AFTER a nun visited her school to give a talk to pupils, founder of The Hope Foundation, Maureen Forrest, knew that she would never be a nun — yet she wasn’t to know or ever imagine that she would go on to reach 2.8 million people through her work as a volunteer with GOAL and then as founder of The Hope Foundation.
“I was inspired by the talk that the nun gave us,” recalls Maureen, from Deerpark, Mogeely, east Cork.
How did it all begin?
“I was a fundraiser for GOAL for many years,” says Maureen, neé Browne.
“I fundraised for my sister, Ber, who is a nurse, who volunteered with the organisation. This was the first time, in the early ’80s, when famine was brought into our sitting rooms on television.
“In 1999 I set up The Hope Foundation because I wanted to focus on all my work with the street kids of Calcutta.”
Maureen, a farmer’s wife, continued her dream of making a difference. She had a vision. And she had a mission.
“A world where it should never hurt to be a child,” she says. “That’s the heart of all our work.”
The mission of The Hope Foundation is clear.
“Restoring childhoods to children and sustainability to individuals and communities; our mission is to improve the quality of life for the most marginalised people, primarily in India,” says Maureen.
“Ensuring their basic rights and enhancing their dignity of life through protection, health, education and economic development in a sustainable life cycle approach. HOPE achieves this mission through fundraising activities and initiatives.”
The Hope Foundation has partnered with children, families, civil society organisations, consortium or networks, fighting for the rights of children for the last 20 years.
“I had an idea in my head of funding a protection home for 25 street children and I thought, if I could do that well, I will be happy,” she explained.
But 20 years later, HOPE has almost 500 staff working in India and a wide range of projects helping street and slum children, not just to survive, but to have a sustainable future — ensuring through education that they were breaking the cycle of poverty for generations to come.
“I have been lucky with people’s generosity and blessed by the staff I have working with me in India and here in Ireland,” says Maureen.
“Our sustainability programmes and protection homes and hospital are run by fully qualified Indian people, teachers, doctors, nurses, social workers.
“Everyone is very passionate, dedicated and committed. It is important to have a purpose in life. We can do anything if we work together and really try.”
Because Maureen was always going to spread her wings, she moved to London, working in a bank before joining Aer Lingus as ground staff in Shannon Airport. She didn’t venture far from home to meet her husband of almost 50 years, Dick Forrest. He sadly passed away in March last year.
“Dick unexpectedly passed away, which was very difficult for our family, we miss Dick every day. His loss leaves a huge void in my life,” says Maureen.
“When I travelled regularly to Calcutta, he missed me, being at home alone, but he always supported my work with HOPE. He knew how worthwhile it was and I will always be grateful to him for his understanding and love.”
Maureen’s humanitarian journey goes back a long way. Living in rural East Cork, raising three children, Louise, Robin and Ricky, her interest in Global Development continued. John O’Shea, then GOAL Director, asked her to go to Somalia, and she left the safety of the homestead and went to the war-torn region for six weeks.
“I worked in the refugee camps there,” says Maureen. “It was a horrendous place to be. You were dealing with gunfire every minute of the day.”
She took her life in her hands on a daily basis.
“Our camp was shot at and I remember lying on the ground thinking, I don’t want to die here.”
Maureen, not a lady to rest on her laurels, went on to work in the emergency relief camps in Goma after the genocide in Rwanda in late 1994.
“It was absolute horror,” she says. “With 350,000 people and cholera in the camps. I was there for five weeks.
“When I came home, talking to other volunteers helped my rehabilitation after witnessing the horror. Talking in schools, telling the stories, brought more awareness to people about the horrendous results of war and the need for emergency relief.”
Visiting refugee camps in Swaziland also had a profound effect on Maureen, who now knew where her purpose was headed.
“In development work, you can see a child progress,” says Maureen.
Over the years, Calcutta was always on her mind.
“I greatly admired the work of Mother Teresa”.
Then, in the early 1990s, Maureen first visited Calcutta and wasn’t prepared for the abject poverty that she encountered there.
“I was horrified by the scale of poverty there and the obvious injustice all around. Nothing could prepare you if you’ve never lived in that situation,” says Maureen.
“Many of the slum dwellers were displaced by partition and the creation of Bangladesh. The issues there were horrific; the trafficking of children, child labour, child marriage and thousands of missing children. No child in the world should have to suffer like this.”
Maureen had found her purpose in life.
“I first decided to go to Calcutta for six weeks to volunteer with GOAL, who funded local partner organisations, like the Child in Need Institute.”
Maureen met an Indian lady with the same purpose, supporting the rights of children to be healthy, educated, protected and valued by their own family and society. Her name was Geeta, she too supported children to access these rights, helping them build their skills and knowledge as they grow so that they can break the cycle of poverty.
“Geeta, now a life-long friend, joined HOPE and today she is the Indian Director of HOPE in Kolkata,” says Maureen.
“Together, we set up many projects, creches in slums, involving the mothers in the education process.
“My daughter, Louise and I, spent a lot of time in Calcutta with Geeta, starting up the organisation and tackling the enormous legalities involved.”
Maureen spends an average of four months every year in Calcutta, working with Geeta and the staff, pursuing a mission close to everyone’s hearts.
“My neighbours would always ask ‘Are you off out foreign again?’ The initial goal was to run a home for 25 children and raise 25,000 pounds a year to run it. It snowballed into the massive charity it is today, taking in over €2 million a year.
“Getting the organisation built up took a lot of planning; in the beginning it was just in my head,” says Maureen.
“Good, qualified, people got on board, maintaining standards over the years. I am helped hugely by my sister, Jenny Browne, who is Overseas Director and who spends most of each year in Kolkata.”
Jenny, like many others, was inspired by Maureen to help make a difference to thousands of lives.
“Jenny is a Mercy nun who taught Home Economics in Waterford. Now she has a different job! Her qualification in Social Science also informs the work she does with HOPE.”
HOPE has changed the lives of tens of thousands of children in Kolkata; in créches, coaching centres, training units, clinics and hospitals.
“Education is the only way to achieve long term success,” says Maureen.
And her dream to see a child develop and progress is now a reality every day, but there are still so many people needing help. The work continues and the needs are still great.
“To see the journey of a child, especially the older ones now, who have a future to look forward to, is just wonderful and a testament to all the amazing people in Ireland who have donated to HOPE over the years,” says Maureen.
Is she going to hang up her boots and clip the wings that took her so far from her home in East Cork?
“I was thinking of retiring at 70, but I feel young at heart, happy and privileged to continue with this great work for another few years!” says Maureen.
Her successor will have to be someone special.
“There are many, many special people who work with HOPE,” says Maureen. “To continue this wonderful work and to honour the promise made to protect the children in HOPE’s care who have no one else, they still desperately need your support.
“Without your support we could not have achieved all we have and we cannot continue. We found the children abandoned, hungry, without any hope. There are still so many children living in dire circumstances, their childhoods denied.”
If you would like to support Maureen’s work and HOPE please call the office in Cork 021 4292990 or visit www.hopefoundation.ie
HOPE’S MAJOR ACHIEVEMENTS
2.7 million individuals across Kolkata now have access to healthcare services through HOPE interventions in 35 slum communities, including over 97,000 who have been treated in HOPE Hospital.
More than 55,000 children have received educational support through HOPE’s crèches, Nabo Asha centres, educational sponsorship and our Holistic Education Programme.
More than 8,800 children have been protected from abuse and neglect by HOPE’s Protection Homes, Child Watch and Anti-Trafficking Programmes.
More than 7,200 young women and men have engaged in HOPE’s vocational training skills enhancement and income generation programmes to provide sustainable pathways out of poverty.
The Hope Foundation Limited. Head Office, Silverdale Grove Ballinlough, Cork.
Phone: 021-4292990 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
For more see www.hopefoundation.ie