Faith and Sharon attend school in their home in Uganda and have ambitions to be teacher or a nurse. Dressed smartly, their faces beam out from pictures of them clutching bags containing clothes and other essentials.
They are the lucky ones. Most families in Uganda can’t afford to send their children to school, and if there is any spare cash for education it goes to the boys.
Even if they can attend school, girls’ education is often stunted through period poverty – they miss out chunks of school time because they don’t have sanitary items and are forced to stay away.
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It was a story which sparked a huge response from a group of young people 4,000 miles away at Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College Interact in Darlington, County Durham.
Faith and Sharon are happily working towards their ambitions thanks to QE Interact, who sponsor the girls’ education and send re-useable sanitary items, clothes and school resources.
It’s just one of the projects this highly successful group has undertaken. QE Interact has won the Rotary in Great Britain & Ireland national project prize three years in a row – and it’s only five years old.
They undertake about 40 projects a year – some long term, such as supporting Faith and Sharon, and others one offs.
When I came to college I looked to see what I could get involved in and Interact attracted me straight away.”
Their guiding light is QE teacher Nancy Wall, a non-Rotarian, and Paul Harris Fellow, nominated by the group’s parent Rotary in Darlington.
But Nancy insists that Interact is all about the young people who make up the group.
She explained: “I love working with them. There’s real enthusiasm and drive and they come up with their own fantastic ideas. And of course it’s brilliant for their wider experience and CVs.”
For the Interactors, they are buzzing about the impact their work is having.
Jessica Fairley said: ‘When I came to college I looked to see what I could get involved in and Interact attracted me straight away. It’s something you can do between lessons, it’s great fun and you’re making a difference.’
Libby Aitken talks about an individual project she undertook. She explained: “I was told about a boy called Lewis. He’s 18 and terminally ill, and his mental capacity is much less. And his favourite thing in the world is the giraffe.
“I like to knit, so I was asked to make Lewis a giraffe. Actually I knitted him four giraffes and he likes the feel of them on his skin. It felt great that I’d helped.”
Eleanor Westlake described one of the major award winning projects the group undertook during Covid lockdown.
Before lockdown members visited local care and residential homes to interact with residents.
She said: “When all that stopped we started writing to them by snail mail, just to let people know what was happening and to help them feel less isolated.
“We sent out around 25,000 cards – at one time sending out 400 a week.”
Eve Goddard recalls delivering sunflowers and daffodils to homes around Easter, when a second lockdown was biting. “It helped people feel they weren’t forgotten,” she pointed out.
I chose QE partly because I loved the projects they’re involved in, especially around empowering women, and Interact seems like the perfect way to have your ideas heard.”
The college has its own volunteer awards event and Interact won the £30 project prize for the period poverty drive.
But typically, the group added to it and undertook two more projects: buying goats for a village in Africa and also planting trees.
Elizabeth Wheeler said: “Buying goats means they can be bred, supply milk and eventually meat – the two we bought are called Gertrude and Bertha. The rest of the money went to planting mangrove trees in Madagascar.”
Girls are largely involved in the planning and execution of projects, but Interactor Ffion Lawrence-Hall said: “It’s not just about us. The boys and others come and help when it’s a larger operation. It’s a whole college effort.”
All of those who spoke to Rotary magazine are 17-years-old and in their second year at the college. Newbie Mollie Presho is 16-years-old and in her first year.
“I chose QE partly because I loved the projects they’re involved in, especially around empowering women, and Interact seems like the perfect way to have your ideas heard,” she said.
The list of QE Interact projects seems endless – supporting baby banks in Hartlepool and Darlington, foodbanks, Darlington women’s refuge with clothes, Easter eggs and Christmas presents for children, a local homeless charity by donating 150 pairs of shoes.
They have been on suicide awareness courses, collected for Great North Air Ambulance and the British Heart Foundation and provided craft packs for children in Darlington Memorial Hospital.
The Darlington Interactors have paid for training for six midwives in Africa, collected books for libraries in Kenya, and sent 100 bras to Africa so women are less likely to be assaulted.
The group has been nominated and won local and regional accolades, as well the Rotary GB&I awards – the latest was the BBC Make a Difference awards.
These young people, encouraged by an inspirational teacher, are examples to us all, doing their best to make that difference – to lives in County Durham, and across the world.