An Ocean of Many Drops
“MANY drops make an ocean” is the inspirational motto behind Dartmouth man, Chris Helyer, whose aim is to make a difference, however small, to hundreds of disadvantaged South African children.
I met up with Chris at his house overlooking the sparkling River Dart on a sun-drenched morning, a million miles away from South Africa’s Eastern Cape where five years ago he founded the Mayenziwe Project.
Retired Exeter Cathedral School headmaster, Chris, 67, set up the charity following a stint as a temporary teacher at a preparatory school, which operated without electricity, near Port Elizabeth.
To his puzzlement, the pupils drank ‘gallons’ of water before taking part in Chris’ weekly cricket lessons. When he found out it was because they were trying to fill their empty stomachs as the school could not provide lunch every day, Chris decided he had to help.
As he flicked through his laptop photo album showing me pictures of the latest South African school his project has helped, Chris, a staunch Christian, explained: ‘There are nine provinces in South Africa and the Eastern Cape is the poorest.
‘Education there is so bad the government came in to take it over. A study showed literacy standards had not risen in 15 years, which is awful.
‘While I was teaching out there a Christian friend said to me “You can’t turn your back on this, can you?” He was right.’
Chris wrote to Archbishop Desmond Tutu outlining his ideas to help local schools. Mr Tutu was so impressed he agreed to become the charity’s patron.
Since then, the Mayenziwe Project has helped to improve education and facilities at 14 schools through recruiting volunteer teaching assistants from a pool of South Hams gap-year students. Chris and his team of South African builders carry out a range of improvements from fixing leaky roofs to revamping school kitchens.
He said: ‘There is no standard provision for the maintenance of school buildings, that just doesn’t happen in the Eastern Cape’
Chris travels out to his cottage at Indawao Yethemba camp, a base for activities that support the local community, twice a year for six weeks at a time to carry out physical improvements to a variety of schools.
He said: ‘I was offered a base at the camp last year. There were a row of six derelict cottages to choose from and the last one was called Hellyer Cottage – like my name. OK it had two L’s but it was a sign from the boss above.’
In March Chris revisited the Ntaba Kandoda High School to help build new toilet cubicles for its 130 pupils and five teachers who previously had use of just two toilets, one of which was without a door.
Chris raises money for improvements like this back home in Dartmouth and the surrounding area.
Site managing projects such as these, as well as sourcing materials for the job, is Chris’ role. For the past four years he has worked mainly with a team of skilled men, paying them for their expertise.
He said: ‘I’m constantly going around with my eyes open thinking “Where can I get this and that” and trying to do things on a shoestring.
‘A lot of people think I’m being paid to do what I’m doing but I tell them I’m not, I’m a pensioner, I live on a pension and I come and do it for nothing.’
Although Chris also shops around for the best flight deals he still ends up delving into his pockets to stump up around £500 per trip.
Why does he bother, I ask, when he could be putting up his feet and relaxing, enjoying the glorious view from the riverside house he shares with his wife Lizzie on Dartmouth’s South Embankment, and spending his hard earned pension on treats and luxuries closer to home?
He explained: ‘I’ve always had a sense it’s God’s will that all children have a chance of a decent education. Somebody once said to Mother Theresa “Is not what you do a drop in the ocean?” She said “Yes, but an ocean is many drops.”
‘That’s quite an inspiring thing. I can’t just sit in England enjoying retirement, so I want to devote part of my retirement to this.’
I asked Chris if he believed his project did make a difference to the children of South Africa’s Eastern Cape.
He replied: ‘I sometimes meet young people who were taught computing by one of my volunteers five years ago.
‘They’ve left school but say if it wasn’t for Tom they wouldn’t know how to use a computer.
‘I find invariably having kick-started something in a school has led to them taking ownership themselves.
‘My aim is not to adopt a pet school and say this is our project for the next five years, I normally don’t work at any one school for more than two trips.
‘I have to try and discern why I think one particular school’s needs are important and more deserving than another and whether I can work with the principal and have a shared educational philosophy in what we are trying to do.’
Chris is busy raising money for his next South African trip later this year. From April 30 to May 4 he is planning a sponsored walk from Hartland Quay in North Devon to Totnes. And on May 5 he aims to row from Totnes home to Dartmouth. That evening Chris, a baritone singer, will perform at St Petrox Church accompanied by the town’s three organists.
All of the events are in aid of the Mayenziwe Project and the St Petrox Church organ fund.
To sponsor Chris or for more information about his charity or how to become a volunteer phone him on 07814 971151, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://homepage.mac.com/tomplant/mayenziwe/index.html
First Published May/June 2012 By The Dart