Charity needs help to continue its work with Colombian street children

A small charity founded in a Norfolk village is doing great work helping children and teenagers living in a notoriously violent city in Colombia.

But the economic downturn is having a crippling effect on the charity's work.

ADAM LAZZARI reports.

Medellin, Colombia's second largest city, is widely regarded as one of the most violent cities in the world.

This reputation is a result of urban war set off by the drug cartels at the end of the 1980s.

As the home of the Medellin Cartel funded by Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, the city was victim of the terror caused by the war between the organisation headed by Escobar, and competing organisations.

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After the death of Escobar, in 1993, crime rates in the city began to decrease but have increased again in recent years and an average of nine people were killed every day in Medellin in 2009.

The charity Let The Children Live! was founded in the holy village of Walsingham, near Fakenham, in 1992 by Father Peter Walters, who was at that time assistant administrator at the village's Anglican Shrine.

He decided to start the charity after visiting Medellin when on holiday in the early 1980s.

Pauline Allan, administrator for Let The Children Live! said: ' Fr Walters was unable to get a flight out of Colombia and was stranded in Medellin for a few days, with hardly any money. Some children living on the streets begged him for money and when he said he didn't have any, they didn't believe him. But after they heard how he became stranded, they took him in and looked after him. They brought him food and made sure he didn't get robbed.

'Fr Walters learned about the problems that children and teenagers faced in Medellin and went to a local church to see what was being done to help them. He was told they were doing all they could but that the problem was huge and there was only so much that could be done. Fr Walters saw this as a message from God to help these children.'

Let The Children Live! has a large day centre in Medellin called Casa Walsingham, or Walsingham House, and also a residential home.

About 150 children use the facilities each day and receive food, education, medical and dental care, social interaction and psychological support.

These children come from the streets and shanty towns of Medellin and the charity works to reunite them with their families.

Many of the children become hooked on a drug called basuko, which is made from the residue left over in the production of heroine and cocaine.

Basuko is highly addictive and very toxic and often given to children by gangs for free for the first time. When they become hooked both boys and girls, some as young as eight, turn to prostitution and other crimes

One girl known to the charity was tortured, her breasts were cut off, and her body was thrown into the river.

Stealing is also very dangerous. Recently a boy was seen stealing from a large market in the city centre. He was chased by a gang, who cut his hands off when they caught him, then killed him and flung his body into the street, as a warning to others.

Many children are sent out into the streets to find work by their families to make sure the family can eat. They wash cars, perform tricks and beg, and if they come home empty handed they often get beaten. For this reason, some do not go home and end up living on the streets.

But Let The Children Live! has many success stories.

Miss Allan said: 'One of the boys we worked with became a doctor and another has become a solicitor.

'The charity does a lot of good in getting these children off the streets and educated and giving them a chance in life, but the economic downturn has hit us hard. Less donations are coming in and there has been a 40pc drop over the last three years in what we can get for the pound to the Colombian Paso.

'We have now used up nearly all of our reserves and if we don't find more money soon we will not be able to help as many children as we do now.'

Fr Walters is now running the charity from Colombia but he comes back to Britain three times a year. He is currently in America trying to secure more funding.

Let The Children Live! still has a presence in Walsingham.

The charity has a shop in the village High Street, run by volunteers, and small group of people in Walsingham raise money for the charity through coffee mornings and various other events.

On Wednesday, Will Hollingsworth, 46, a supporter of the charity came to the Walsingham shop from his home in Bath to present a cheque for �731,000, which he raised by running this year's London Marathon.

He said: 'I was looking for a charity to raise money for and a friend told me about Let The Children Live! I was blown away and felt I had to do something to help.'

Miss Allan said: 'We need more people like Will to support us. I know there are many wealthy families in Norfolk who would be happy to support us if they just knew more about what we did.'

She added: 'The children of Medellin have more reason than most to hope and pray for a speedy upturn in the world's economy and that of the UK in particular.'

For more about Let The Children Live! visit the shop at 38 High Street, Walsingham, go to the website www.letthechildrenlive.org or call the shop manager Susan Poole on 01328 820717.

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