Cork charity founder: When a child’s reason for dying is a shortage of food, it changes you

A Cork man who founded a charity, Mothers First, in India back in 2004 tells CHRIS DUNNE about their ongoing work
Cork charity founder: When a child’s reason for dying is a shortage of food, it changes you

Pat McMahon, Meelin, Co. Cork, who undertook an eight mile walk barefoot in Meelin for Mother's First earlier this year. Picture: Denis Minihane.

WHEN farmer’s son, Pat McMahon from Meelin, North Cork, was backpacking, he liked travelling roads less travelled. In 2004, one of those roads travelled found him lost in a slum area in Varanasi, Northern India.

“Sometimes you can feel lost, and in the next moment, you realise that you are exactly where you should be,” says Pat.

“This was the case in this situation when I found Tiza and an 18-month infant literally dying of malnutrition. It is hard for us to imagine that a child could be on this earth for this period of time and weigh less than six pounds in weight.”

Pat first encountered hunger at an early age. When he was 11 years old in 1984, the images from the dreadful famine in Ethiopia were sent across our TV screens.

“I remember turning to my mother and saying that we must do something and her response was, yes, we must,” says Pat.

Doing something then was emptying his piggy bank of his savings and donating the money to Live Aid.

“Those images on TV really struck me,” says Pat.

“As a teenager, one of the great questions we have is what we’re going to do with our lives,” adds Pat.

He recalls sitting on his bed one evening, and within the myriad of thoughts he had, one recurring thought became his focus.

“I just wanted to help people.”

Pat went on to become a registered nurse after training for three years in London.

Because of his training, he knew the life-threatening situation Tiza was in when he found her in dire circumstances in 2004. He acted promptly.

“Within 30 minutes, I found a private paediatric hospital where Tiza started her slow recovery to health,” says Pat.

Within, he had agreed with the hospital owners to rent permanently ten beds to treat children such as Tiza.

Tiza and Paddy.
Tiza and Paddy.

For almost a decade, the ten-bedded unit was full of children like Tiza and children who were critically ill and were too poor to pay for treatment in Government hospitals.

“It can be easy to be critical of our health and social welfare systems in Ireland,” says Pat.

“Still, when you work in developing countries, you realise that very often, the difference between life and death is how much money you have or can borrow.”

In 2015 the project changed its name from the Varanasi Children’s Hospital to Mothers First.

“While there is great value in treatment, ultimately, we need to be preventing hunger and malnutrition,” explains Pat.

In 2015, the project turned its focus on delivering food-based interventions to mothers who are pregnant and malnourished themselves.

“The facts are difficult to comprehend, between 20% to 40% of babies in developing countries are born malnourished,” explains Pat.

“The reason that they are malnourished is that the mothers themselves are malnourished.

“The main beneficiary of the food that we give to the mothers is their unborn child. We continue the food-based interventions for four months after they deliver.”

Mothers First saves lives, and it changes lives.

“The nutritional support that we provide from conception is life-changing for the children.”

The project has now been running for more than 16 years and has saved thousands of children.

“Our nature,” Pat says, “is that we dwell far more on our failures than we do on our success.” He recounts to me the story of the first child he saw dying of malnutrition.

“Wherever in the world we live, and whoever you are, there’s something inherently wrong when a child dies,” says Pat.

“A soul lost to the world. When that child’s only reason for dying is lack of food, and you witness this, it changes you. It is like a vacuum that takes your light for a while.”

Pat kept vigil over the child he desperately tried to help.

“I never left his bedside all night.”

As if it has just happened, he tells the story of going out of the hospital for five minutes at 6.30am. When he returned, the atmosphere had changed entirely.

“The tears of the parents could be heard, and their pleading eyes begged me to do something,” says Pat.

He couldn’t save this child’s life.

“I got on a bicycle, and I cycled as far away as possible to a remote spot by a river outside the city limits,” says Pat.

“I remember the city was waking up as usual at 7am and I thought, do they not know a child has died?”

If Pat’s remarkable story could be summed up in one way, it is that when he saw an opportunity; he acted on it.

Shortly after he found the malnourished mother, they started setting up food distribution programmes in villages for malnourished pregnant mothers.

“When you set up a new programme, you will always have to deal with the most severe cases first,” says Pat.

“Once programs are established, you find these cases earlier and so less critical.”

A few months into the programme, some villagers asked Pat to come and see a woman in her hut as she was in “a bad way”. It is not so much the words they use but the tone.

“I knew this was serious,” he says.

Little did he know what he was about to see would change the direction and focus of his life’s work.

As he walked into the dark clay hut, he saw a mother and two of her children dying of malnutrition.

“But it was like what I was seeing was as if my own memory,” says Pat.

“For those five minutes in the hut, I lived there. I fell to my knees when I left the hut, I asked profoundly and deeply why? Why, in a world of plenty, do we still have extreme poverty?”

Within two months, Pat was in Milan at a global conference on nutrition.

The main thing he noticed is that the conference was full of words. “Academics and policymakers are discussing hunger and malnutrition with minimal experience working directly with people living in extreme poverty.”

Pat has become a strong international voice for hungry people. He played an instrumental role in getting anaemia for women included as an indicator of Sustainable Development goals. The final meetings were in the UN buildings in Ethiopia.

Pat McMahon, Meelin, Co. Cork, doing his barefoot charity walk.
Pat McMahon, Meelin, Co. Cork, doing his barefoot charity walk.

The sessions were about to close, and anaemia for women was still not included.

There were representatives from more than 40 countries and UN Agencies such as Unicef.

“I raised my placard to speak. It felt like there were l00 butterflies in my stomach.”

That didn’t deter him.

Pat spoke from his heart that went beyond the statistical jargon of the meetings.

“They listened.”

He is passionate about his mission to help highlight and raise awareness about world poverty and hunger.

“The majority of my work is advocacy, wiring papers and reports and highlighting policy changes,” says Pat.

He outlines how Covid-19 has caused a humanitarian food crisis.

“From May last year, we started to see the impact on the global hunger level. It is estimated that an additional 135 million people have been pushed into extreme food insecurity,” says Pat.

This year, he felt that he wanted to symbolically mark the growing hunger crisis in a personal way. It started as a one day fast on the first Monday of January and has built up to fasting every Monday for the entirety of this year.

“It is not easy,” he says. “Fasting from 8pm Sunday evening to 8 am, Tuesday morning.”

It’s a long stint.

“When you’re hungry, reading data about world hunger gives you a sense of empathy, and the figures become more alive,” Pat says.

He believes we can all do more for the plight of hunger in developing countries.

“We often feel disempowered to act on the issues that are happening in our world right now. The reality is that only through the general public taking action can meaningful will change take place.

“34% of all the food we grow never gets eaten, and there are over 800 million people in our world who do not get enough to eat every day. We can all do our bit.

“Even if you skipped one meal a day and donated the price of it to the hungry, that would make a difference,” says Pat.

“I think the media here should cover the issue of world hunger much more.

“We all have a responsibility to raise awareness. People don’t realise the incredible hunger statistics.

“Information for the general public is important.”

That is not all Pat has been doing this year. On International Women’s Day on March 8, he walked eight miles barefoot due to hunger disproportionately affecting women.

On April 12, Pat again took to the roads barefoot on finding out that famine has now been declared in two countries, Yemen and South Sudan.

“Famine means that people are literally starving to death.”

Pat has one more event planned for October 16 to mark World Food Day.

He will attempt to climb Carrauntoohil, Ireland’s highest mountain, barefoot while wearing a suit and tie.

“Barefoot symbolises the hardship of hunger and poverty,” he explains.

“The suit and tie is the seriousness of the problem and the need for meaningful debate on hunger.”

You can support Paddy incredible work directly by check out their events page on the website, donate online www.mothersfirstcharity.org, or you can text Mother 50300 to donate €4.

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