Ebola - Norfolk charity’s mission to help

Tom Dannatt, founder of Street Child.

Tom Dannatt, founder of Street Child. - Credit: Simon Finlay

Thousands of children rescued from poverty by a charity founded by Norwich man Tom Dannatt are now facing the horror of ebola. He talked to ROWAN MANTELL about his mission to work with the world's poorest people.

A Norfolk man is at the forefront of the fight against ebola.

Norwich father-of-four Tom Dannatt set up a charity to help the street children of Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Now he is engaged in a desperate battle to protect thousands of children, and those working with them from the deadly virus sweeping through two of the poorest countries in the world.

Speaking from his Norwich home, cradling his youngest son, four-week-old Sebastian, Tom talked of the almost unimaginable horror of life in the West African countries he has grown to love.

Whole families are dying. Or sometimes a child might survive the ebola, orphaned and alone, and then succumb to starvation.

The nightmarish scenes reported shown in news bulletins are happening in towns and villages that Tom knows. Among the thousands dead is a doctor who used to treat some of the children helped by Tom's Norwich-based charity, Street Children. And among the 20,000 children he has helped into homes and education, since launching the charity six years ago, are youngsters who are, again, mourning the death of their carers.

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Tom is devastated and exhausted by the catastrophe engulfing colleagues and clients, but he refuses to be defeated by it.

He is convinced that there is hope and believes that his charity could be vital in the battle against ebola.

He has already advised the Ministry of Defence, ahead of its mobilisation of medics to West Africa. And in Sierra Leone and Liberia, hundreds of people who work for his charity are taking life-saving health education to people, face to face and household to household.

Tom is convinced that this is what might eventually halt the worst outbreak of ebola the world has ever seen.

He last visited Sierra Leone last August. With a new baby due the following month he had not planned to go back until November. Now he does not know when he might be able to return to oversee the work of the charity he set up to help the poorest children in the world's poorest nation.

'I arrived home in August and Lucinda, my wife, asked what was wrong. I said, 'Something is terribly wrong.' I couldn't see how they were going to get out of it, it was spreading so fast. In other outbreaks maybe 10 or 100 people died, and that was a tragedy, but this was going to be on a different scale.'

Although he had been aware of cases of the illness this spring, he, along with almost everyone else involved, had not realised the enormity of the situation.

'The first reports came through in March and I didn't think very much of it. And that was our collective error,' said Tom. 'I was back in Sierra Leone in April when reports of the first cases in that country came through but still we didn't think it would be big. We were due to start a project for street children in a new town, very close to the borders with Guinea and Liberia, and we postponed that, but thought it would not affect us any more than that.'

Now tens of thousands of casualties are predicted, with tens of thousands more children expected to be orphaned by ebola. 'The numbers are scary,' said Tom.

'It's moved from being a small local problem to being a catastrophe, and it's going to get exponentially worse.'

Over the past six years Tom has seen his charity achieve spectacular success. In the first year 100 children were helped into family homes and education. By this summer 20,000 children had been found homes and school places, and their foster families helped to start businesses.

And then ebola hit.

Now he fears that every month, a whole year's charity work is unravelling.

Tom originally chose to work in Sierra Leone because it was officially the poorest country in the world. But month by month, year by year, the situation for its people was improving.

'Sierra Leone has been such a positive story for the last five years. It has been recovering from its civil war. It has diamonds, iron ore, probably oil. We have seen so much get better, and it is so incredibly sad now,' said Tom. 'It doesn't really bear thinking about. We are probably losing a year's progress every month.

'We could potentially be talking about as many fatalities from ebola in the next few months as from the whole of Sierra Leone's decade-long civil war. Everyone knows someone who has died.'

Tom knew he needed to switch the focus of the charity's work to trying to halt the spread of ebola – and care for the thousands of orphans the disease is already leaving in its wake.

'We have a model which we know will work, but we need an enormous amount of money to tackle the whole problem,' he said. 'What works is one-to-one conversations.

'We are investing in people going into villages, household to household, with some very simple messages: don't touch people, if you see a house where someone is ill, call in expert help.We have already got people out there, on the ground, local people, trusted people.

'The British government is dong the complex things, the hospitals, the clinics, the vaccinations. But there is a lot on the local level that an organisation like ours can do.'

Tom is confident that the charity's core local staff should be able to keep themselves free of ebola and said: 'I would like to think that children who are in direct contact with our charity are a lot safer than they would be otherwise.'

He is not sure when he will return. 'It's a tricky one. A large part of me wants to go and help, and I am 99.9pc sure I would not contract ebola because I know about washing my hands, not touching sick people, all the messages we need to get across, but it's a question of what can be achieved,' he said.

'But I have noticed that when people greet me now they begin with, 'So Tom, when were you last out there,' before moving forward to shake my hand!'

His wife, Lucinda, is a human rights and war crimes lawyer and the couple have sons aged seven, five, three, and one month. Topics of conversation in the Dannatt household could become bleak, but Tom said it his family that keeps him from despair. 'The general chaos and fun of a big family is probably the best coping mechanism possible,' he said.

'I don't worry quite so much about ebola when we're at Winterton beach or at Carrow Road.'

And yet, he admits: 'You can't really switch off from it,' adding, 'I am sure the older ones have an awareness of the world outside that's probably greater than their peers.'

He is never really free from his undertaking to help the world's poorest children.

Right now he is driving a new fund-raising campaign and also hoping to open a Street Children office in Norwich.

There are several other Norfolk links. His sister-in-law, Chloe, who grew up in Hingham, manages the Liberian section of the charity. The charity has been supported by many local individuals and groups including Delia Smith, the staff and students of local schools and the congregation of St Thomas' Church on Earlham Road, where Tom and his family worship. It has also worked with staff and students from the University of East Anglia's highly regarded Development Studies courses.

'As we move towards Christmas, people are thinking about fund raising, this is something that is Norfolk based, reaching out to the poorest of the poor,' said Tom.

'We can make a difference. We can teach people how not to get ebola. We can rescue ebola orphans.'

'It's easy to despair but there are things that can be done.'

How to Help

Tom Dannatt always knew that he wanted to improve life for some of the poorest people in the world.

His own background is one of privilege. His father is General the Lord Dannatt, former head of the British Army and now Constable of the Tower of London. His mother is Lady Philippa Dannatt, the current High Sheriff of Norfolk and born into the famous banking and social reformer Gurney family. Home was the family farm at Keswick, just outside Norwich, and Tom went to Oxford University and then set up a recruitment business in London.

'I always wanted to work with the poorest of the poor and always knew that the business would be a platform to do that,' he explained.

He began by setting aside profits to fund Street Children and now works full time for the charity, which has helped find family homes and school places for 20,000 children in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and supported their new households in starting a small business.

Street Child is providing emergency help to people affected by ebola, including food and water, and also helping prevent the spread of the virus by providing buckets, soap and chlorine and information on hygiene.

A gift of £30 will provide an ebola kit with chlorinated water and soap that could help keep up to 200 people safe for a week.

£50 will provide a family that has been affected by ebola with emergency food and aid for 3 weeks.

£200 will support a family who has taken in an ebola orphan and help set them up in business.

£20 a month, for a year, would cover the costs of looking after an ebola orphan.

Donate at www.street-child.co.uk