As Small Charities and Volunteers’ Week both fall in June, one of our long-standing supporters, Andy Bennett, has kindly offered to share with us her experiences with The Sreepur Village charity from its initial concept in the 1980’s to the current village today, which helps keep together 150 impoverished mothers and their 300 children, empowering families with hope for a brighter future:
“It all began in the 1980’s when British Airways started their Tristar (Lockheed 10/11) flights to Dhaka and as the crew usually had four or five days off each time, we quickly got to hear about one of our crew members, Pat Kerr, who was helping out at an orphanage at Indira Road in Dhaka. Upon hearing the news, we pooled our crew allowances and bought paint so that we could help cheer up the rooms at the derelict British High Commission building, abandoned during the East/West Pakistan war.
During the 1980’s, the crew took some of the orphaned children, in turn, on picnic trips on the Brahmaputra river and at Christmas several of us elected to go to Dhaka each year to give the children a joint 'birthday party' as many of them didn’t know when they were born.
Seen here are crew members distributing balloons from the roof top of the orphanage at Indira Road one Christmas.
Serendipity stepped in as “Blue Peter” broadcast a TV programme about Pat and the crew’s involvement at Indira Road which was seen by our Chairman’s wife who was looking after their grandchildren. She mentioned the crew’s involvement to him, and he sent out one of BA's top directors to see what was happening. On talking to Pat he found that a new home for the children was imperative and at BA board level help for Pat was decided, giving £1 for every £3 we raised, raffle prizes of Concorde tickets and two crew, who were grounded, to help with the administration. With the help of our Tristar Manager, Gerry Devereux and all employees at British Airways, we were able to raise £500,000. However, when BA sent out an architect and surveyor, they reported that we would need £l,000,000
You can imagine our hearts sank, but Desmond Wilcox’s BBC2 series “The Visit” came to our rescue. We took him and a camera team out to Dhaka. One highlight was watching one of the cameramen perched on a trailer rickshaw going from the crew hotel to Indira Road filming the rest of the crew in bicycle rickshaws. Eventually four programmes appeared on the progress and opening of what eventually became The Sreepur Village. Many viewers wanted to know more and as Pat was busy buying land and sorting out the legal aspects, a nightmare in themselves, I offered to put together a talk with slides (no Power Point in those days!) and several of us, who were more involved in the project by now, went around England in BA uniform giving talks, with the blessing of British Airways. With these talks, plus the extreme generosity of the British public, we managed to raise in a short time the further £500,000 needed. One dear pensioner sent us a 50p coin wrapped in a tissue, which was very touching.
Along with other crew members, I attended the opening on the 6th February 1989 and over the intervening years have visited The Sreepur Village on several occasions, one of which was to attend Pat’s wedding to Derek in 1998 - four of us dressed in our BA uniforms as Pat’s “bridesmaids”.
Today the Dhaka Orphanage Project has become The Sreepur Village which is known in Bangladesh as Shishu Polli Plus which literally translates as Children’s Village Plus. The aim of the village is to keep woman-led families together and now works with destitute women and their children rather than orphans. There are some very good orphanages in Bangladesh but nowhere else that works with these families. The “Plus” is so that they can help in disasters and in other related fields. The children receive an education and their mothers learn a number of transferable skills like sack gardening, machining, bamboo making, embroidery, as well as learning to read and write Bengali.
A total of ten children, now adults, who transferred from Indira Road are still living at The Sreepur Village: Abdur Rouf is the village’s IT specialist; Parul, who is wheelchair dependent from polio, works in the Sreepur Village Trade shop; Shobita helps the mothers with token economy and embroidery skills; Maya is now the Design and Quality Controller for Special Care; and Rina
who, seen above, now teaches the mothers literacy and numeracy. There are also five children from Indira Road who have special needs and now as adults are still at The Sreepur Village because there is no long term care available for them in Bangladesh.
The good news is that since the 30th anniversary celebration, which many of the former children attended, the ex-children have started an Alumni society to support the charity and share their stories.
So, to my present visit in January/February of this year. The occasion was the 31st anniversary of the opening of The Sreepur Village and with two friends, Tineka and Nan who I know from Dharamsala, India (where I spend six months a year) we performed a puppet show, about the environment, to all the children. We expected around 50 children and mothers but in the end about 400 turned up, as families from local villages were also invited to join in the celebrations. It was a bit daunting at first, but all the children seemed to love it and that was the most important thing.
I am now locked-down in the Indian Himalayan foothills as I write this, and so is The Sreepur Village in Bangladesh. I am glad we were all able to get together to celebrate the 31st anniversary and I am delighted to be a small part of The Sreepur Village’s journey supporting mothers to independence and giving their children hope for a brighter future”.
Andy (Andrea Bennett)
BA crew member 1972 - 1998