A Lasting Impression – Post #ConnectingHRAfrica Reflections

Back in April, I shared with you why I applied for #ConnectingHRAfrica. Here are my reflections.

On 9th September 2016, Ten HR professionals embarked on a trip, the first of it’s kind, to Kampala in Uganda with the sole aim to use our skills and knowledge to support Retrak, their staff and the street children they work to help.

I shared my thoughts, feelings and activities every day I was away and, if you would like to read more, you can access these daily updates over on my blog. Sharing every night, after full on and emotional days, was hard. I had so many thoughts and feelings to try and make sense of whilst also feeling that I needed to share with folks back home; people and companies who had donated, supported through encouragement and were genuinely interested to see and learn how we were making a difference.

Some people were dubious. Was this going to be some kind of voyeuristic PR stunt? Just another CSR initiative, surely? Why not help UK children instead of those in Africa? I had a number of challenges and heard a bucket load of scepticism before I left. I’ll be honest, this had me asking questions myself:

  • How can a group of 10 people really make a difference to the lives of street children?
  • Will this just be a trip of painting walls and taking selfies?
  • What meaningful things can we contribute to make the working lives of the staff better?
  • Will we see any tangible results?
  • How do I prepare for what I will see and hear from the children?

In answer to the challenges I had before we left, these were my answers:

Was this going to be some kind of voyeuristic PR stunt? Absolutely not. Retrak rarely do trips to their centres because they believe that the complete focus should be on the staff being able and available to give the very best of care, and time, to all of the children they support. Retrak are community based and the trust of the people is paramount to their success. This makes it all the more hard for them to raise the vital funds they need because there are no “PR Trips”. It is rare for people outside of the charity to experience, first hand, the truly amazing work that they do.

Just another CSR initiative, surely? Far from it. All 10 of us are from different parts of the UK, different sectors, with varying reasons for why we wanted / needed to be a part of #ConnectingHRAfrica. Some of us are directly employed, some of us work for ourselves. Our only goal was for a group of experienced, like-minded and capable people people together to aid the development of the Retrak staff which would, we hoped, sustainably benefit their work and the lives of the children they work with.

Why not help UK children instead of those in Africa? Good challenge. I can only speak for myself and this is one of the reasons I applied for #ConnectingHRAfrica. I spent time in Foster Care and, when I was able to to, I wanted to give back in the same way. My husband, Mark, and I first applied to become Foster Parents in 2009. A more complex assessment followed, because I was “looked-after”, yet 15 months later, and a week before our panel to decide if we were successful, the whole process broke down. It broke me. It was 3 years before we felt ready to try again but, try again, we did. The process started from scratch. We attended panel and were approved; I cried like a baby in front of the panel members. Finally, it had been agreed that we would be able to offer a caring and safe environment which may help a vulnerable child to flourish. Or so I thought. During the next 18 months, we had 13 children referred to us for placement. We read their case file and discussed our thoughts / shared our concerns. Sadly, we never had a child placed with us and we will never know why. The only opinion given was “it’s likely to be down to lack of experience”. My feelings on this will remain private but it is fair to say that I was, and still am, angry and frustrated at the system. I accepted the decisions and in 2016 started to look for other ways to give back; to help vulnerable children. This is when I stumbled upon a Tweet from Ian Pettigrew linking to this post. It took a millisecond for me to know that I was going to apply. I was elated to be selected and totally committed to paying all of my costs to get there. I also agreed to raise £2000 for Retrak (which my costs were on top of, not taken away from)

Fast forward 5 months, after epic amounts of activity to fundraise for Retrak (5k run, 10k race, 15,000ft Skydive, Raffles, Bootsales and a Half Marathon), what did we do in Kampala?

With the children, we:

  • Played
  • Played some more
  • Read stories, comics and heard songs they had written
  • Made masks, drew pictures, made loom bands, coloured in books
  • Chatted about anything and everything
  • Listened
  • Helped with the cookinga nd serving of lunch
  • Participated in a big outreach to street kids living around the slums; this involved social workers, outreach workers and us pairing up to approach the street children, interact with them, listen to their stories and understand how we could help them.

We heard their reasons for running away:

  • Physical and emotional abuse. Being beaten by their mother or step-mother. Community Chiefs actively encourage beating children to instil discipline.
  • Family breakdown. Father had two wives. Father had dies and both wives were ran out from the village. There was no-one to look after this young boy. 12 years old, he was.
  • Wanting an education. One boy wanted to go to school, learn enough, graduate and be a lawyer. A rich one. He wasn’t able to receive this education in his village and has ran away to the city in the hope to get on a programme.
  • Sexual abuse. Gang leader’s initiations involve the requirement to perform sex acts or have sex with the gang leader. If you do not conform, you are beaten incredibly badly. Sometimes the punishment is worse than a beating.

With the staff, we used our skills to deliver personal effectiveness sessions to all of Retrak’s centre teams. This was followed by leadership development and coaching to the senior management team:

  • Ian led on Resilience
  • Amy & Lisa shared approaches for giving Feedback (a role play with Sophie and myself included)
  • Teamwork and Values-Based Leadership was delivered by Alice
  • GROW Model facilitated by Kate
  • I wrapped up the session demonstrating the impact of appreciation
  • 121’s
  • Our on-going commitment to support and help

What an experience!

How did we, HR, make a difference?

Through group discussion, practise, exercises, role plays, positive and honest conversation, sharing techniques and learning from one another. So much happened in those rooms in such a short space of time. We thought on our feet, we winged it a bit but, most importantly, our combined skill-set enabled us to facilitate sessions, delivering without so much as a lesson plan or a slide deck (it’s the future!) and had a massive, positive, impact on the Retrak team. And on us.

The Retrak staff captured me. The genuine love, care and will to help the children on a path which will, hopefully, see them reintegrated with their families was immense. Retrak staff educate, counsel, guide, provide medical facilities, facilitate fun and games along with lending a supportive ear. Never judgemental. Always there.

I will continue raising awareness and money which will enable Retrak to continue doing their awesome work around the globe. Over 3800 reads of my blog and £3400 raised so far – that is amazing but I would dearly love to round it up to £4000 so I will crack on until I smash my target. As a team, we have raised £20,000. That will help and support 50 children. 50! Life-changing.

I am truly grateful to each and every person, and Company, who has supported me. Every penny, every pound, really does make a difference. I’ve seen it.

Where does the money go? To help these children fulfil their potential your donation of £8 has provided a medical check-up, £25 has provided food for a week, and £105 has paid for a child’s school fees for a year.

I am so very proud to have been a part of #ConnectingHRAfrica. Together, HR made a life-changing difference to so many. Next year, Retrak will hopefully open up the opportunity for another group of HR professionals do continue this amazing work. If you would like to know more, please do get in touch. It could be you sat here, still in your Retrak t-shirt; reflecting, smiling, sharing your thoughts on an amazing life-changing experience; not just for the children and staff of Retrak but for you, too.

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Family, Cats, Food Nerd, Gin Queen, People. Not HR.

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