.”

  1. 1

    Interesting, still I’ve came accross one completely opposite blog post the other day

  2. 2
    Michelle says:

    My Dad was an Industrial Safety Inspecter. Shoes were his area of expertise. We always wore the (not coolest) but safest and very brightest gumby’s and coats. I have never owned a pair of stilettos as I grew to the height of 5ft, 8in at age 14 years. After that no boy would dance with me. I am happy to support the free deliverance of gumboots or any other flat shoe to support all members of society whether they live on a tip or not.

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