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Helping children in the world's toughest places

A child out of school is a child on a highway to nowhere. That is the stark reality which many people in Norfolk have come to glimpse for the first time, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic. It is also the reality which stirred Norfolk-based Tom Dannatt to create the charity Street Child. Eldred Willey reports.

Since 2008 Street Child has been providing education for children in the world’s toughest places. 
As Tom went through his twenties, the pieces of Street Child were already beginning to fall into place, although he didn’t realise it at the time. At Oxford University he shared a theology tutorial group with a student called David Lloyd. Both would later train as lawyers. Another friendship Tom formed at Oxford was with Lucinda, who at the time was studying politics. 
Tom always enjoyed adventurous travel and in 2008 a research trip took him to Sierra Leone. It was there that he ran into a local charity which was working with street children. The charity asked Tom if he could replicate the project. Together they got the first 33 children into school. What could be better? Especially in an impoverished and conflict-shattered country which, in development terms, was bottom of the bottom. 
Four years later, back in England, Tom got a call from Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. The line was crackly, and he could not quite make out what the other person was saying. But he thought he heard the words “one and half million”. He eventually asked the caller to repeat the number, and he had been right. The Department for International Development, which normally only funded the big players, had decided to try a wild card. And they had spotted Street Child. 
As Street Child started to show that they could handle the big money, other doors began to open. In 2012, they also came up with the idea of a Sierra Leone marathon, which proved immensely popular. People were happy to pay the air fares for a unique fundraising and life experience. And then suddenly Ebola hit, and all of Street Child’s teachers became Ebola educators, showing local people how to avoid contracting the virus. 
The terror which the deadly disease struck among journalists turned into an unexpected opportunity for Street Child. The news outlets wanted the stories, but they didn’t want to come and get them. So Street Child created its own video production team, and got the content onto Newsnight and Channel 4 News. As they began to see what was possible, and the phrase “thousand children” started to enter Tom’s vocabulary. By the end of the outbreak he was looking after 12,000 children who had lost their care giver. 
Things were changing in the charity world, and some of the things which Street Child stood for began to swing into view. Funders were becoming less prescriptive, and more open to partnership working and solutions which came from the ground up. The line between humanitarian responses and long-term development was starting to blur.  
All of this set the scene for the rapid growth of Street Child and created a favourable environment for a series of mergers. First came that with Children in Crisis, which brought Congo, Afghanistan and Burundi into Street Child’s portfolio. With growing confidence, Tom navigated four other mergers in quick succession, pitching Street Child into the centre of major refugee crises, such as those stemming from Myanmar and South Sudan. 
The fellow students from Oxford had, meanwhile, come into their own. David Lloyd became a founding trustee, which worked out perfectly, since he was appointed lead vicar of the Mitre Group of parishes in Norwich, where Tom goes to church. Lucinda went one better and became not just a founding trustee but also his wife. The couple now live with their four boys just outside Norwich. With the trustees they oversee a passionate team which gathers regularly, speaks frankly and hammers out innovative ideas. Senior staff turnover is, unsurprisingly, very low. 
This year Covid-19 has upped the ante. Besides getting children into school for the first time, Street Child now has to figure out how to get children back into school after they have dropped out and are maybe working in the market to supplement a family’s reduced income. But Tom seems more determined than ever.  
“Children can’t go to school from the street,” he said. “But if they can read and write and add – then they have a chance.” 
Street Child has launched a special appeal to meet the challenge of Covid-19. If you would like to contribute to it, you can do so here: 

Pictured above is Tom Dannatt

Eldred Willey, 14/12/2020

Eldred Willey

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